Rain … again

Persistent heavy rain has returned to Brisbane just a couple of days after sunshine broke the clouds. It isn’t what I’d call torrential, and from a selfish perspective I am grateful for the drop in the oppressive, humid temperature the sun brought with it. But I wonder nonetheless whether elsewhere the precipitation has been heavier and unwelcome.

Life in the city seems, on the surface, to have returned very much to normal – if your house or business wasn’t inundated and destroyed.

There is a vaguely mouldy, musty smell in the air everywhere you go, and, it seems, the water tastes more strongly of chlorine than it did in December (but that might be my overactive imagination).

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Politics wins, we lose … again!

The bad weather forecast for Brisbane today has turned out to be a very brief thunderstorm over the central city. Nothing to get too excited about yet. It is, however, a reminder that we are in Queensland’s official wet season and have six more weeks of it coming if the weather runs true to form. Worse if this season holds more surprises in store for us.

As predicted by some of my colleagues, today the Federal Opposition Leader, Tony Abbott, seized on the $36 billion national broadband network project (NBN) as a source of funding for reconstruction, effectively seeking to shelve that network for the foreseeable future as an unaffordfable luxury under the circumstances.

My views on the NBN are spelled out pretty trenchantly elsewhere, but not beholden to Tony Abbott’s automatic opposition to anything proposed by the Labor Government. To summarize, I am uncomfortable with a government that has a track record of trying to ramrod the most comprehensive censorship regime in Australian history through aParliament also trying to control all internet access points. Parliamentary debate on the Rudd-Conroy-Gillard censorship agenda has revealed it to be sinister in its secretiveness, draconian in scope, and opaque in oversight and accountability for shadowy bureaucrats possibly answerable to no one. This gives me a deeply uneasy feeling that is in no way ameliorated by a recent move to exempt the NBN Co quango from freedom of information legislation.

Continue reading “Politics wins, we lose … again!”

Filthy lucre

There has been such a blurring of the line on government largesse relating to flood emergency relief that I find it irresistible to counter what appears to be a widespread misconception: no government has its own money, nor can any government create its own wealth by just printing money and passing it around like Monopoly scrip without dire economic consequences.

When people talk about government funding, they really mean taxpayer funding. Every cent any Australian government collects and dispenses is collected in the first place from private citizens and businesses through taxes.

In recent discussions I’ve had with otherwise articulate and intelligent people about the flood crisis and how to fix it has left me astonished at the appalling ignorance about how government is funded. One public sector manager refused to acknowledge altogether that her salary is paid for by taxes. When challenged how else this could happen her only response was ‘government money’. I was powerless to explain that government money is money extracted from the pockets of employees (including hers) and businesses in the form of taxes.

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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.

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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.