Australia: Thousands of people devastated by Queensland floods

As the fallout continues from the February floods in Australia that paralysed entire towns and cities, severely affected the lives of thousands of residents and killed at least 23 people, it is only now that the full extent of the damage in southeast Queensland is starting to become apparent.

In this photo provided by the Fraser Coast Regional Council, water floods streets and houses in Maryborough, Australia, Monday, Feb. 28, 2022. (Queensland Fire and Emergency Services via AP) [AP Photo]

Of the 188 suburbs in the state capital Brisbane, 129 have been affected by this year’s floods, 35 more than in the last flood disaster to hit the city in 2011. People in the low-lying areas of the regional cities of Gympie and Maryborough were also deluged by record rains.

In addition to the estimated damage bill now surpassing $2 billion, nearly 150,000 insurance claims have been submitted to date in both flood-affected states. Queensland residents have filed twice as many claims as those in New South Wales (NSW), where some of the worst record-breaking floods took place.

In Queensland, the meagre post-flood response has left thousands of people in dire straits. Suncorp, a major insurance company, has had 38,000 disaster claims lodged, a number expected to rise to 45,000.

Remarking on the extent of this year’s floods, Suncorp chief executive Steve Johnston said: “The scale of it is something we haven’t seen before. It’s bigger than the [Queensland] 2011 floods, Cyclone Yasi, the Townsville floods, and Cyclone Debbie combined.”

Flood insurance policies will also impact negatively on residents struggling to recover, even if they could afford insurance. In most cases, policyholders residing in flood zones are risk-rated and made to pay higher premiums. Almost invariably, these are working-class people who cannot afford to move to less flood-prone areas, due to soaring property prices.

A comment from one Twitter user gave a picture of the desperation that many working people face. Because of the lack of alternative housing, she had shifted to the regional city of Bundaberg. “Yep, just moved to Bundaberg as flood destroyed everything now no housing available. My son has baby due in 3 months, the wait for public housing around Brisbane is now 10 years. My partner died in his sleep at the start of flooding. 28 years together. Now homeless at 58.”

In the western Brisbane suburb of Ipswich, resident Peter Harding told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that in the street where he lived, the few residents still in their houses had to share a single power outlet, and two working toilets. Portable toilets initially brought in by emergency services had been removed.

Harding described how working-class residents had to fight for financial support from the government while surviving on crowd-funding from neighbours and friends. While three types of grants are available under the federal and state-funded Personal Hardship Assistance scheme, all are means-tested and make many residents ineligible. Individuals and couples earning more than $50,000 or $70,000 a year, respectively, are unable to apply unless they have one child or more, which increases the eligibility threshold.

The crisis has further exposed the failure of governments, both Labor and Liberal-National, to respond effectively to the 2011 floods and the other disasters that have followed it.

In 2014, a technical study was released by the then Liberal-National state government that proposed three solutions for upgrading Brisbane’s flood defences: raising the wall of the Wivenhoe Dam by four metres, a new dam in Linville, northwest of Brisbane, with a third of Wivenhoe’s capacity, or an alternative dam in Willowbank in the southwest with a capacity of one-tenth.

In spite of the merits of each solution, the current Labor state government has not revisited the proposals, setting the stage for what could have become another catastrophe at Wivenhoe, which overflowed in 2011. During this year’s floods, water levels at the dam rose from nearly 60 percent capacity on February 24 to over 180 percent in just three days. That was faster than during the 2011 floods and just short of the 190 percent capacity reached in that year.

The building of more houses on high-risk Brisbane flood plains despite public opposition has also brought into relief the influence of property developers on government policy. In 2014, City Plan 2034, a major redevelopment plan for Brisbane called for additional properties to be built on the city’s flood plains for the next 20 years.

Nationally, a report released in January by Deloitte revealed that 97 percent of funds for natural disasters were spent on recovery and cleaning up, with only 3 percent invested in preparation and mitigation.

In a statement, 37 former fire and emergency service chiefs accused the federal Liberal-National government of failing to prepare for the impacts of climate change and reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Former commissioner of Fire & Rescue NSW Greg Mullins said the government had not implemented recommendations from a royal commission into natural disasters after the 2019–20 bushfire catastrophe.

He said the government was “failing communities right around the country impacted by this disaster, and the thousands of emergency service volunteers and professionals who willingly place their own lives in danger by responding to increasingly frequent and dangerous climate-fuelled disasters.”

As in the northern NSW city of Lismore, many people found themselves isolated during the floods and were left largely to fend for themselves, including undertaking their own rescues from rising floodwaters, unable to contact emergency services.

Flood victims have noted the lack of support and assistance for them, while the Morrison government, backed by the Labor Party, is quickly shipping hundreds of millions of dollars in lethal weapons to Ukraine to contribute to the US-NATO intervention against Russia.