Queensland Starts to Clean Up After the Floods

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Mick Tsikas / Reuters

Volunteers sweep mud behind a flood-damaged store in Ipswich, Australia, on Jan. 14, 2011

In the early hours of Jan. 12, Paul Pisasale, the mayor of Ipswich, saw the Bremer River swallow 43 streets, flush out 1,100 residents and inundate 3,000 homes. Refrigerators, soggy mattresses and children's toys all became flotsam on the watery streets of the small town west of Brisbane, Australia, while evacuees waited for the waters to recede.

Throughout the past week, Ipswich residents have gradually returned to their drenched possessions and sludge-filled homes. An army of volunteers, including sports stars and politicians, have helped with the cleanup and attempted to lift spirits. Even celebrity chef Jamie Oliver offered free meals to the devastated town. "I have seen people whose homes have been flooded help clear up the homes of their neighbors," says Pisasale. "I have heard people who have had their livelihoods washed away on the streets saying, 'I lost everything, but there are other people worse off than me.' "

As roads have reopened, the state of Queensland has started to recover from its worst floods in decades, a process that will take years and cost billions of dollars. According to the Australian, the death toll stands at 33, but that number will creep up. Ten people have been missing for the past week, and hopes for their safe return are slim. As floods are now sweeping through Australia's southeastern state of Victoria, the people of Queensland are beginning to ask if this disaster was avoidable.

On Jan. 17, Queensland's premier, Anna Bligh, launched a yearlong commission of inquiry into the floods to determine what measures could have been taken to prevent them or lessen their impact. It will examine all aspects of the disaster, from the adequacy of weather warnings to the effectiveness of the emergency services. "The last three weeks have been truly shocking for all Queenslanders, and now is the time to forensically examine the devastating chain of events and the aftermath," Bligh said in a statement.

A key subject of the investigation will be the adequacy of the Wivenhoe Dam, which was built as a response to the Brisbane floods of 1974. The dam swelled to 191% capacity before workers released water from it. According to experts, it was not far from blowing its fuse-wall plugs. "I want to know why the dam was allowed to get so full," says Andrew Dragun, an adjunct professor of economics at Queensland's Australian Rivers Institute of Griffith University. If the dam's operators were aware of the weather predictions, he asks, why wasn't more water released?

South East Queensland (SEQ) Water Grid, the public utility that oversees the dam, has been tight-lipped on its emergency strategy. A spokeswoman from SEQ Water Grid told Fairfax Media that its strategy was not "a publicly available document, and is owned and operated by SEQ Water Grid." Dragun and others disapprove of this secrecy, given the fact that more rain is expected to be on the way. "We need to know what's going on," he says. "We have a wet few months ahead of us."

The forecast for Australia's economy is also less than promising. An analyst from the Australia New Zealand (ANZ) Banking Group predicts that rebuilding costs could run as high as $20 billion. The figure is based on Bligh's statement that 28,000 homes will need to be rebuilt, combined with the costs of refurbishing businesses and repairing the damage to infrastructure. "It's a worst-case scenario," says Warren Hogan, the chief economist at ANZ. "We are hoping that the reconstruction bill won't run that high." Even if it doesn't, losses due to the pause in production in the coal industry are predicted to be as high as $2.3 billion, and the ruined harvest from flooded properties is expected to push food prices up in the coming months.

Assessing the environmental damage caused by the floods is similarly complicated. Large quantities of freshwater alone can lead to coral bleaching, but the plumes of freshwater that flow into the sea from flooded rivers and waterways in agricultural areas may contain nutrients, sediments and pesticides that can throw off the reef ecosystem. "The waters discharging from the Fitzroy River are now 60-70 km [37-43 miles] offshore," says Michelle Devlin, a water-quality scientist from Queensland's James Cook University. "In two or three years, we could be seeing a large outbreak of the crown-of-thorns starfish [a coral predator]." Previous floods from the Burdekin region of Queensland have coincided with destructive starfish outbreaks. "We are unsure of the scale of damage, simply because we have never seen this much floodwater enter the reef before," she says.

For now, the most salient concerns are for the flood-ravaged communities like Ipswich in the southeastern part of the state. Volunteers are still flocking to towns to help however they can, including by clearing garbage-strewn streets or simply preparing food for those who need it. Pisasale, for his part, is moved by their efforts. "I used to say that Ipswich was big enough to make a difference, but small enough to care," he says. "Now I think that's true of the whole country.

Still, the mayor has seen another, less pleasant side of the community: a handful of individuals he refers to as "morons" and "parasites." Among them are the looters who took advantage of the chaos after the disaster, 15 of whom have been charged in Ipswich alone. He also refers to the shop owners who charged $10 for milk when food in supermarkets was running out. "I'll make sure they'll have 10 years of roadwork outside their stores," quips Pisasale.

For now, alongside other cities in the region, Pisasale is trying to focus on rebuilding. "We need to get the rubbish out of everyone's lives. We need to give people without insurance emotional support," he says. "In the end, this is going to make us a lot stronger as a city."