Monday, 24 January 2011

Brisbane Floods Part 3

We moved back home on Friday, power reconnected.  Phone has been restored this afternoon along with our internet service and so except for an incredibly clean and empty downstairs to our house, we are close to being back to what passes for normal around here. 

Our street, though, is eerily quiet.  The moderately loud neighbours on the upside haven't returned - perhaps they never will, being tenants.  The same with the tenants next to us on the down side with their young children and the dad with chronic sinus problems - they lost almost all their possessions and they're tenants too.  The man with the dogs next to them has lived here all his life and went through the 1974 flood here, so I guess he'll be back eventually but he had water almost to his roof.  The family over the road are having problems with their insurance company which is delaying their electrical repairs.  The shopping centre is still closed.  I'm guessing it could be months before the neighbourhood is really back to normal.

The cleanup goes on but the army of volunteers has basically disbanded.  Most of the remaining jobs require experts, or are things people need to do themselves.  So now, after the flood and the clean-up, comes the inquiry.  It will cover quite a few things - you can check out the Terms of Reference here

It's tempting to think the answer is obvious.  It rained a lot, we had a flood.  The water has to go somewhere.  Perhaps that's just the part of me that wants to forget it ever happened.

The other temptation is to look for someone to blame.  Chief candidates are the operators of Wivenhoe Dam, who released a huge volume of water in the lead-up to the flood.  Should they have released it earlier, so it wouldn't meet the deluge from the Bremer and Lockyer?  Should they (and could they) have waited longer?  Hopefully the inquiry will find that everyone did the best they could, with the knowledge and time they had, but perhaps there are lessons to be learnt for next time.  Reflecting on my own experience, a lot happened fast, and it wasn't easy to make good decisions.

Smaller aspects of the inquiry interest me more personally.  For instance, when the police officer knocked on our door to advise us to evacuate, he knew nothing except that our street was going to flood.  We had to decide when and how to evacuate based on this single line of information.  Perhaps if we had listened to ABC news at the time we could have learned more, but we were hardly thinking clearly.  If we had known that evening how high the water was expected to rise, we would have had much longer consider what to do.  This was even more of an issue for our neighbours.  When we arrived early on Wednesday morning, we could still get into our house and had time to remove almost everything of value.  Our low-set, lower ground neighbours were already awash by then.

Another example - planning.  Brisbane planners in recent decades have used the "Q100" flood line - that is, the height of a flood statistically likely once in 100 years.  This is roughly equivalent to the 1974 flood level, adjusted down for the presence of the Wivenhoe.  When the townhouses were built next door, the developer was required to raise the ground by 300mm to lift the property above that level.  All the units had water in them on January 13.  Was this because it rained more than the one in 100 chance?  Or are the assumptions behind that flood level flawed?

My final thing is with information after the event.  Obviously, a huge flood places a lot of pressure on infrastructure.  It took a week after the waters receded to restore our power, a week and a half to restore the phone.  The insurance company is still coming. 

These kind of jobs require years of training, so it's impossible to just bring in extra people and there will always be a bottleneck.  On the other hand, the information systems of the various providers are universally poor.  Some are better than others but all of them have defensive customer service strategies.  They don't commit to anything in case they fail to deliver.  They don't give you much information because they believe you will misunderstand it.  Yet for me the uncertainty was one of the biggest sources of stress.  If I'd known it would be a week I could plan for a week.   Waiting and checking each day was a form of torture.

A final thought, before I stop rabbiting on about this and go back to stuff like the Lives of Jesus.  After a lifetime of working on homelessness, I've finally been homeless.  It was only for a bit over a week, I had a great place to stay with loving and supportive family members around me, and after Day 3 I knew I had a place to go back to.  Nonetheless, it was very stressful.  I didn't sleep properly, I got grumpy, I now have a virus.  I keep forgetting things like where I'm supposed to be, and where I put my keys.  Multiply this by 50 or 100 and you get the kind of stress experienced by people who are truly homeless, or refugees, or people in indefinite detention.  Is it any wonder they have mental health problems, that they get angry and violent, that the trauma stays with them for life?

1 comment:

DD said...

Jon, not sure abt the tech aspects of 1:100 flood levels (or 1 in 100 ARI - average return interval - but the same thing could happen again next month). I thought yr neighbour had to raise his living level, not his ground floor level by 300mm?
I presume, the council (or whoever) determined the flood level and added a "safety factor".
Now the mathematicians and hydrologists can go to work and calculate the "new" PMF (probable maximum flood).
With a new lot of data (I hope their flow meters were working) from the Lockyer Valley and Bremer Rivers to add to the Wivenhoe data, we hope they can work it out. DD