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February 2022 Flood Reflections 2 - The Poor Were Hardest Hit

Originally published on social media on 8 March, 2022

Ok so this should be obvious to most people by now, but I wanted to say it really clearly for those up the back who aren't paying attention... Even within flood-prone suburbs, poorer/lower-income residents have (in general) been much more seriously affected by Brisbane's floods than wealthier residents.

After the 2011 floods, some big changes happened along low-lying residential streets in West End like Ryan Street and Orleigh Street. Lots of houses were absolutely trashed by that flood. Some owners had the money to rebuild (often because they had good insurance), while others who couldn't afford to rebuild just sold up to wealthier buyers who did have the money for major renovations.

One way or another, most (but not all) of the worst-affected West End homes were raised higher, with all habitable areas raised above the 1974 flood level, leaving only easy-to-hose-off concrete carports at ground level. So after the February 2022 flood, many of these properties lost a bit of old furniture that was stored in their garages, and had to cope without power for several days, but the impact was nowhere near as severe as ten years ago.

The same seems to have happened in many other parts of the city. Over the past decade, almost all wealthier owners have spent big money (sometimes taking advantage of various government grants) to build higher. This probably also reduced their insurance premiums.

In contrast, poorer residents who couldn't afford to raise their homes kept paying much higher insurance premiums, or were completely uninsured. In suburbs like West End, East Brisbane and Fairfield, a very high proportion of the properties that hadn't been raised (and thus flooded again) were older investment properties rented out to lower-income tenants.

We're gradually building a list of homes in our area that were so badly flooded this time around that the residents couldn't move back in (i.e. they became homeless). So far in the inner-city, it seems like they were all rentals. 

The situation is even worse in suburbs like Rocklea, an extremely floodprone area alongside Oxley Creek and Stable Swamp Creek (and also further out in Goodna, Ipswich etc). Many low-income long-term owner-occupier residents gave up paying flood insurance here years ago. They would sell if they could, but property values are so comparatively low in this area that they wouldn't have enough money to buy elsewhere in Brisbane. They also don't have a couple hundred thousand dollars on hand to raise and renovate their home.

In practical terms, the floods create a situation where poor residents are either displaced, or have to take time off work (potentially losing more income) to clean up their homes, while wealthier residents in the same streets can hose off and return to 'normal' life pretty quickly.

Some wealthier residents may even get a windfall out of this... For example, we saw one riverfront home in West End where the owners threw out thousands of dollars' worth of vintage wine from a flooded underground wine cellar and put it on the footpath for kerbside collection. The wine itself wasn't damaged, and some neighbours who scavenged it reported that it tasted amazing. But I'll bet the people who threw it out will be claiming the full value back through their insurance and will barely end up out of pocket.

I know some wealthier residents decided to go stay in hotels as soon as the power was cut off in their street, confident in the knowledge that even if their insurance company ends up refusing to pay for the hotel, they have enough savings to cover it.

I know all this is a bit of a generalisation. And I'm sure there are a few wealthier residents who've been really hit hard by these floods too, but the impacts have fallen most heavily on the poor.

This disparity overlaps and intersects with other forms of marginalisation and oppression. For example, we know that many people with disabilities and people for whom English is a second language will have a particularly hard time surviving and recovering from the floods, especially if they also don't have a lot of money. The psychological impact of feeling left behind and overlooked will be doubly traumatising.

For many residents in suburbs like Rocklea, the best outcome would be a new non-compulsory flood buyback scheme, where the council buys flood-affected homes at a higher value, giving the residents enough money to buy another home elsewhere while reclaiming more of the floodplain for green space and native habitat.

We also need to make sure we stop further floodplain development, because each new building in a low-lying area tends to push more floodwater somewhere else.

All this is important to keep in mind, because I expect that over the coming months, politicians, property developers, tourism companies etc will be eager to promote a narrative of how quickly the city has bounced back from the February floods.

They'll talk about how resilient we are, how the changes made after 2011 paid off, and how quickly life is 'getting back to normal.'

With an Olympics on the horizon, the establishment's preferred framing will be about how we all helped each other and 'got back on our feet' - that climate change is something we can learn to live with (even though climate disasters can get a lot worse than this one).

This narrative of resilience and recovery will ring true for many middleclass residents whose main experience of the floods is a few days of transport disruptions or power cuts (noting of course that prolonged power cuts are pretty hard to live with, particularly when your apartment has been designed to be heavily dependent on aircon, powered elevators etc).

The voices of those most severely affected will be left out of mainstream conversations, or only fleetingly engaged with simply as disaster porn/poverty porn.

We know that a lot of lower-income people who were made homeless by the 2019/2020 bushfires still don't have stable housing over two years later; the same will likely be true for these floods. But how much coverage will that get in the media 6 months or a year from now?

Over the coming months, there will be a lot of media stories of infrastructure being repaired and political leaders cutting ribbons on newly-completed projects that reinforce the myth of endless growth and progress.

We will have to work hard to continually remind one another that future flooding could be a lot worse, and that for some of the poorest among us, even these relatively moderate floods (moderate compared to what else the river is capable of) have been a life-changing disaster that will take years - not months - to recover from.

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