As murky flood waters slowly recede from Australia’s third largest city, Brisbane, questions are already being asked about urban planning in a metropolis whose booming economy, cheaper home prices, and warmer climate has made it one of the country’s fastest growing cities over the past two decades.
More than 15,000 properties in 50 Brisbane suburbs have been affected by flood waters which peaked at 4.46 meters (14.6 feet) early Thursday morning local time. Large areas of the city are covered in dirty water and mud and some evacuees have been told they will not be able to return to their homes for months.
Experts are quick to point out the Brisbane floods are an extreme event. Indeed, the northern state of Queensland has been battling flooding which has killed 15 people and affected an area bigger than Texas and California combined for more than five weeks now.
Yet when rebuilding in Brisbane begins, there will undoubtedly be calls for more attention to be paid to how the city can better mitigate future floods, particularly as Australia experiences ever more extreme weather conditions.
“One of the things that has really come to the fore in this disaster is that Brisbane has grown so quickly over the past 25 years,” says Chris Eves, a professor of property economics at the Queensland University of Technology.
Mr. Eves says it was not a case of suburbs being built where they should not have been, but rather the collective impact of rapid urban expansion – and all the concrete that goes with it – on catchment areas and water flows.
“Development from the 1970s onward has not occurred in flood prone areas, but it has increased the potential impact of floods on existing areas. We’ve taken Greenfield areas and replaced them with hard surfaces.”
Didn't Australia just go through a drought?
For a country that only recently passed through a decade-long drought, talk of flooding management has seemed a little out of place – even downright rude. Local water management experts say keeping flood mitigation efforts on government agendas has been increasingly difficult during this time.
“It has been particularly challenging the last 10 years of drought to try and keep the focus on flooding,'' Steve Frost, national president of Australia’s Stormwater Industry Association, told The Sydney Morning Herald newspaper.
It’s not just governments who have seemingly forgotten about flooding in recent years. While Brisbane’s local government has long provided home-buyers with detailed flood maps outlining the risk to their properties, many newcomers to the city have failed to check the status of their homes before buying.
After all, lured by the slogan "Brisbane, beautiful one day, perfect the next," who needed to?
A 2006 local government initiative to buy back houses in low-lying parts of the river city fell flat, with less than 10 percent of eligible home owners taking up the offer. Even now, a major exodus is not expected – given that many of the worst hit areas of the city are its most sought after postcodes.
“A number of people will sell and move away but the vast majority won’t,” Eves says. “The areas which have the worst flooding are generally well established areas. They are close to the city center, they are convenient, they are sought after. Most residents will be willing to put up with two floods in 37 years; most will see it as part of living in a river city.”