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.

All day police acting in a dangerous limbo between the rule of law and apparently arbitrary ‘emergency powers’ have been gruffly telling me I can’t go here or there to look for myself what is happening. They have the power to compel people to evacuate their homes. No doubt they have the power to arrest me for defying their instructions, but it doesn’t stop me from seeing the swollen river overflowing into the Botanical Gardens, Southbank and various points along the city river frontage. The CBD is deserted, with patchy flooding. I can’t get right into the city to see what’s happened to all the shops under the mall, but I imagine they are under some water by now. It’s like a gigantic movie set being readied for some kind of disaster sequence. Oh, wait. It’s a real disaster and the only cameras here are handled by news crews, with real people as the extras, and, unfortunately, politicians as the narcissistic, preening stars.

Toowong flooded
Almost poetic sunrise at Toowong this morning. Somewhere close by most of my belongings are under water.
Ipswich near CBD
Ipswich Road near the city centre.

There is no sense of despair or fear that I can apprehend. There are people gathered here and there to exchange stories and watch the debris float past in the unnaturally rapidly flowing Brisbane River.

That river is an omniously, threatening, roiling mass of roaring brown water rushing past with an unnatural ferocity. It smells like foetid sewerage, rotting vegetation, and the faint whiff of corrupt flesh. It is a smell that says: ‘death’. People who move too close to it are literally playing with their lives because you can see debris being swept along as fast as a speeding car, and rescue for idiots who brave that beast is unlikely.

Among the people I meet there’s a tense anticipation of things to come, and the stoic resignation that ‘shit happens’ that is so characteristic of Australians anywhere on this vast continent when they face the unforgiving onslaught of natural forces that will never be entirely tamed. It’s not easy to put my finger on what I see, but its malevolent. Threatening in an indifferent manner. The phrase comes to mind: ‘It is what it is.’

Roclea markets flooded
The Brisbane Markets at Rocklea, 10 klicks South of Brisbane. One of the major fresh vegetable distribution centres.

People begin to talk about recovery when the waters recede – a sure sign that most expect the worst to have come and gone, which is still premature, but cheerily optimistic all the same.

It will be days before the waters recede from Brisbane, weeks for regional areas — if the rains don’t set in again.

Boundary Street, 02:17

During 16-17 December 1993 I was staying in a well-constructed house in Broome while Cyclone Naomi ripped through the WA resort town. That was a scary time, with ferocious winds and all the trappings of a storm, including immediately apprehensible torrential rain and the defibrillating thunderclaps of massive electrical discharges directly overhead. I was safe then, and spent most of that time drinking beer cooled to a satisfactory point just above freezing by the ice-slurry in my esky, but I had more cause for concern then than I have experienced thus far during the Queensland flood, which has been characterised for me by a monotonous month of continuous rain, permanent damp and frequent wet clothes.

Wivenhoe spillway
The Wivenhoe Dam spillway yesterday afternoon. This dam has both saved Brisbane and released much of the water that added to the city flooding as the Dam filled to 150 per cent capacity in the past few days.

At first I received news of distant disasters dismissively: flooding was expected after so many years of drought. But after days of news about a spreading, unabated catastrophe in country Queensland, a gradual certainty set in that this could not end well even in the, as yet, relatively untouched and largely blasé capital.

By the end of December there were open discussions among friends about the inevitability of flood run-off from out West making its way down-river to the city. In early January, while politicians and other officials were still silent, I was certain that the disaster was deeper and would be more prolonged than anyone was saying at the time. By the end of the first week of the new year I knew that Brisbane would get its own turn at being deluged as belated attempts were made by politicians to prepare for the worst.

I don’t resile from my previous critique about the ineffectiveness of our leaders, national and State, but to be fair to them, no one could have foreseen the scale of the disaster, and there was every reason not to be alarmist about conditions until you couldn’t avoid that reality anymore. That moment came on Tuesday, when the flash flood ripped through Toowoomba, carrying away people in their cars to certain deaths and miraculous rescues.

It is almost certain, too, that had I been Anna Bligh’s adviser, I would have counselled doing exactly what she did: putting herself on camera often and with a great show of concern turned to grief and a little sleeplessness. The image portrayed was perfect: a mother figure distraught by the events, with no one daring to suggest that her concern should have been translated into more effective action than it was. She came off much better than the too-impeccably made-up and coutured Julia Gillard, who added not even charisma to her Dalek-like performances on-camera. Kevin Rudd was grandstanding in his own electorate, getting air time carrying someone’s bag out of ankle deep water in a suburban street, but clearly struggling even under the staged, geriatric efforts of rescuing a single suitcase.

