Fallback: bullshit

This afternoon the inevitable inquiry was announced by Premier Anna Bligh. Reporting deadlines in six and 12 months! The inquiry is revealed by that very parameter as a device with which the Queensland Labor Government wants to absolve itself of any responsibility until at least after the next election, which I would call very quickly now were I her; Bligh’s popularity is riding inexplicably high on the back of carefully staged media events.

And yet, what evidence is there that she provided any leadership at all? A theatre arts graduate could have delivered the on-air performances. What did she do in the background to remediate the disaster? It’s not a rhetorical question, but also not one that most journalists appear keen to ask. In fact, the only more superfluous and useless grandstanders during the flooding were our journalists, who stayed well away from providing useful information in order to dwell on the maudlin and the tragic.

From my perspective there should be an inquiry, but not one aimed at finger-pointing and ‘blamestorming’. What should be established, and by the end of the month, not half a year down the track, is what we could do better in February if flooding were to occur again. I’m not forecasting anything, but I don’t think we can rule it out in what is, after all, our wet season. The full bureaucratic treatment can still be applied over the longer term, but we need at least some answers more quickly.

Continue reading “Fallback: bullshit”

Sex toy time

Of all the ridiculous, comical capers that come with the territory of disaster reporting, my favourite so far is undoubtedly the one about the intrepid acquanaut using a blow-up sex doll as a ride in the flood-swollen Yarra in Melbourne. See the story here. I can just picture it. ‘What was the make and model of your craft, madam?’

‘It was a Linda Lovelace deluxe with vibrating …’

It is true that emergency services workers have their hands full with real emergencies, and a woman who was thrown (?!?) by her ‘ride’ did divert their efforts from more serious work, but you’ve gotta stop to laugh. It’s a shame there were no photos. Without humour in awful situations they would just get too serious to be bearable.

Continue reading “Sex toy time”

Perfidy

In the quiet of the evening, after a disappointing day at work for many IT professionals in Brisbane, there was subdued talk about the mistakes of relying on untested redundancy plans, communications intentions, the inadequacy of change management processes in emergency situations, and the complete failure of disaster recovery strategies based on worst-case scenarios that wilfully omitted force majeure because IT managers wouldn’t front boards and senior managers with nightmare scenarios that could never happen … until January 2011.

In that genteel and resigned atmosphere a lively discussion ensued among geeks who could speak to each other about technicalities as well as failed management holy grails.

These are rumours: lines of communication held open for politicians and bureaucrats to serve political needs above those of the people doing the dying and losing. Facilitation of news media above search and rescue. Repeated refusals by mangers to divert departmental web sites to plain HTML, low-bandwidth stand-bys to speed access times by people judged to be too low-tech to use 20th century technology when transistor radios were the only tools mentioned in disaster recovery plans. Miserly decisions about online redundancy because executive bonuses were tied to not exceeding budget in that area. Departments refusing to speak to each other until a Minister could be found to authorise or demand cooperation. IT staff with ideas told to shut up and wait because they were low priority (presumably after the first priority of enabling live to air actuality of grandstanding politicians — this is unashamedly my personal comment).

Continue reading “Perfidy”

Reprieve

Ride the pink pony
A wistful last look at a once inseperable companion? The cleanup plays out like this many thousand times across Queensland.

Yesterday and today I saw a lot of faces that reflected something I couldn’t quite explain to myself. It wasn’t anxiety or relief, but something not far off either. The longer I thought about it, the more I wondered whether I had the same look on my face. And what would that look tell others?

I was never in danger. I lost most of my household goods, which were in storage that flooded, but I didn’t lose a house, car, or loved ones. In fact I had some adventures that might be described as downright irresponsible, wandering around perilously close to the river at night, but also rescuing a dog that had been left chained up in a place alarmingly deep in rising waters.

