How the Queensland Floods Brought a Nation Together

I love a sunburnt country,
A land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges,
Of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons,
I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror –
The wide brown land for me!

These words, well known to most Australians, were penned over a century ago by poet Dorothea Mackellar at age 19. These days there is a scientific explanation for Australia’s infamous “droughts and flooding rains”.

It’s called the El Niño-La Niña effect – a weather phenomenon that affects other Pacific rim countries as well. El Niño brings the dry, hot weather and La Niña brings the rain – and plenty of it. It’s nothing new though scientists warn that climate change is likely to bring more extremes, making heat and droughts and floods more prevalent and more severe.

In December I moved back to Australia after nearly seven years living abroad, first in London and then San Francisco. For the past few weeks I’ve been glued to the 24-hour news channel watching the Queensland flood crisis unfold, and then further flooding in New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania. While I’m safe and dry in Sydney, like many Australians, I have family and friends in Queensland. Thankfully they are all fine but thousands of others were not as lucky. We are use to “flooding rains” every so often, but the flood crisis in Queensland has been truly epic.

Three-quarters of Queensland has been declared a flood disaster zone. That is no small area – Queensland has a land mass twice the size of Texas or five times the size of the United Kingdom. Throughout the state, entire townships have been wiped out as rivers burst their banks or torrential downpours brought flash floods. In the south-eastern corner, the central business district and many suburbs of Brisbane – home to two million people – were submerged last week in the city’s worst flood since the 1970s.

Queensland grows a lot of Australia’s food but much of the produce was washed away where it lay in the fields, or sat rotting on stranded trucks. The cleanup, described by Queensland Premier Anna Bligh as of “post-war proportions”, will cost billions and economists are saying the destruction of farms and mines and tourist facilities could wipe one full percentage point off the national GDP.

The environmental cost is also huge. Large numbers of wild animals lost their lives in the floods. The floods carried away precious top soil and mixed it up with human debris and toxic chemicals, which has been dumped into waterways flowing to the southern states or out to sea. Much of it has blanketed the delicate eco-system of Great Barrier Reef, threatening the health of the coral reefs and other marine life. To prevent future floods, the state government is considering building more levees and dams to protect townships in flood zones.

Yet as bad as it’s been, I’ve never felt more proud to be an Australian. The human response has been fantastic. As I watched footage of people huddling on the roofs of their houses or clustered in evacuation centers, I recalled scenes from New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The Queensland floods were collectively bigger but in contrast to the New Orleans experience, government has played its part perfectly.

The response of the emergency services was highly effective and citizens were kept informed with clear, up-to-date information. Bligh, the state premier, gave televised press conferences every two hours for days and was on top of her game. She didn’t give the fine-sounding motherhood statements so beloved by politicians, instead delivering hard details about what had happened, what was happening and what was likely to happen. She did so without notes and usually without referring questions to the State Emergency Service or the police because she knew what was going on. The federal government also stepped in early, contributing Australian defense personnel to the crisis management and clean-up effort, and Prime Minister Julia Gillard announcing emergency welfare payments to people and businesses affected by the floods.

What impressed me most was the community spirit. We didn’t see scenes of looting but instead footage of people helping one another. Strangers came together to help move property to higher ground before it was claimed by flood waters. They turned out in their hundreds to stack sandbags in front of homes and shops in an effort to stave off the floodwaters. Our former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, himself a Brisbane-ite, mucked in just like everyone else, wading through muddy flood waters with residents’ suitcases on his head.

It’s not all rosy, of course. The determination to rebuild towns on flood plains is misguided. We’re still clearing forest and mangroves. And the long history of flooding means that no one wants to look seriously about what climate scientists are telling us about our future. There were howls of outrage when Greens leader Bob Brown sensibly suggested some of the taxes on the super-profits of the mining industry be diverted to a fund to deal with future natural disasters. Despite all this, I feel that the Australian spirit rose to the occasion beautifully.

The outpouring of concern and offers of help from around the world has been moving. But the fact is that Australia is a first-world country with a well-prepared emergency response system and enough wealth to help our citizens cope with their losses and rebuild essential infrastructure. As terrible as the floods have been, it’s impressive that our death toll stands at just 20 people. (Of course my heart goes out to the families of those 20 people but it could have been so much worse). There’s no false pride when we say we can look after our own.

It’s Brazil that needs your help right now.

Image: Kingbob86, NASA Goddard Photo and Video