Brisbane flooded suburbs
The red arrow points to the gap in flooded areas where I live.

Bligh was undoubtedly the best performer, sporting her latest plastic surgery well, turning a pug-ugly and rapidly ageing matron into a passable facsimile of a handsome, middle-aged career woman. Wearing jeans and an open-necked shirt, her performance as woman of the people will almost certainly help her at the next election, particularly since the State Opposition has been invisible during this crisis, and Langbroek seems to be more concerned, in any case, with playing petty personality power games in his own party than with winning the treasury benches.

In these still, early hours, it’s irresistible to reassess what’s happened. The worst of this crisis is undoubtedly reserved for regional Queensland, with some towns having been flooded twice in a fortnight, perhaps three or four times before this is over. The deluge in Brisbane looks unlikely to get worse, but will not recede for up to a week yet. With 75 per cent of the state affected by disaster conditions, the services needed for emergency responses, food and medical relief, and recovery after the waters recede, are stretched beyond their tolerances.

My sister wrote to me asking whether I would be homeless, starving or forced to shelter others. Things are not that bad for me or other city dwellers, but they may be that bad for country Queenslanders, hundreds to thousands of whom are cut off from supplies and help by flooded roads and bad weather conditions.

Spring Hill 2011
Surrounded but with dry feet.

Like my sister suggested, it WILL take years to rebuild what has been damaged and destroyed in this flood. Billions of dollars will need to be spent on public infrastructure, like roads, bridges, railroad tracks, water and electricity supply plant and equipment, etc.

What will be felt most immediately will be fresh food shortages. Almost all expected food output from Queensland for summer and autumn has been lost, with uncounted livestock killed. Fresh fruit and vegetable prices are already rising, and panic buying has depleted stocks in those supermarkets still open below limits that were actually reasonable; it is to be hoped that hoarded food stocks won’t be wasted on spoilage. It may be that there’ll be rationing, or just the limits imposed by soaring prices for items previously taken for granted.

What has not yet been discussed seriously at all is the real risk of disease. Stagnant water is breeding ground for mosquitoes, for contamination by rotting animal carcasses and overflowing sewerage, and because medical services will be stretched beyond breaking point by any serious outbreak of even just gastro enteritis, which is highly likely under the circumstances. No one is even contemplating far worse diseases thought to be confined to the third world, but now possible under present conditions in Queensland.

Boundary Street, 14:57

15 dead, 70 missing.

Peak of Brisbane River was 4.46 metres at around 05:30, 4.2 at 09:00, 3.9 metres at 13:00. Another peak expected between 16:00 and 18:00.

120,000 homes without power. 25,000 homes flooded.

Skies heavily pregnant with cloud, humid conditions uncomfortable in anything but shorts (& bikinis, please).

The ambience is quite sombre. The rain threatens to return, but has not yet done so.

It occurred to me this morning that the stillness here is partly to do with the absence of the gangs of crows that usually hang out around here, squawking raucously in the mornings and at dusk. Crows feed on carrion. It is oddly comforting that their absence means the carcasses are to be found elsewhere.

Near the Ispswich CBD yesterday afternoon.
Near the Ispswich CBD yesterday afternoon.

Images of the Premier staging a carefully rehearsed trembling lower lip is sickening when so many people are so distraught and alone with the knowledge they have lost everything they have worked for all their lives. I don’t suppose she might have had to work too hard to show that emotion, but I think it’s despicable that this media circus is becoming about her, possibly the most secure and comfortable person in the State, and not the poor bastards who really need help and reassurance right now.

There is not much else to say. We wait for the waters to recede until the last of the bodies can be recovered before the cleanup starts.

Much depends on the weather. The ground everywhere is waterlogged and will not soak up any substantial rain rather than flooding rapidly again. On the other hand, it would take only a couple of days of relief from precipitation to reduce water levels to tolerable marks in Brisbane and Ipswich.

It is quite clear that Ipswich has been hit much harder than Brisbane itself, but is getting far less media attention, probably because the media darlings are all hanging out in Brisbane. That goes doubly so for regional centres, towns and hamlets where no media stars are preening themselves, but where the effects of this disaster are far more severe than they are in the city, because help is so far away.

Most of the CBD is still closed to rubberneckers. Many businesses remain closed. People are still being urged not to travel, even to neighbouring suburbs, unless they really need to.

The initial wave of emergency workers are exhausted after 36-hour shifts. Volunteers are plentiful though, and even being turned away. We must wait for nature to run its course.

The power here has faltered only once, and even then only briefly.

I will write more as circumstances change or the mood strikes me.

Spare a thought for ‘us Queenslanders’ wherever you are.