Like so many others, I helped where I could, which was never very much, and always as an almost unspoken matter-of-course. People carrying things at Southbank needing an extra pair of hands. Women corralling children needing help with prams and bags. An old man in West End piling rickety boxes of stuff that must have meant something to him onto a tray-top ute accepting help warily. A woman sobbing silently at Kangaroo Point accepting an impotent hug. Sharing a joke with an old ocker down from trashed Rockhampton, challenging me about my suntan, which he reckons means I’m a beach-bum. They all had that look in their faces.

Continue reading “Reprieve”

Hiatus

Brisbane flooded
Flooded areas in foreground, the swollen river in the upper right. Approaching Brisbane from the airport to the North-East.

15,000 homes flooded, 20,000 evacuated, 115,000 without power.

13 Dead, 43 unaccounted for. Flood peak now expected to be lower than the 5 metres in Brisbane (lower than 1974). Police in streets trying to keep people out of flooded, evacuated areas.

The city is ghostly quiet. Even the rowdy drunks that usually pass through the neighbourhood in the early hours are absent in these early hours.

The rain has stayed away all day and all night, contributing to downward predictions for the high tide in a few hours from now.

Continue reading “Hiatus”

Disaster as reality TV
a disgusting media circus

Ipswich under water
A third of Ipswich is under water.

The most concrete effect on me of the flooding so far is a rising but impotent sense of anger at the way the whole thing has turned into a media circus in which the existential needs of those affected have been turned into a reality TV show rather than addressed with concrete assistance.

One example of this has been the astonishingly inadequate information flow about emergency procedures, flooded areas, road closures, evacuation centres and ancillary services like animal shelters and veterinary services, medical facilities for people who can’t get to public hospitals, food outlets still open and stocked, etc.

I spent most of last night searching the internet for that information and was astounded to find that no effort had been made to consolidate this kind of information in one place, nor had anyone spent much time thinking about the network load caused by the flood of internet searches about such information, with many government web sites being unreachable, and when available, containing only information relevant to bureaucratic demarcations (we’re not responsible for that!) rather than addressing actual needs.

While I was doing that, I had the ABC 24 news channel on in the background, becoming aware that the coverage contained not a skerrick of useful information to people facing imminent disaster, or those already trying to cope with it. All the coverage was focused on politicians grandstanding in front of media scrums without imparting any useful information, and mostly announcing only developments that most of us could observe by looking out of our windows.

West End floded
The West End river foreshore is a moveable feast.

Gillard and others missed no opportunity to be seen on-site, albeit only where their feet weren’t getting wet.

By early morning (somewhere between 03:30 and 05:00) I had sent a couple of emails to the ABC to suggest that in the absence of leadership from government and bureaucrats in providing useful information, the ABC should take a lead. My emails probably disappeared in the maelstrom of reality TV moments about make-your-heart-grow-fond anecdotes, or the reality of actual tragedy.

What I said in those emails is that our approach to managing this disaster seems to have been based on a 1950s nuclear fallout mentality. Advice to keep batteries and a ‘wireless’ radio handy floored me. What the fuck are these morons thinking? Anna Bligh should have moved to open up State Government web servers to a massive wireless network available free of charge to all Brisbane residents so they could access accurate, up-to-date online information via battery-operated wireless devices like laptops, PDAs, iPads, mobile phones etc. What is the point of living in the information age if our leaders are still fighting a rearguard action against the information revolution?

Besides, none of the information being broadcast by the ABC on radio or TV was actually useful. Endless recaps of disasters that struck this or that area don’t help people cope with rising water levels, power cuts, road closures, medical emergencies, or the myriad of other problems.

Against that perspective, there were some reports that police were making use of Twitter in their operations. That’s got to be a good sign. I’ve been saying since the Victorian bushfires that Twitter is ideal for emergency response situations.

Toowong flooded
A Toowong intersection at rush hour this morning.

By 04:30 I could see, from my sixth floor perch in Spring Hill, that daylight was penetrating broken cloud cover over Brisbane. At around 05:00 I had given up trying to locate information on imminent power outages as Energex started to cut electricity to inundated areas; the information was not readily accessible online, phone lines were to be avoided because of peak load, and TV and radio coverage was all but useless in telling us that the cuts were coming, but not where or when.

