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Disaster narratives: Flooding in Townsville

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An aerial view of the devastation caused by floods in Townsville (Screenshot via YouTube)

Dr Binoy Kampmark takes a look at the good, bad and politically ugly side of the Townsville flooding disaster.

IT ALMOST NEVER HAPPENS. The north Queensland town of Townsville finds itself wedged in a rain shadow. The location with a military base, at the forefront of Australia’s Pacific campaign during the Second World War, is melanoma-inducing with sunniness, its often excruciatingly humid weather teasing residents about a deluge that rarely comes — except in violent sequences occasioned by cyclonic weather. Towns to the north and south tend to get the saturation benefits.

Not this time. Monsoonal misbehaviour has affected the region with devastating decisiveness. The town is being drenched to biblical proportions with more than a metre of rain falling in just one week, more than 20 times the annual average, surpassing the record set in 1998. Parts of Townsville previously untouched by flooding are now submerged and attempting to keep above water.

The river banks have burst with ferocity. The authorities decided to release the water on Sunday to ease further flooding by, paradoxically enough, opening the damns. Such is the logic in disasters: how best to spare what you can and hope that the damage will, in some way, be arrested. 

The disruption has seen the deaths of two men, the destruction of livestock, property and homes and, not to be forgotten, a violent disturbance to the ecosystem. Animals more accustomed to riverbank existences have found themselves in suburban backyards and on highways. 

Queensland’s Minister for Environment Leeanne Enoch found herself on Monday having to make a statement on the dislocation caused by the floods on snakes and crocodiles, remaining, for the most part, sensible in her sober assessment.

“Crocodiles prefer calmer water and they move around in search of a quiet place for floodwaters to recede.” 

Importantly, “be Crocwise in Croc Country.”  They might end up in farm dams or waterholes; they might be in bodies of unidentified water.  Snakes, similarly, “are very good swimmers and they, too, may turn up unexpectedly.”

Disasters can also be boons — one person’s flood is another’s parching salvation.

Cloncurry Mayor Greg Campbell expressed:

“...great relief to the community. The old-timers always say the only way to break a drought is with a flood.” 

A salient reminder, in fact, that Queensland presents a small-scale laboratory of global climate disruption, a state that can host murderous bushfires, devastating coral bleaching, crippling drought, cyclonic assaults and, now, huge flooding phenomena.

Crudely, disaster stories will also lead to an outing of the closet voyeur, the relishing disaster fetishist. The seriousness will be lessened by sampling interviews of locals, played selectively on international news networks to mocking amusement. Videos will be placed on Facebook with needlessly dramatic tension, run to music to give the impression that we are readying for a Hollywood entrance. Having a crocodile swim into a playground or a backyard previously bone dry is hilarious, isn’t it? Standby, take a shot and distribute it through Twitter and Facebook. Sharing is caring. 

Then there is the chance for a photo moment, ideal for politicians hostile to grace and substance. Advertising stalwart Prime Minister Scott Morrison was on hand to do so, making sure to shoot up and sport the camouflage outfit of serving soldiers as he did his snap rounds of pastoral care. (It was merely a jacket, but the impression was noted, as have previous efforts with jerseys, shoes, and hats.) Stationed in amphibious transport, he could be seen, as if assessing a zone strafed by enemy aircraft, motoring along to the army base. Not one to resist bombast is the Australian Prime Minister.

When asked about the issue of Queensland’s weather events that have filled the register of records, Morrison preferred the non-committal vanilla option and climate change would not pass his lips: 

“I’m not engaging in broader policy debates today. I’m engaging in the needs of people on the ground, people in evacuation centres. With some trepidation, going back into their homes and finding what they’re going to find. That’s what I’m focused on today, not politics.”

Meaningless, trite terms were offered. The locals could congratulate themselves — they had kept things intact, for the most part, and remained assured and self-supportive.

The man from the Canberra bubble was proud at such efforts — at the very least, he could draw some worth from them: 

“The fact that people are safe today here in Townsville, I think, is an extraordinary achievement and something that the people of Townsville can pat themselves on the back on.”

The more serious note here is the sheer helplessness of the human species before the dictates of the planet’s weather patterns. This is not so much Nero fiddling as Nero utterly indifferent before the disasters that are mounting. The Queensland Government and, for that matter, the Morrison Government in Canberra, have demonstrated no interest or capacity to respond to these punchy serves of Mother Nature. King Coal still sits on the throne and political valets are in a rush to provide assistance and encouragement.

As Professor Ian Lowe, a member of the Queensland Climate Advisory Council surmises:

“There isn’t yet the sense of urgency that there should be, either in adaptation, or in mitigation.”

But Australia’s leaders can wear camouflage jackets in the face of flood — that’s at least something to offer the locals cheer. 

Dr Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.  Email: bkampmark@gmail.com

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