Q Weekend 13.01.11 Aerials of Brisbane Floods from Channel 9 Helicopter.
Q Weekend 13.01.11 Aerials of Brisbane Floods from Channel 9 Helicopter. "Qld University St Lucia, Fairfield in foreground...picture: Russell Shakespeare Picture: Shakespeare Russell

Brisbane floods: why you haven’t seen anything yet

BRISBANE will flood again, the protection offered by Wivenhoe Dam is a "myth'' and the next disaster will be far worse because we continue to build on a flood plain, according to a new book on the Brisbane River.

A River With A City Problem, by Queensland historian Dr Margaret Cook, gives extraordinary insights into the extent of flooding in Brisbane across three centuries.

Dr Cook said we had not learnt simple lessons, not bothered to make the required planning changes and land resumptions after the 1974 floods, and had continued to build on the flood plain after the 2011 disaster.

The 2011 floods are still subject to litigation, with a flood victims' class action in the New South Wales Supreme Court by law firm Maurice Blackburn against Seqwater, Sunwater and the State Government expected to be finalised by the end of the year.

The class action, representing up to 6000 victims, is built around the proposition that Wivenhoe and Somerset dams were allowed to fill with water during the January 2011 deluge.

The flood gates were then alleged to be opened at the height of the flood, causing hundreds of millions of dollars in damage.

Dr Cook disputed the idea that any dam could floodproof Brisbane, which would always be subject to massive flooding events.

Even the explorer John Oxley, who sailed up the Brisbane River in 1823, had noted evidence of massive flooding on his second expedition.

But Dr Cook said that ­Europeans, "with notions of human superiority over nature'' believed they could manage the river.

"We have an unrealistic belief in the idea that Wivenhoe Dam will protect us from floods,'' she said. "It is a myth.''

The Brisbane City skyline during the 2011 floods. Picture: Russell Shakespeare
The Brisbane City skyline during the 2011 floods. Picture: Russell Shakespeare

Dr Cook said that even after 1974, the state refused to recognise the reality of river flooding.

"Successive state governments were heavily dependent on property changes as an economic stimulant, creating an interdependence of government, political parties, industry, developers and unions who all backed, or at least did not question, flood plain development,'' Dr Cook said.

"Interstate migration only exacerbated the problem as the collective memory of the state was diluted, and Queenslanders became increasingly unaware of the inherent risk of flooding in a subtropical environment.

The river came into its own in 1987 when then mayor Sallyanne Atkinson declared the "Year of the River''.

Subsequent events, including then mayor Jim Soorley's determined push (against strong opposition inside the Brisbane City Council) for the now popular CityCats firmly established the waterway as the city's centrepiece.

This boat owners helped other residents salvage some goods from their flooded homes during Brisbane’s 1974 floods.
This boat owners helped other residents salvage some goods from their flooded homes during Brisbane’s 1974 floods.

With that, Dr Cook suggests, came the vague notion in our minds that the river was not only our collective friend, but one permanently tamed by the creation of that rock-and-earth wall sitting 80km above Brisbane, which can hold back 3.132 million megalitres of water

Designed by the then Water Resources Commission and built in 1984, the Wivenhoe Dam has been something of a talisman for the city, even after its promise of protection rang hollow in 2011.

Glen Middleton returns to his house in his flooded street in Graceville during the 2011 floods.
Glen Middleton returns to his house in his flooded street in Graceville during the 2011 floods.

Accusations of the culpability of the dam engineers are still part of the class action in a New South Wales court hearing expected to be finalised by the end of this year.

But putting accusation and counter accusation aside, Dr Cook said the city must accept that no dam can save it from flooding.

"What happened in the floods of 2011 was, in effect, two 1974 flood events at once,'' she said. "You cannot empty a dam fast enough for that. It is not simply possible.''

Dr Cook said people had developed amnesia about the power of Brisbane's defining geographic characteristic.

She said Brisbane must flood again, and the amount of devastation that the flood caused was up to us.

"If we could find the courage to make the systemic changes needed to allow us to live with floods, then we might foster a harmonious relationship with the Brisbane River, as the Turrbal and Jagera people have for centuries. Perhaps, in time, we will accept that it is a river with a city problem and not the other way around.''



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