The flood commission’s torrent of nonsense

2013-04-24 04.49.50 amNICK CATER

Published in The Australian, December 17, 2013

THERE are 658 pages in the Queensland Flood Commission’s final report. Anzac Avenue is mentioned on only two of them.

The street is in the middle of Grantham, a town where 10 adults and two children died in the space of a few angry minutes on January 10, 2011.

If commissioner Catherine Holmes had lingered outside number 8, she might have asked why a flash flood resembling an inland tsunami struck here, of all places, a full 750m from Lockyer Creek, demolishing Brenda Ross’s double-brick home.

Morva Richardson, who ran the neighbouring pub with her husband, Lance, watched the tragedy from the balcony. She caught a glimpse of Ross’s 25-year-old son, Joshua, and family friend Chris Face peering out from the window.

“Next thing I know, the whole house seemed to pop up out of the water,” Morva Richardson told a coronial inquest.

“And then it exploded.”

Lance Richardson added: “The house went splat, I could not see anyone and I believed at the time they had no chance.”

The mystery, unexplained by the Holmes commission or any other inquiry, is why all those in Grantham were caught by a torrent, several metres high, on flat ground so far from the creek’s normal course.

Upstream at the foot of the Toowoomba Range, where the superstorm’s runoff cascaded down narrow gullies, there were other deaths.

In this type of terrain, the deaths are more easily explained.

No convincing official explanation has been offered, however, for why the majority of flood deaths on January 10, 2011, occurred well beyond the point at which the landscape broadens out into a wide flood plain.

Two blocks to the left of the Ross home, a fruit shop and a former bank built of besser block were damaged so badly they had to be demolished.

On the other side of the road, at the corner of Harris Street, the old baker’s building was washed from its foundations, coming to rest in the middle of the street.

Here is the curious thing. Further south on Harris Street, closer to the main creek, the damage was much lighter. Indeed, the nearer people were to the apparent conduit of the flood water, the greater their chances of survival.

An inquisitive commissioner might have raised an eyebrow at this point and asked why a torrent of water had strayed so far from the creek.

The cultural climate is not conducive to intellectual curiosity, however, particularly when it comes to the weather.

As Holmes said at the start of her report, “no recommendation made by the commission, even if implemented by the government, can control the forces of nature.”

The commission was dogged by the same primitive fatalism that blighted much of the reporting that oozed out of southeast Queensland in a post-inundation sludge.

There were some courageous exceptions, notably by the late Paul Lockyer and The Australian’s Hedley Thomas, but most journalists opted for sentimentalism rather than empiricism.

In any case, extreme weather events, as we are wont to call them, require little explanation since the science is settled, or so we are told.

Within two days, in an editorial illuminated by 1600km of separation, The Age declared: “A disturbing aspect of the floods is that they are consistent with (although not proof of) climate change predictions for northern Australia. Recent extreme weather events are part of climate change; arguments against taking action on greenhouse emissions on the grounds of cost look less persuasive, if not downright short-sighted.”

The Holmes commission wisely avoided the intemperance of The Age. Instead, it simply fudged its answers to the tricky questions.

It took no evidence from a farmer who collected his cow, alive, after it was swept several kilometres to the east. Nor did it examine the cars and household detritus washed along in the flood that showed the path the water had taken.

The commission did not examine buildings and note on which side they had been damaged. If it had, it might have seemed curious that the torrent had come from the west while the creek lay to the south.

The commission held community meetings to find out what notions might be bouncing around in the locals’ heads, but took no evidence from them, relying instead on the experts.

We already know, however, that the commission’s initial findings, bristling with supposed expertise, were deeply flawed.

It found originally that releases from the Wivenhoe Dam further downstream could not be blamed for the floods that struck Brisbane.

Fortunately, Thomas helped them out of their muddle with diligent reporting in The Australian demonstrating that had water management officials been on their game, and released water from Wivenhoe earlier and more steadily, much of the damage to Queensland’s capital would have been avoided.

The commission was recalled and the report rewritten. Arguably, it should have been shredded. The cursory attention paid to Grantham is further evidence this was a rush job.

Last Thursday, 2GB’s Alan Jones aired allegations that a levee more than 2m high and 300m long on the upstream edge of Grantham quarry broke, causing the Lockyer Creek to jump its banks in a wave that veered towards the main streets of Grantham.

The commission’s expert on hydrology used computer-modelling to demonstrate that the levee, 2km west of the town centre, was not to blame.

The computer-based conclusion is at odds with witness accounts and physical evidence.

Premier Campbell Newman must call a second commission of inquiry, and tell those who conduct it that he has no wish to see their report until they can show conclusively who is right.

Lockyer Valley residents deserve to know before the next big flood that the causes of the 2011 disaster have been established and, where possible, removed.

There can be no repeat of the unprecedented torrent of nonsense that surged out from every corner of the first inquiry.