In anticipation of losing my fridge and the ability to cook (no gas here), I walked 500 meters down the road to the local 24×7 ‘minimart’, which seemed still reasonably stocked, where I bought butter and an extra loaf of bread in anticipation of eating sandwiches for the next couple of days.

The shop attendant seemed cheerful and unperturbed by events. It may have been coming close to the end of an all-nighter for him. He greeted me with: ‘How’s it going mate,’ said with a broad Indian accent. It was unusual because the others who serve there are usually a surly bunch. He said to me he expected power to be cut to the shop at around 06:00.

On the way back I noticed two things: there was enough sunshine to blind me, and even the faint drizzle that had replaced the monotonous rain late last night and early this morning had ceased. It was also eerily quiet for a weekday. I could have walked in the middle of Boundary Street without creating any traffic obstacle.

Once back at my computer I tried some more internet searches and noted that at last the search terms in Google were returning results that at least attempted to aggregate information in single-point-of-contact State Government websites, even if these still consisted of links to other sites, many of which were under such heavy load they were all but inaccessible.

At some stage I finally managed to access the much vaunted Brisbane City Council flood modelling maps on a cut down version of their web site some bright spark thought to put up instead of the usually chrome-heavy monstrosity the Council sports. Alas, the handsome maps were all but useless without information about the level of flooding they were based on: no one thought to advise how many meters of water would cause the flooding depicted in the maps.

New farm flooded
Genteel New Farm tranquility this AM.

Sure enough, information management is a professional preoccupation for me, but one would have thought emergency services would pay some attention to that topic, and to the overriding character of emergencies: a lot of people will need fast access to accurate and timely information IMMEDIATELY. Unfortuynately the fatalistic 1950s mind-set prevails.

And the news media is firmly ensconced in the comfort zone of reality TV, treating the whole thing as spectacle rather than helping out with accurate and useful information. This might suit people in NSW, Victoria, SA, WA and the NT, but the endlessly repeated hand-wringing actuality of journalists, who characteristically arrive after the disaster has passed, when only the shell-shocked remain, pointing at scenes of destruction and despair, begins to really grate.

On a personal note, where I am it’s been more dry today than for several weeks. The rain has been strangely absent as news of suburban flooding keeps coming in. There is no water in my street, but a kilometre away, the CBD is ankle deep, and entirely submerged in some places.

My sister called me this morning from Perth. Clearly she’d heard something about events here, but she seemed pretty nonchalant about the disaster, reflecting a kind of blasé attitude that I think prevails generally in Australia when natural disasters strike. I wonder whether anyone outside Queensland really understands the scale of this disaster. It may not even sink in when people begin to pay higher prices for fresh food, or taxes are raised for reconstruction.

It’s time to go. Some reality. Ispwich is under 20 meters of water, Brisbane only 4.2 metres. Flooding is sporadic but prolific; some streets are dry at one end and flooded to waist-height at the other. Avout 126,000 homes are without power. Brisbane is expecting a high-water mark of around 5.5 metres at 04:00 tomorrow morning (which is higher than 1974, but 1.5 metres below the peak in 1893). Authorities are just beginning to talk about recovery costs for Brisbane/Ipswich – $13 to $14 billion. There’s now talk about coming diseases caused by rotting things in floodwater and contaminated drinking water. Oh goodie.

Disaster as reality TVa disgusting media circus

Ipswich under water
A third of Ipswich is under water.

The most concrete effect on me of the flooding so far is a rising but impotent sense of anger at the way the whole thing has turned into a media circus in which the existential needs of those affected have been turned into a reality TV show rather than addressed with concrete assistance.

One example of this has been the astonishingly inadequate information flow about emergency procedures, flooded areas, road closures, evacuation centres and ancillary services like animal shelters and veterinary services, medical facilities for people who can’t get to public hospitals, food outlets still open and stocked, etc.

