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.

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