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February 2022 Flood Reflections 3 - Key Infrastructure and Services are Too Vulnerable

Originally published on social media on 8 March, 2022

Recent floods have shown very clearly that Brisbane’s key public infrastructure, services and systems are far less resilient to flooding and other climate change-related disasters than they need to be.

The Brisbane River flood peak in the CBD on 28/02/2022 was 3.85 metres. In contrast, the 2011 flood peak was around 4.5 metres, the 1974 flood peak was 5.45 metres, and back in February 1893, floodwaters peaked in Brisbane at a whopping 8.35 metres. (There are several other major floods in the historical record for anyone who cares to look)

Placed in this historical context, this latest flood was nowhere near as severe as it could’ve been (although I should note that the added combination of significant creek flooding meant that many areas were affected more seriously than in 2011).

While technically classed as a ‘major’ flood event, this was a relatively moderate flood compared to what the river is capable of (particularly considering the added uncertainty of global warming and the increased likelihood of severe weather). Despite this, a lot of significant public and private infrastructure was detrimentally affected.

We’ve seen a lot of commentary about the electricity infrastructure, and it’s now quite obvious that all levels of government have failed to ensure that key pieces of both public and private power infrastructure were raised above the flood level after 2011. More than a week since the floods, hundreds of Brisbane residents are still without power in a context where better planning and design of electricity infrastructure could have allowed power to be restored much faster in several areas.

But there are lots of other kinds of infrastructure and services that also proved to be very flood-vulnerable...

For example, Brisbane City Council contracts out its general household waste collection services to the private company SUEZ. While I haven’t personally visited the site, I'm told one of SUEZ’s main service centres, where garbage trucks are serviced, refuelled and stored overnight, is located in flood-prone Rocklea along a low-lying stretch of the Ipswich Motorway.

Last week, floodwaters cut off access to the site, meaning SUEZ workers couldn’t get into the site to get the garbage trucks. If the waters had risen much higher, all the trucks themselves could have been flooded too, which really would have stuffed up the recovery and clean-up.

For residents across the city who are wondering why your garbage collection was missed last Monday or Tuesday even though your own neighbourhood wasn’t affected by flooding, the answer seems to be that the garbage truck depot itself nearly went underwater.

In fact, lots of other important stuff tends to be located in our city’s lower-lying floodplains. Large parts of Rocklea, and other flood-prone areas like Albion and the low side of Woolloongabba, were historically developed as warehouse and industrial land uses rather than residential, in large part because of their flood vulnerability. This means a lot of the trades, services and heavy equipment that a city needs for recovery in the weeks immediately after a flood are themselves very heavily affected by flooding.

Even the Brisbane Markets (aka Rocklea Markets), the city’s largest distribution hub for fresh produce, is on low-lying land near Oxley Creek. This time around, the market site lost power around 10am on the Saturday (well before the city’s flood peak the following Monday morning) and was flooded and out of action for several days.

Thousands of pallets of fresh produce were lost either due to water damage or because the industrial refrigerators lost power. We’re talking tonnes and tonnes and tonnes of wasted food at this one site. The stock losses suffered by individual supermarkets due to power-cuts elsewhere in the city were tiny compared to this.

Brisbane’s stormwater system is supposed to be completely separate from the sewerage system (which, in theory, is fully enclosed), but as often as a couple of times per year, during heavy rain, heaps of stormwater gets into the sewerage network via a range of channels, flooding the whole system...

Sewer lid covers in low-lying areas pop open, spewing shit and toilet paper into the street. Residential sewer pipes back up and overflow, spilling watery poop across backyards and under houses. And of course the sewage treatment plants are completely overwhelmed by the volume of poo-contaminated water flowing through the pipes, and have to release hundreds of thousands of litres of poo water directly into local creeks, the river and Moreton Bay.

Even though it’s heavily diluted, the fact that floodwaters and mud deposits are partially contaminated with faecal matter then becomes a major potential health issue even after the rain stops.

I could go on with a much longer list…

There’s the really obvious stuff like the flooded bridges and bikeways, the damaged ferry terminals, and dozens of sets of traffic lights failing due to flooded power boxes (which was a contributing factor behind many of the 30 serious car crashes Brisbane saw during the flood).

And there’s the stuff that’s less obvious to most residents, like the fact that flood damage to bus drivers’ toilets and rest areas caused avoidable delays in restoring bus services, even well after the roads were cleared of water and mud (right now the drivers who take their breaks at Orleigh Park are using portaloos).

It’s worth mentioning that one of Brisbane City Council’s main bus depots, the Sherwood depot, was also cut off by flooding (residents previously objected to the depot being established at the Sherwood location in part due to concerns about flood vulnerability).

And let’s not forget one of the most frustratingly stupid and obvious issues: the council only has four sandbag depots for the entire city. One of these depots – Newmarket – is itself partially vulnerable to stormwater flooding, and was taken out of action by the storm on Sunday, 27 February.

Every time there’s a risk of severe storms and flooding, thousands of residents from both the eastern suburbs and the inner-south side drive for several kilometres and queue up in both directions along Wynnum Rd to pick up sandbags from the Redfern Street depot on Morningside.

Myself and a few other councillors have been raising concerns about this for years, but still haven’t seen a shift from the LNP. You’d think locating sandbag depots closer to areas that are known to be highly vulnerable to flooding (such as the Deshon Street side of Woolloongabba) would be a no-brainer, but apparently not.

The broad point to all this is that despite the relatively recent experience of the 2011 floods, our city still has a long, long way to go in ensuring that key infrastructure and services can continue functioning (or at least bounce back quickly) during floods.

We are certainly going to experience more floods in future, potentially including events where the water rises higher or flows faster, and where heavy rain is accompanied by high-speed destructive winds.

Our city is nowhere near ready for this.

We’ve just had a wake-up call that we urgently need to listen to. If a single, comparatively modest flood like this one can cause so much disruption, a bigger flood will really mess us up.

We need to build resilience, and we need to take further action to address catastrophic climate change (e.g. stop approving new coal mines) before things get even worse.

Hopefully we take away the right lessons this time around...

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