I spent most of last night searching the internet for that information and was astounded to find that no effort had been made to consolidate this kind of information in one place, nor had anyone spent much time thinking about the network load caused by the flood of internet searches about such information, with many government web sites being unreachable, and when available, containing only information relevant to bureaucratic demarcations (we’re not responsible for that!) rather than addressing actual needs.

While I was doing that, I had the ABC 24 news channel on in the background, becoming aware that the coverage contained not a skerrick of useful information to people facing imminent disaster, or those already trying to cope with it. All the coverage was focused on politicians grandstanding in front of media scrums without imparting any useful information, and mostly announcing only developments that most of us could observe by looking out of our windows.

West End floded
The West End river foreshore is a moveable feast.

Gillard and others missed no opportunity to be seen on-site, albeit only where their feet weren’t getting wet.

By early morning (somewhere between 03:30 and 05:00) I had sent a couple of emails to the ABC to suggest that in the absence of leadership from government and bureaucrats in providing useful information, the ABC should take a lead. My emails probably disappeared in the maelstrom of reality TV moments about make-your-heart-grow-fond anecdotes, or the reality of actual tragedy.

What I said in those emails is that our approach to managing this disaster seems to have been based on a 1950s nuclear fallout mentality. Advice to keep batteries and a ‘wireless’ radio handy floored me. What the fuck are these morons thinking? Anna Bligh should have moved to open up State Government web servers to a massive wireless network available free of charge to all Brisbane residents so they could access accurate, up-to-date online information via battery-operated wireless devices like laptops, PDAs, iPads, mobile phones etc. What is the point of living in the information age if our leaders are still fighting a rearguard action against the information revolution?

Besides, none of the information being broadcast by the ABC on radio or TV was actually useful. Endless recaps of disasters that struck this or that area don’t help people cope with rising water levels, power cuts, road closures, medical emergencies, or the myriad of other problems.

Against that perspective, there were some reports that police were making use of Twitter in their operations. That’s got to be a good sign. I’ve been saying since the Victorian bushfires that Twitter is ideal for emergency response situations.

Toowong flooded
A Toowong intersection at rush hour this morning.

By 04:30 I could see, from my sixth floor perch in Spring Hill, that daylight was penetrating broken cloud cover over Brisbane. At around 05:00 I had given up trying to locate information on imminent power outages as Energex started to cut electricity to inundated areas; the information was not readily accessible online, phone lines were to be avoided because of peak load, and TV and radio coverage was all but useless in telling us that the cuts were coming, but not where or when.

In anticipation of losing my fridge and the ability to cook (no gas here), I walked 500 meters down the road to the local 24×7 ‘minimart’, which seemed still reasonably stocked, where I bought butter and an extra loaf of bread in anticipation of eating sandwiches for the next couple of days.

The shop attendant seemed cheerful and unperturbed by events. It may have been coming close to the end of an all-nighter for him. He greeted me with: ‘How’s it going mate,’ said with a broad Indian accent. It was unusual because the others who serve there are usually a surly bunch. He said to me he expected power to be cut to the shop at around 06:00.

On the way back I noticed two things: there was enough sunshine to blind me, and even the faint drizzle that had replaced the monotonous rain late last night and early this morning had ceased. It was also eerily quiet for a weekday. I could have walked in the middle of Boundary Street without creating any traffic obstacle.

Once back at my computer I tried some more internet searches and noted that at last the search terms in Google were returning results that at least attempted to aggregate information in single-point-of-contact State Government websites, even if these still consisted of links to other sites, many of which were under such heavy load they were all but inaccessible.

At some stage I finally managed to access the much vaunted Brisbane City Council flood modelling maps on a cut down version of their web site some bright spark thought to put up instead of the usually chrome-heavy monstrosity the Council sports. Alas, the handsome maps were all but useless without information about the level of flooding they were based on: no one thought to advise how many meters of water would cause the flooding depicted in the maps.

New farm flooded
Genteel New Farm tranquility this AM.

