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Examining the Queensland Floods

March 7, 2011

Countless buildings were destroyed during the recent floods in northeastern Australia. As the rebuilding gets under way, many are questioning exactly how to move forward.

By Russell Fortmeyer

 

Flooding in Brisbane, the state capital.
Photo courtesy Australian Institute of Architects

Flooding in Brisbane, the state capital. slide show

 

After more than a month of severe flooding, a major recovery effort is under way in the northeastern state of Queensland. There is much to be done. Flooding that began in late December and peaked in mid-January killed at least 22 people, left thousands homeless, destroyed countless buildings, and damaged highways and rail lines. Overall, 70 percent of the state—an area the size of France and Germany combined—was affected. The devastation was exacerbated by Cyclone Yasi, a category five tropical storm that hit Queensland’s northern coast on February 3.

As the rebuilding begins, many are questioning how exactly to proceed, with much introspection about the rapid growth that has pushed development into flood plains in recent decades.

Volunteer Response

Many in the architecture, engineering, and construction industries sprung to action during the flooding.

Organizations such as the Australian Institute of Architects and Emergency Architects Australia (EAA) sent volunteers into the most heavily affected areas. David Chesterman, the chairman of EAA’s board in Sydney, says many of its volunteers will likely head to the Lockyer Valley, where many small towns around Toowoomba were devastated, but are responding to wherever they are asked to assist. “We help those people who are at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, who can’t afford to do anything or are confused,” says Chesterman. Homeowners can find contact information on the organization’s website (www.emergencyarchitects.org.au).

Shawn Godwin, the director of Base Architecture in Brisbane, closed his office for three days to let the staff volunteer to clean up neighborhoods. He says nearly one-third of the dozens of houses his firm helped inspect would likely need to be condemned and demolished. “There are asbestos threats, diseases, structural damage. And don’t forget that the water table won’t drain to resumed levels for some months,” Godwin said in late January. He expects there will be more structural movement in the months to come, resulting in cracks in buildings.  

Alex Smith, a spokesman for Thiess, one of Australia’s largest contractors and a subsidiary of Leighton Holdings, says his company has contributed equipment to the clean-up effort. “Thiess has provided bobcats and trucks to facilitate the removal of vast amounts of rubbish from flood damaged homes,” Smith says. Like many Australian companies, Leighton has also donated money—in its case, $2 million—and volunteered staff time.

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Wettest Year on Record
Queensland experienced heavy rainfall between August and January, with almost continuous rain in December, resulting in overflowing rivers throughout the state. Significant flooding along the Brisbane River watershed, especially concentrated along the Lockyer River, affected the state capital, Brisbane, with flood levels building as the water traveled east to the Pacific Ocean.

Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology has reported that 2010 was the wettest year on record for Queensland, caused largely by a La Niña effect, where warm water in the ocean has caused intense inland rainfall. Areas in the northern part of the state were declared disaster zones on December 27, with flooding reaching the south by January 10 and Brisbane by January 12.

The full economic impact has yet to be determined, but as of early February, personal property insurance claims already had exceeded $1.2 billion. The total cost of rebuilding could top $20 billion, according to government reports.

Widespread Damage
The damage was severe and widespread. The floods decimated electrical infrastructure for innumerable buildings, including at least four Brisbane skyscrapers, effectively shutting them down. Several coal mines, which account for the majority of Queensland’s economy, were flooded out. Rail corridors from the mines to coastal ports were washed away, leaving hundreds of empty shipping vessels anchored offshore.

Passenger rail lines also were severely affected. Queensland’s Western train line, which passes through Brisbane, was closed from January 10 to February 22 due to landslides. Moreover, Brisbane’s CityCats ferry system, which runs along the Brisbane River, was shut down and replaced by buses, although the ferry system began operating again in a limited capacity on February 14.

Queensland also is dealing with a battered road system. The Warrego Highway, which stretches between Toowoomba and Miles, suffered severe pavement slippage. Some less-critical highways were totally washed out, including the Mt. Lindesay Highway in the south and, further west, the Carnarvon Highway. Many rural roads were reduced to single lanes or closed altogether.

Funding the Recovery
On January 19, Queensland’s Premier Anna Bligh established the Queensland Recovery Authority, which is charged with overseeing reconstruction and coordinating efforts between federal, state, and local governments. The following week, on January 28, the state government announced it would award nearly $400 million in direct grants to local municipalities; 75 percent of the grant funding is coming from the federal government’s Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements program.

Moreover, a special flood-relief income tax may go into effect on July 1 for all Australians earning more than $500,000 per year. The proposed tax would raise nearly $1.8 billion towards reconstruction. Prime Minister Julia Gillard announced the new tax on January 27, the details of which are still winding their way through Parliament. Approval is expected by March.

The revenue will go toward not only rebuilding Queensland, but also flood-damaged areas in New South Wales, Victoria, and Tasmania. Flooding has devastated many parts of Australia since late 2010, including the typically drought-plagued state of Western Australia.

While the recovery effort could provide work opportunities for architects, engineers, and contractors, it also could delay projects that were under way prior to the flood. For instance, the government announced it will delay work on a $7 billion underground rail network in Brisbane. “You’re making choices whether you defer works like that or raise taxes, so the government is trying to find a middle road,” says Denis Cook, the Queensland regional director for construction management giant Parsons Brinckerhoff (which has offered pro bono services to various municipalities).

Another issue Queensland faces: finding qualified workers. “Technical resources are going to be tight in this country for the next year or two,” says Cook, noting that the federal government may ease visa restrictions for foreign workers.

Questioning the Rebuilding
The larger issue is, perhaps, whether investors will be keen to finance rebuilding projects without some certainty that future floods can be prevented. The last major flood in Queensland, which occurred in Brisbane in 1974, resulted in the construction of the Wivenhoe Dam on the Brisbane River, but it did not lead to regulation regarding construction in flood-prone areas.

Making matters worse, new residential construction in vulnerable areas is ill equipped to handle flooding. While the traditional “Queenslander” home was made of timber with a raised first floor perched on poles like a stilt house, new homes often are slab-on-grade, timber-framed or brick structures. Moreover, many owners of Queenslander houses have built out the open area beneath the raised first floor to increase interior space, notes Lindsay Clare, an architect from Queensland who now practices in Melbourne. “If you fill them in,” he says, “the water is going to put more pressure on the structure and you’ll see more damage.”

The flooding may not spur dramatic changes to building codes, but sources agree the approach to urban and regional planning will come under greater scrutiny. “Ever since Brisbane was settled, there have been great floods, in 1893, 1974, and now this one,” says Shane Thompson, a principal with Brisbane-based BVN Architecture. “Perhaps we should be talking about these floods occurring more regularly. Should communities and neighborhoods that reside in flood plains continue to be supported? Or, over time, should we attempt to return these areas to their hydrological purpose?”

Thompson also serves on the Queensland Board for Urban Places, which is a government advisory committee consisting of architects, planners, and landscape architects, among others. He says the board will be working “to ensure the focus of the reconstruction and recovery is not purely driven by engineering concerns that may leave us with very poor place-making outcomes.” He adds: “There may be a desire to get on with things, but investment in design should not be overlooked.”

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