Yasi

Cyclone Yasi
Cyclone Yasi yesterday, dwarfing the Queensland coastline.

So here it is. The killer cyclone (called hurricane or typhoon in other parts of the world) has been anticipated in theories and forecasts. It’s a little different, though, now that it’s here. Tidal surges of up to seven meters. Tens of thousands of people along a 500km coastline, and up to 300km inland caught in the eye and surrounding winds of between 100 and 300km/h.

A storm bigger than anything reported since 1918, and possibly bigger than the Mackay and Innisfail cyclones of that year. Some say the whole storm system is the size of the entire continental USA. Compassion or not, it makes the snow storms wreaking havoc in America seem trivial in comparison.

Houses will be ripped apart like cheap toys. Cars and debris will be hurled through the air. Anyone caught in that fury will be killed – crushed, or drowned or asphyxiated. Livestock and free fauna extinguished. The lansdcape ripped apart dispassionately. All this just two days after the somehwat weaker Cyclone Anthony tenderised some of the locales, almost as though in a probing attack.

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Bread and circuses

This afternoon, idly watching some TV while waiting for my hamburgers to fry, I caught a station break that brought my blood to boiling point and dissolved the reserve I promised myself I would maintain about my contempt for, and disgust with, the way the entire Queensland flood disaster has been turned into a self-serving media circus, of benefit only to grandstanding but ineffective politicians getting free PR, and indolent, narcissistic ‘journalists’ looking to trivialize and cheapen the whole emergency by packaging it into a repulsive reality TV spectacle rather than reporting news.

The advertisement was for one of the commercial breakfast chatter shows nobly offering itself as the coordinator, in partnership with the ‘Queensland Government’, of mobilizing an ‘army of tradies’ for the State’s reconstruction.

Just in case it isn’t plain enough to anyone but me, it’s a crass and nauseating stunt. The ‘army of tradies’ will naturally flock to where the work is without any coordination effort. It’s called supply and demand and it’s worked without any help from the media or government for hundreds of years.

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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.

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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.

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