My heart goes out to all those people that have been severely impacted by the recent floods, and to the friends and families of the two men who tragically lost their lives. It was also heartening to see the real difference that the NSW SES and other volunteers were making to keep people safe and cared for.
Without diminishing the genuine impacts and hardships which these floods have caused to thousands of people, they were not “unprecedented” nor were they a “1 in 100 year event” as some politicians and media outlets would have us believe. As far as I am aware, and I am willing to stand corrected on this, I don’t think any river reached a 1 in 50 year ARI level, although many of the rivers had not experienced such levels for more than 50 years. They were not as widespread, as rare or as devastating, as the 2011 flooding in Queensland and Victoria. Their impacts would pale in comparison if we had a repeat of the NSW 1955 floods today. Yet there were expressions of shock, anger and blame aired in mainstream and social media from those affected and those who witnessed the impacts.
While clearly most of the homes and businesses which were flooded were approved prior to current flood related development controls, we must ask ourselves whether it is appropriate to permit ongoing, high risk land uses in locations which are so flood prone now that we understand the risks. Let me illustrate my point with the Hawkesbury Nepean River. The recent flood peak there was just shy of 13m AHD at Windsor which makes it about a 1 in 15 AEP flood, yet there were houses, some recently renovated, which were flooded to their eaves. I know voluntary purchase schemes struggle to get funding, and when they do, have poor uptake but surely there is no economic sense in cleaning out these homes and reoccupying them time and again.
I think it is in everyone’s interest after these floods to acknowledge that some of the damaged buildings should never have been built there and should not be rebuilt or repaired. That was done in Grantham following a flood which had an estimated 1 in 2,000 AEP. While I appreciate the loss of life in that event was a significant driver for change, we should not be waiting until we have a multi-fatality flood before we remove buildings which simply should not be there. That is too late.
We are fortunate that these recent floods only claimed two lives, considering that about 1,000 rescues had to be effected. I accept that many may have been caught unawares by rising floodwaters but I am sure many voluntarily entered the floodwaters or failed to evacuate when advised to do so. If we truly have several rivers experiencing 1 in 100 AEP events simultaneously, I don’t think we will be so fortunate.
It would appear that there were no witnesses to the deaths of the two men who drowned and I am not suggesting they voluntarily entered flood waters; that is for the coroners to determine. In fact, news reports suggest that the Sydney man drowned due to a combination of unfortunate circumstances out of his control.
That said, there are circumstances which can be controlled before, during and after a flood. Some tough decisions and decisive action should be taken now to reduce the loss of life and property when these types of floods occur again - which they will do more often than the politicians, media and public want to believe.