The River

The Brisbane River, looping and curving through suburbs and high rises, drifting beneath bridges and nudging alongside parks, is Brisbane’s defining feature. It draws cyclists, dog walkers, coffee devotees, runners and lovers to its edges, and what it lacks in sparkle, as with Sydney’s harbours, it makes up for with its breadth and breeziness. Running over the Storey Bridge and along the floating walkway, I was one of many who believed that the riverside symbolised the city’s laidback tenor.

It was partly this insouciance, combined with a decade of drought that erased the memory of earlier flooding, that made the deluge of water such a shock. Even as flash floods in Toowoomba left people clinging to telephone poles and cars stacked against one another, crowds were gathering along the Brisbane River with their cameras and umbrellas (for it was raining still) to watch water swell against its banks.

With only the increasingly sensationalised media reports and a fevered imagination for company, and not wanting to be cut off from my sister by a creek that would definitely flood, I packed my favourite frocks, boots, handbags, novels and journals into a backpack and decamped to her place.

‘Did you seriously bring all that shit?’ she commented, seeing it spill over the floor as I unpacked.

‘As if I would leave my Collette Dinnigan dress behind!’ I returned. ‘And my Spencer and Rutherford handbags, and my red stiletto boots from London!’

I was told I was an idiot.

The power was cut off at 3pm, so we went for a walk to look at the flooded creek. I had gone for a run that morning, and the paths upon which I had pounded were now covered in water. It crept insidiously over the foothpaths and road, while ants ran along drainpipes to find dry land.  A father rode his bike through through the water, followed by his small son who clearly struggled as the water came up to his knees.  The father didn’t lift a finger to help.  Men in 4WDs and Range Rovers drove their vehicles through the water to shore up their brawn.  Sister and I sniggered.  The sun came out for what seemed like the first time in weeks, and burnt me in a hour.

Evening fell and, tired from adrenalin caused by said overheated mind and a general apprehension of the unknown, and having no light by which to read, I went to bed early.

My brother-in-law, being ex-army, was thrilled by all the drama, and on Thursday he was disappointed to find that the river wouldn’t approach the same levels as the 1974 flood. Sister and I wandered off for a coffee at the local cafe, which was heaving and had run out of soy milk. A lady before us who also wanted soy went off to the shops, and came back with more, and I was a happy bunny again. I was even happier to get back home to power, a hot shower and internet.

My inconveniences were tiny compared to those whose homes had filled with muddy water and sewerage.  I went for a cycle on Friday around Docklands and New Farm and was dismayed and saddened by the streets piled with stained couches, chairs and general detritus. Volunteers were shovelling mud from the streets, New Farm Park was silted up and attended to by waterbirds, Sydney Street ferry had crumpled and a boat had mounted the boardwalk at Docklands. A marshy smell lingered in the air, reminding me of floods on our property when I was child.

Subsequent reportage has indicated the folly of allowing houses to be built on what are flood plains.  In addition, Antony Funnell points out how gentrification and greater urban density has meant that traditional Queenslanders, built on stilts, are now being renovated and closed in. The stilts were to allow houses to be built into Brisbane’s hills, and to keep the upper levels dry during floods. After a decade without Dorothea Mackellar’s “steady, soaking rain”, people had forgotten to build for Brisbane’ climate.

Then there is the controversy relating to the management of Wivenhoe Dam, which is facing questions of whether more water should have been released prior to the flooding, and if the failure to do this in a timely way was in fact the cause of Brisbane’s floods. While the dam management was undertaken in a complex and increasingly stressful situation, there were also several warnings from the Bureau of Meterology in the previous months about flooding. By the same token, having come out of this decade of drought, the decision to release precious drinking water would have had to be undertaken by someone ‘with very large balls‘. However, the lack of foresight extends beyond this, to a national level. As Germaine Greer writes in a surprisingly lucid article, the pattern of drought and flooding, of the interchange of El Nino and La Nina, has been well documented in Australian history. Given this, she notes, ‘the rest of the world might well be scratching its head’ as to why more wasn’t done, why boats remains moored as the Brisbane River rose, why we have so readily relinquished our precious topsoil. It seems to be, as one person wrote in the comments, that we are ‘living in a disaster prone country with mediocre approach to problem solving’.

Thus the blame game begins to gather momentum. Should home owners be held responsible for their lack of foresight in buying near the river, creeks or on the floodplains? Or should developers (such as Mirvac, who built the flooded Tennyson Reach and misinformed buyers of the risks from flooding) be held accountable? Or should we hold local government to task, for rushing to accommodate Brisbane’s growing population with poor town-planning? Or should the management of Wivenhoe Dam be culpable? What is clear is that there needs to be more awareness of Brisbane’s environment, as demonstrated on an intimate level by the original inhabitants of the area, the Jagera and Turrbal people, who were supported by the river’s abundance of fish, shellfish, crabs and shrimps, and who lived with the environment rather than attempting to control it. Although such symbiosis is largely impractical in contemporary society, it does flag a more responsive relationship to the land which might have been useful in avoiding the floods.

While politicians squabble over funding for rebuilding, and Tony Abbott feebly attempts to hijack the floods to derail the NBN, the community has responded overwhelmingly. Queues for volunteers stretched around the blocks and were eventually turned away, clothing companies are donating 20% of profits and Queensland’s writers are banding together to donate books, workshops and manuscript assessments. If any readers are after a copy of A Curious Intimacy, and would like to donate at the same time, visit here.  Also up for bids are manuscript assessments, performances, and a plethora of wonderful books. Please give freely and generously to add to your library and to help those who have been affected by the floods. Bidding closes at 11pm Brisbane time on Monday 24th January.

As the city struggles to restore itself, we are forced to revise our impressions of the Brisbane River. No longer does it seem a benign and beautiful feature of a carefree city. Rather, it is a force of which, having the capacity to wipe out life and livelihood, we should be wary. We would do well to remember its dormant power.

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