Questions remain as Queensland floods recede

Last updated 15:25 14/01/2011

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The floodwaters are receding in Queensland, replaced by a steady flow of questions, recriminations and tears.

The obvious inquiries are being made, like what could have been done better, both before and after.

There are also demands for the answer to the largely unanswerable "Why?", and there is a lot of mud, water and rubbish to get rid of.

Climate change and the ubiquitous La Nina will be blamed but that won't satisfy anyone who has lost family or friends or homes or livelihoods.

Governments, local councils and runaway development will also be denounced and accused of not doing enough.

As many as 50 people are likely to have died in the Queensland floods, most of them around Toowoomba where a wall of water swept through the town without warning on Tuesday and in Grantham which was utterly devastated.

Since then the rest of the Lockyer Valley has been flooded, some towns have been inundated for the second time in a matter of weeks and parts of Brisbane's CBD have been submerged along with 15,000 residential properties.

More than 1000 residents took shelter in evacuation centres as the Brisbane River peaked on Thursday and electricity was switched off in the CBD.

In Ipswich, to Brisbane's west, 3000 homes had been inundated at Thursday's peak and 1000 people were in evacuation centres.

While Queenslanders will bear a massive burden for years to come, there will hardly be a single Australian whose life will not be affected by this disaster, whether emotionally or economically.

Meteorologists can call on science for an explanation - the Queensland floods were caused by a lot of rain falling in a short time.

That rain came from a "super cell" which in turn has a relationship with La Nina, the phenomenon caused by raised temperature on the surface of the oceans around Australia.

As true and correct as they may be, such explanations do nothing to help anyone.

What Queensland needs is for the rain to stay away, for the assistance of the rest of the country and for governments to be as fair dinkum as they say they will.

What is needed throughout Australia if such disasters are to be managed better in the future is genuine and co-ordinated planning.

Dr Rob Roggema, a climate researcher at Melbourne's RMIT University, says a fundamental consideration should be building design.

"Recent planning practice has contributed to the magnitude of the flooding disaster in Queensland," Dr Roggema said.

Covering the ground with concrete may not create floods but, according to Dr Roggema, it makes them far worse by causing higher run-off into drains and subsequently into rivers and streams.

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And too many large city buildings are put up in the wrong place.

"If we are to learn from this, we must create a long-term strategic and anticipative plan for Queensland in which new buildings are situated in the least flood-prone places," he said.

The latest flooding has also made redundant such notions as "100-year" floods, or droughts, being the basis for building decisions.

Dr Roggema suggests a more realistic standard would be to make decisions based on twice the worst predicted event.

Leaving room for the river is another concept that planning authorities need to consider, says Dr Caroline Sullivan, an Associate Professor of Environmental Economics and Policy at Southern Cross University.

"If a river floods over its banks and fills up a grassy, vegetated recreational area, the cost of the damage will be minuscule compared to the destruction we have seen along the heavily developed banks of the Brisbane river," Dr Sullivan said.

"Recognising the value of our wetlands as a buffer to floods is another important consideration, and capitalising on the valuable ecosystem services they provide is another dimension of how our environmental policies must be more closely embedded into our mainstream macro-economic decision-making practices."

Dr Sullivan believes future disasters on a scale of the Queensland floods are almost certain.

"The issue we must consider today is how we adapt our homes, infrastructure, businesses and lifestyles to the changing conditions we are now facing, so that the next time this kind of extreme event happens - and it will - we will be in a more secure position to deal with it," she said.

"Let us take advantage of this opportunity to rebuild in such a way as to ensure that all infrastructure developments across Australia are more resilient, and the power of nature is recognised."

The inevitable investigations and royal commissions that follow such events will undoubtedly result in a lot of finger pointing at all levels of government - with a possible exception.

In the face of the disaster that has beset Queensland, Premier Anna Bligh has shown herself to be a leader.

Ms Bligh's capability, compassion, sincerity and emotional connection to her community have made her the figure on which Queensland - and the rest of the country - has focused.

She has neither overplayed nor underplayed her role. And, unlike some in other states, she hasn't taken a night off to have dinner with her mates.

Ms Bligh has got it right not because she's been advised or coached, but because she has been herself.

On Thursday the strain of responsibility for a state that has been all but brought to its knees told on Ms Bligh.

Having spoken of bodies being found in the wreckage of homes, cars and in flooded rivers in Toowoomba and the Lockyer Valley, Ms Bligh, whose mother had to be rescued from her Brisbane home on Wednesday, shed tears as she assured all Queenslanders they would not be forgotten.

And she did so with a forgivable touch of Bjelke-Petersen parochialism and a dash of "We shall never surrender" Churchillian spirit.

"As we weep for what we have lost, and as we grieve for family and friends and we confront the challenge that is before us, I want us to remember who we are," she said.

"We are Queenslanders.

"We're the people that they breed tough, north of the border.

"We're the ones that they knock down, and we get up again."

For the premier who, in a political sense, had been all but knocked down before the floods, her performance during this crisis will have done a lot to earn the support of her state.

HOW TO MAKE A DONATION FOR QUEENSLAND

Make a secure online donation to the Australian Floods Fund at www.redcross.org.nz/donate

Send a cheque (payable to New Zealand Red Cross) to: Red Cross Australian Floods Fund, Freepost 232690, PO Box 12140, Thorndon, Wellington 6144.

Give directly to the Queensland Government "Premier's Disaster Relief Appeal" at any New Zealand Gloria Jean's Coffee House, till month's end.

Make a donation at any branch of the ANZ or National Bank.

Give via internet banking into either of the following accounts:

ANZ

Account name: ANZ (NZ) Australian Floods Appeal

Account number: 01-1839-0224522-00

The National Bank

Account name: National Bank Australian Floods Appeal

Account number: 06-0507-217129-00

- Brisbane Times, AAP and SMH

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