What was learned from Brisbane’s 2011 flood?
Most of Brisbane’s residents are familiar with the city’s 1974 flood. Peaking at 6.6 meters (22ft), the 74 flood destroyed 8,000 homes and claimed 16 lives.
Most residents of Australia are familiar with the 2011 floods, which affected 75% of Queensland, an area greater than France, Spain, and Portugal, combined.
This catastrophic disaster claimed 28,000 homes, 3,500 businesses and 28% of the Queensland rail network. 5,900 Queensland residents were evacuated from their homes and 33 people lost their lives.
Queensland’s 2011 floods were caused by heavy rain from tropical cyclone “Tasha” that joined with a trough during a La Niña event, all following record breaking amounts of Summer rain. Of the 18 recorded La Niña events since 1900, 12 have triggered flash flooding in parts of Australia.
While 37 years separate Brisbane’s 1974 and 2011 floods, the 2022 event comes just 11 years after it’s predecessor, which was agreed among many Brisbane locals as being a preventable disaster. But what happened this time?
On the 22nd of February, 2022, Higgins Storm Chasing issued a warning for a significant weather system, bringing dangerous storms with extreme rainfall that would likely lead to life threatening flash flooding.
As predicted, Queensland was hit by a slow moving low pressure trough on the 24th of February 2022. The system brought three days of heavy rain which triggered flash flooding in numerous regions of Queensland over the weekend of the 25th of February.
Over 300mm in 3 hours triggers flash flood in QLD – 25/02/2022
Wivenhoe Dam, South East Queensland’s largest water storage and the main supply of water for Brisbane, reached almost 180% capacity before releases into the Brisbane River were commenced at 4am on Sunday the 27th of February.
By Monday, seven people had been confirmed dead, while the State Emergency Services (SES) had received over 1000 calls for assistance, including more than 40 swift water rescue jobs.
With the flood water levels peaking during the high tides on Monday the 28th of February, experts declared that the worst of the event had passed – but it was far from over.
Rain continues throughout Southeast Queensland during the week, so water levels will not subside quickly. Residents currently remain stuck in their homes, or evacuated and awaiting the safer conditions to return and commence disaster recovery efforts.
While it’s no secret that Australia’s weather can be unpredictable, wild and dangerous, it’s hard to say that the Queensland Government was not aware of the imminent danger before disaster unfolded.
Members of the 235,000 strong, Higgins Storm Chasing community, raised the alarm on the 22nd of February 2022. Awareness was spread virally through mail alerts and social media, before the Queensland Government responded.
A press conference was held with Queensland Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk, on Friday the 25th of February. Flood warnings were given, but the Premier told Queenslander’s “not to worry”, as her team of experts had assured her that disaster would not strike Queensland.
Fast forward to Sunday and Premier Palaszczuk is giving another press conference to address the flood, now labelled as an emergency. During this conference, she again refers to her team of experts, who “could not have seen the event coming”, but who she also wanted to “provide Australians with a level of assurance.”
No honesty, nor sincerity could be heard in the Premier’s voice, or seen in her body language. She was, however, challenged by a brave reporter, by the name of Henry, who did not let her leave without asking a million dollar question:
“Why were the rainfall forecasts that you warned about in parliament, not taken into account to allow significant releases of water from the dam, to allow for spare capacity? Why was that not done, at all?”Henry – Reporter at the Queensland Premier’s 2022 Flood Update
Her response was simple and blunt.
“What do you mean? I mean, there has been a whole lot of modelling that has been happening.”
Henry stood his ground and again called out the Premier.
“No, forget the modelling, I’m talking about releases of water.”
He continued, “Are you aware that the new manual that your government commissioned, doesn’t actually permit for releases of water based on forecast rainfall?”
The Premier twisted her words to avoid answering the question directly.
“Ah well what we have been doing is that we have been listening to the bureau and thats what we do. They have been going through all of the modelling and they have been following all of the recommendations from the Commission of Inquiry, okay?”
Henry tried to inform Premier Palaszczuk that this was not correct, but she overpowered him to close out the conversation and begin another rehearsed falsehood.
