Like the proverbial frogs in slowly heating water, Queenslanders find themselves in the midst of a natural disaster that has no equal in the 20th century, even if only because of greater population numbers today as compared to 1974, or last century. It may be the literal high water mark in public records.
It’s the great Queensland flood of 2011.
All day yesterday the ABC streamed nothing but horrifying actuality of the ‘inland Tsunami’ that swept through the Western city of Toowoomba on Monday afternoon, washing away cars with passengers trapped in them, ripping apart houses and catching people by complete surprise with its sudden ferocity.
And yet this event was surely only a matter of time in coming after weeks of heavy rain submerged regional Queensland North of Brisbane and South of Rockhampton, as far West as Emerald to the North, and St George to the South.
It became pretty clear to me by late December that unfolding events represented a greater catastrophe than our politicians were letting on, or our blasé journalists would admit: just because this was taking place primarily in regional Queensland was no longer an excuse to overlook the massive scale of the disaster.
Even I was slow to accept the scale of the tragedy, writing to a friend in WA on 31 December that despite almost continuous rain throughout the month, I liked the precipitation because it had kept temperatures down!
On 3 January I wrote to the same friend —
Today’s Australian reported that a C-130 Hercules and three (!!!) Black Hawk helicopters ‘will’ provide assistance. What the fuck have these guys been doing? Reading scripts from Katrina to outdo the Americans for too little too late? An emergency, I always thought, requires immediate and overwhelming response to prevent death, destruction and other harm from occurring in the first place. I think it would have taken you and I half an hour and a couple of whiskeys to come up with a better response, and 15 minutes of that would have been spent correcting the typos in the plan.
Don’t we have any hovercraft anywhere? What about Sea King cargo helicopters?
In the meantime it seems that what’s really imperative to the nation is whether Brendan Fevola is a fuckwit consistent with all the evidence, or whether the Australian cricket team can hit the ball at all.
On 5 January I wrote —
An estimated 250,000 people have had homes destroyed or threatened in a region that covers as much territory as central Europe.
More rain is on the way. Rockhampton is hoping to avoid a historic high-water mark of 9.4 meters this evening. The larger towns and cities are attracting all the media attention, mainly because the media can’t get to the smaller towns and hamlets without getting their feet wet, but outback townships that have been there for a hundred years or more don’t exist anymore in places to the West of Bundaberg and Rockhampton. Who knows what will be found once the waters recede. There may be instances where re-building, like Gascoyne Junction, will be out of the question.
No doubt you’ve already heard that Bowen Basin coal production has been stopped for the past week, and no one’s prepared to predict when supply will resume. Some coal producers (Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton, Xstrata, Peabody Energy and Anglo American) have invoked force majeure clauses in their contracts. This is an unmitigated fucking disaster, and, for once, a politician was right in describing it as of Biblical proportions. If this had happened, say, 500 years ago, entire tribes might have been wiped out by such conditions.
As it is Queensland food crops have been destroyed and prices are expected to soar well into autumn, maybe even winter. A housemate told me he went shopping late yesterday to find city shelves empty of vegetables and a solitary capsicum going for almost $8! And this is just the beginning. We have to survive for at least a season, maybe two, before fresh crops will have had a chance to grow (or get trashed again).
I can see why the rest of the country thinks this is a Newcastle earthquake or a series of Victorian bushfires, where fallout is limited to quite small populations and regions, with relative minimal flow-on to other parts of the country, but this will bite us all in the arse. Queensland coal exports alone are estimated to be 2 per cent plus of GDP. Collapse in these exports, even if only for short period, will have downstream effects on the dollar, interest rates, inflation and future tax rates. This isn’t just a Queensland disaster. It’s a national problem with dimensions not yet appreciated. If Queensland were Indonesia, we’d be sending a few hundred million bucks in foreign aid.
And still the politicians dithered. But the rain didn’t let up and then, suddenly, events moved too close to the State capital for Bligh’s paralysed minions to ignore any longer, particularly since there was now a body count directly related to the floods, with nine fatalities arising from the Toowoomba deluge, ‘grave’ fears for a further 15 missing people, and more than 50 otherwise unaccounted for.
And yesterday the tableau shifted to Brisbane itself. Three weeks of heavy rains had finally overpowered natural and fabricated drainage. The Wivenhoe Dam, Brisbane’s major saviour from flood run-off, is filled to 150 per cent capacity, forcing emergency spills that are making their way towards the city, arriving sometime today in combination with a king tide to result in an estimated 22 meter flood level in Ipswich, and 18 to 19 meters in Brisbane.
Right now (03:00) it’s eerily quiet out. The rain has faded to drizzle, A kilometre and a half North of here are the RNA showgrounds have been established as an emergency refugee camp for residents evacuated from suburbs like Caboolture which are already under water. The capacity is 3000 berths. It seems hardly enough for what’s been forecast for us today. Moreover, Bowen Hills, where the showgrounds are located, is right next door to suburbs already announced to be at serious risk of flooding today. No move, so far, to cover the Gabba cricket ground or the Suncorp stadium to turn them into make-shift camps.
Incredibly, the extent of concrete response to this disaster has been a teary-eyed premier promising press conferences every two hours! That’ll really help the dispossessed, soaked, and devastated people seeking reassurance and material aid. The poor sods forced to flee their homes should be inundated with dry clothes, presents for the kids and foodstuffs even if only to keep their minds off their losses and their morale as high as it can be after seeing a lifetime’s work washed away. What they need right now is some believable reassurance they will get help getting back on their feet, and even the banks seem more willing to provide that than the politicians.
More incredible yet, as late as yesterday afternoon residents in inner-city suburbs like West End, already flooding at that time, were uncertain about what to do. No one had told them whether to evacuate, to wait, or not to worry. In the last of the Premier’s farcical media circuses that I watched yesterday afternoon before looking to my own immediate needs, I was floored by the impotent, almost shoulder-shrugging advice that acting without advice or intelligence on the severity and location of emergency hot spots, citizens should prepare to take in refugees from the flooding! Some disaster plan.
Not that Queenslanders won’t help each other out anyway. No one will turn away the suddenly homeless, wet and hungry. But we are entitled to a less incompetent response from our governments. Bligh and Gillard have been insufferably patronising on TV, with so little concrete follow-up action in evidence that one wonders whether they still don’t realize that this is not the kind of disaster previously experienced only at arms length, by way of TV pictures from the third world. This is real, here and now, and not going away in any hurry.
Overnight about a third of Ipswich, a sister city to Brisbane about 100 km to the Southwest, has been evacuated as flood waters rise.
I am close to the CBD, but high enough not to be flooded out unless the city were to be entirely submerged. It is likely that my biggest concerns will be power outages (I can’t cook without electricity, and what food I have will quickly spoil). Another potential concern is access to food, not so much because there is none, but more likely because shopping centres might be flooded and the ones further afield may be inaccessible if roads are cut.