We like to think that what makes us different from the rest of the animal kingdom is that we can use reasoned thought and conjecture the future – all good head stuff. However, let us reflect on the premise that we make more decisions guided by the heart rather than the head. Consider this:
Where does a pioneer make a camp, if they have a choice? By the creek or the river! This trait is part of the Australian heritage and deep within the cultural genetic makeup. We want to get as close as possible to the water’s edge. That is driven by the heart and not the head. Getting large parts of the city to vacate or withdraw from potential flood plains is unlikely to happen. Even those who have a choice keep returning to flood prone locations.
We do the things we do because we can, or can afford. While to various individuals the flood losses are painful, the reality is that we are a prosperous consumer nation that can afford it. What was thrown away as flood damaged goods would have been salvaged in most of the rest of the world. To us as a country or a city, a once in even 30 years major flood is wearable. A depressing thought perhaps, but economists acknowledge that the flood and storm wreckage will be good for the GDP. And if we end up with national compulsory disaster insurance, why worry? Just make the occasional claim.
Bad as January was, do we really want to make radical changes? Brisbane River does not flood with predictable regularity for a compelling case to be made for major redesign. And I suggest that nothing could have been done to stop Grantham being washed away. Perhaps we do have to seriously accommodate the concept of ‘an act of God’.
Instead of replanning the city and withdrawing way up the banks, we should consider building ‘enduring quality’. How many will reline their walls and ceilings with plasterboard – again? My son’s older house got flooded too. After a good scrub, the 75mm hardwood floor boards are as good as before. The VJ wall linings are almost untouched. The fibrous plaster walls merely need repainting. The biggest writeoff was anything with chip board or mdf and hollow core doors.
How far do you go in protecting people against their own sense of denial. We now know almost as much as there is to know about how to build to withstand cyclonic conditions. Much of that knowledge is in mandatory building requirements. No house less than 30 years old should lose its roof, windows, suffer structural damage or storm surge inundation. Much of that knowledge can also be applied to older buildings as well. Yet, people find ways of dodging the sensible action – deciding with the heart and hope rather than the head. And many of us will readily continue doing that.
Brisbane is a very young city with a short history and collective memory. It might take more floods at shorter intervals and a few hundred years to instigate and motivate alternative ways of doing things. European cities with more frequent and extreme river level fluctuations often build walls to the river banks as in Arles (France) along the Rhone River. In Oporto (Portugal), the city has slowly raised and paved the banks of the Douro as well as stepped the building line back, using very durable materials.
The current orthodoxy is to let the market decide. Why not let the market decide how it wants to deal with a river that occasionally misbehaves.