“Now let me say this to Queenslanders, no one expected this rain bomb to be sitting over the southeast of our state for such a long period of time. Let me be very clear about this, this is like an unpredictable cyclone and it is the levels that we have never, um, expected, or could never have been forecast. Now everybody is doing a whole lot of, um, extra planning, on top of what has already been planned.”Queensland Premier, Annastacia Palaszczuk
Again, brave Henry sees the holes in the Premier’s story and chimes in, “But extreme rainfall was forecasted, you warned about it yourself last Wednesday.”
They continued to debate until Premier Palaszczuk again tries to end the conversation, this time more successfully. She closes with, “Okay, look, I’m sorry, I have experts here who will talk to you about that,” before swiftly taking her leave.
What makes the Henry’s initial question so powerful is its relevance to the previous catastrophic flood in Brisbane.
It is believed that Southeast Queensland’s, Wivenhoe Dam, was originally built as a flood mitigation source, but was eventually converted for use as water storage and supply, although the SEQ Water website states that it was built for both purposes.
In 2011, Wivenhoe Dam was exceeding it’s capacity due to the excessive rain – but water was not released until it was too late, causing the need for a large volume of water to be released at once. During the emergency releases, many communities along the Brisbane River’s 344km stretch were ripped apart by the huge volumes of water that came surging from the dam.
Experts believe that the simple solution to preventing Brisbane’s 2011 floods was preventative controlled releases of water from Wivenhoe Dam, but how was this information applied to the management of Brisbane’s 2022 floods?
As Henry states during the Premier’s press conference, the rainfall forecasts that Premier Palaszczuk warned about in parliament were not taken into account to allow significant releases of water from the dam. He then points out the Palaszczuk Government actually brought in new measures to ensure that there would not be any significant releases based on forecasts alone.
A statement signifying the policy can be seen on the SEQ Dam Release Update page, on the second line under the Wivenhoe Dam heading. “The volume of releases from Wivenhoe Dam will depend on actual rainfall and inflows into the dam.” Take note of the word, actual.
During the Premier’s Flood Update, Mike Foster from SEQ Water explains the design of Wivenhoe Dam and, immediately after, Henry is waiting with another golden question.
“Why weren’t the releases started earlier, so that you had a greater capacity, in case this event continues to dump water over the dam, because if it continues, your hands will be forced to make the huge releases that were made in 2011, that were about 80% of the Brisbane River flood?”
Mike’s response was about certainty, which he described as water on ground. He then went on to explain, “When we know the waters on the ground and we know the inflows are coming in, that gives us absolutely certainty around our releases.” The response clearly wasn’t rehearsed.
“Rainfall forecasts have been a little bit uncertain… To understand where and when that water is going to fall, with great accuracy, unfortunately, we just do not have the technology, or forecasting power to be able to do that.”Mike Foster, SEQ Water
Henry continued to probe in relation to Brisbane’s 2011 floods and how the same catastrophic mistake has been made, which Mike refused to contrast further, only saying that he is confident in the abilities of those managing the event.
Henry then explained that, “If you make releases before the rain is on the ground, you’ve allowed yourself to have a bigger buffer in the dam. Thats obvious common sense and thats been the proactive lesson of the 2011 flood, which, as we know, was largely avoidable and was the product of massive releases at too late a stage in the flood event.”
Mike’s response was simple. “We do not make releases based on forecast rainfall.”
So, I say it again, Queensland’s weather is famously wild and unpredictable. Severe weather events can regularly cause damage to regions of the north east Australian coastline in the earlier months of the year, well known as the wet season.
In saying this, with today’s technology, the lessons and experiences from the 2011 flood and the warnings issued by Higgins Storm Chasing on February 2022, were Queenslanders really as well prepared for the 2022 floods as they should have been? Or has Premier Palaszczuk failed in her duty to protect the people of her state?
Thank you to people like Henry who use their voices to force accountability on those who misuse power and responsibility.
We salute you.
Leave your thoughts in the comments below.
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