Sure enough, information management is a professional preoccupation for me, but one would have thought emergency services would pay some attention to that topic, and to the overriding character of emergencies: a lot of people will need fast access to accurate and timely information IMMEDIATELY. Unfortuynately the fatalistic 1950s mind-set prevails.

And the news media is firmly ensconced in the comfort zone of reality TV, treating the whole thing as spectacle rather than helping out with accurate and useful information. This might suit people in NSW, Victoria, SA, WA and the NT, but the endlessly repeated hand-wringing actuality of journalists, who characteristically arrive after the disaster has passed, when only the shell-shocked remain, pointing at scenes of destruction and despair, begins to really grate.

On a personal note, where I am it’s been more dry today than for several weeks. The rain has been strangely absent as news of suburban flooding keeps coming in. There is no water in my street, but a kilometre away, the CBD is ankle deep, and entirely submerged in some places.

My sister called me this morning from Perth. Clearly she’d heard something about events here, but she seemed pretty nonchalant about the disaster, reflecting a kind of blasé attitude that I think prevails generally in Australia when natural disasters strike. I wonder whether anyone outside Queensland really understands the scale of this disaster. It may not even sink in when people begin to pay higher prices for fresh food, or taxes are raised for reconstruction.

It’s time to go. Some reality. Ispwich is under 20 meters of water, Brisbane only 4.2 metres. Flooding is sporadic but prolific; some streets are dry at one end and flooded to waist-height at the other. Avout 126,000 homes are without power. Brisbane is expecting a high-water mark of around 5.5 metres at 04:00 tomorrow morning (which is higher than 1974, but 1.5 metres below the peak in 1893). Authorities are just beginning to talk about recovery costs for Brisbane/Ipswich – $13 to $14 billion. There’s now talk about coming diseases caused by rotting things in floodwater and contaminated drinking water. Oh goodie.

Scale of disaster leaves
emergency responses impotent

Flood map
Australian map superimposed on European map, showing initial flooding to first week of January in dark oblong (1), with today’s boundaries shown in lighter green oblong (2). If you moved the oblong over central Europe, the territory covered would include most of France, Germany and some of Poland.

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.

Brisbane flood warnings
Brisbane suburbs for which flood warnings have been posted. The red arrow indicates my location.

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.

Footnotes:

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.

Scale of disaster leavesemergency responses impotent

Flood map
Australian map superimposed on European map, showing initial flooding to first week of January in dark oblong (1), with today’s boundaries shown in lighter green oblong (2). If you moved the oblong over central Europe, the territory covered would include most of France, Germany and some of Poland.

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.

Brisbane flood warnings
Brisbane suburbs for which flood warnings have been posted. The red arrow indicates my location.

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.

Footnotes:

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.

The burqa is confronting, but must not be banned

The artificial nature of the burqa debate notwithstanding, there appears to be no end of illogical argument about the issue, coming both from the proponents of outlawing the garment, and the defenders of the freedom to choose it as every-day attire.

I declare right now my close affinity with the latter position, but not without, I think, deeply offending the sensibilities of many of its proponents.

I call the debate in Australia artificial because it is my observation that it was manufactured by bored journalists attempting to bait one or another of our under-exercised politicians into making an injudicious comment about the proposition that some people might be ‘confronted’ by the sight of someone covered from head to foot in black or blue cloth. The underlying assumption, the bait in this trap, that agreeing with that proposition is inherently wrong, is exactly what is so dispiriting about the ploy.

What sort of a fool would argue against the observation that it is confronting? In Western culture a clear line of sight to the face is taken for granted [1] as a subconscious adjunct to personal communication, as a means of gauging mood, intent, sincerity and attention.

The absence of clues about a person’s focus or intentions is regarded as discourteous, sinister and suspicious. Anyone who wishes to argue that this is religious discrimination rather than reflexive behaviour based on survival instincts should dress up that way and approach a dog, a cat or their next door neighbour and take note of the reactions they get.

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