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The next wave: after the floods have subsided

By Allan McConnell - posted Friday, 14 January 2011

As an academic specialist in the politics of crisis and disasters, it is clear that there are aspects of familiarity across most, if not all disasters. Of course, each has a unique set of circumstances, never to be experienced in precisely the same way again, but there are recurring patterns.

The floods in Queensland are no exception.

At the moment we are in the middle of the acute phase where the emphasis is on saving lives, protecting property and so on, but fairly soon we can expect to enter the aftermath.


It would be easy to breathe a sigh of relief and say "its over" but for political leaders through to ordinary citizens, the difficult issues are just starting.

Recovery is not just a logistical one, involving the draining of surplus water, restoring power supplies, cleaning up the mess and rebuilding. Recovery is also an emotional and political one.  I would expect the coming weeks, months and even years to pose a number of challenges.

They are also opportunities for regeneration, so they should not be construed simply in a negative light.

1. Could we have seen it coming? Hindsight is a wonderful thing, because the story ends with a "bad" event, and it is only natural for politicians, public servants, the media, victims and their families to look back and see if there were warning signs that could have been (a) better understood and/or (b) used as a guide for improved warning procedures. We can expect there to be one, or more likely several, post-flood inquiries.  I would expect a major issue to be the availability and affordability of technology which is better placed (than at present) to predict flash flooding.

2. Could we have been better prepared? Again, one or more inquiries will be the main means of investigating such issues. An important point to make is that it is unfair to expect emergency services and contingency planners to have a plan for every detailed aspect of a disaster response. So, they typically have framework documents - setting out broad processes, responsibilities and tasks (including those of volunteers), while leaving room for individual initiative and improvisation, depending on the specific circumstances faced.

Getting the balance right is difficult. Disasters, by their very nature, have a large element of unpredictability. Again, however, hindsight leads us instinctively to seek out aspects of a response that could have been handled "better".


No doubt some issues will emerge which can be used as the basis for future upgrading of emergency plans and risk assessments. The most common areas of concern are typically flaws in communication with the public, communication and coordination among responders, as well as the availability of appropriate equipment.

3. Who if anyone should be blamed? For societies and communities that have experienced trauma, there is often a need to find someone to blame. This can be part of the healing process. The process can be fair (in the sense that individuals made mistakes or misjudgements that were easily avoidable) or they can be unfair, because public opinion turns against a public figure because of few inappropriate words, or the clothes they wear. Separating the two is difficult.

The world of crises and disasters is littered with political casualties, despite much evidence that they did many things "right". Michael Brown, the Head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency during Hurricane Katrina is a case in point. He was hamstrung by Homeland Security reforms which had downgraded his agency and cut his funding. Yet he became the "villain".

Those leaders most visible and highest up the hierarchy are easy, if often unfair targets. Julia Gillard and Anna Bligh are the two most visible faces of the disaster response. There is little to suggest at the present time that they have performed poorly, but it would not surprise me if there are moves to contrast them - one as the hero and one as the villain.

4. Who should pay for reconstruction - not just of houses and infrastructures, but of lives and livelihoods? There is no magical formula to answer this question. It is a political and economic issue, to be fought over in the months to come. 

We have three sets of issues to contend with here in the wake of the Queensland floods. They refer to the balance between commonwealth and state funding, public vs. private sector, and public sector vs. community and family self-sufficiency.

Disasters rarely result in any dramatic shifts in balances of power, income inequalities and so on. Those with more power and resources before a disaster strikes, are generally best placed to shape the terms of reconstruction.

5. How can "reminders" of tragedy be used to revitalise, rather than drag down? The aftermath of the floods are certain to generate new issues, from food availability/prices, to international perceptions of Queensland as a tourist destination. Farmers, tourist chiefs and governments, will have to work hard in order to demonstrate that "every cloud has a silver lining", and that the state and its communities have been strengthened and revitalised by overcoming adversity.

Nowhere is this issue starker than in the tales of individuals and families who have lost everything. We can only imagine what they are going through, and feel awed at the stories already emerging of their stoicism and resilience in the face of huge losses.

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About the Author

Professor Allan McConnell teaches in the Department of Government and International Relations at the University of Sydney. He specialises in public policy and the politics of crises and disasters.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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