Wollongong floods: an act of God?

[Green Left Weekly, #330, August 26, 1998

WOLLONGONG — The massive inundation of the region has been a compelling and sobering experience for all who live here. The normally imposing fabric of our built-up environment and the lives it enables us to lead have been shown to be startlingly fragile in the face of the forces of nature.

Three days after the frightful night of August 17-18, road and rail links have been restored. Across the region, thousands of residents are now grappling with the often heartbreaking task of cleaning up the mess and wondering what the future holds. Some have lost everything; many are thankful to have escaped with their lives.

The Illawarra is a long, narrow plain between the coast and the escarpment. Carrying water from the mountain slopes, a network of creeks crosses the plain en route to the sea.

In normal times, they typically contain only a trickle of rather disgusting-looking water and are strewn with urban rubbish. But in conditions of unprecedented downpour, they rapidly became raging torrents, flooding their banks and wreaking havoc on houses, roads and cars.

The authorities and the media have sought to portray the disaster as an act of God — something that couldn't really be expected or planned for. The view has been repeatedly expressed by Wollongong's mayor and other responsible figures that the deluge and ensuing disaster was a "one-in-300-year event".

However, this line would be more convincing were it not so obviously self-serving for those in authority. While the magnitude of the disaster was indeed unprecedented, some of the things the city council did or failed to do were guaranteed to ensure that the impact was increased rather than reduced.

For a long time concerns have been raised that the Wollongong council has not done enough to keep creeks in the region properly maintained and able to cope with large volumes of water. For some areas, the current floods followed similar inundations in the 1980s and 1970s.

One of the hardest hit areas was North Wollongong's College Place, home to many Asian students from nearby Wollongong University. In the space of a few minutes, water from two local creeks became an icy, head-high torrent that swept through nearby homes, forcing residents to flee for their lives.

Visiting the site the next day, I was astonished to see that two houses were built over one creek! (Literally — the water came out from under the front porch of one home!)

At the start of the street, the other creek was intersected by a freeway embankment wall: five pipes were meant to carry the water to the other side. However adequate to deal with the normal trickle, this structure would have been as good as a wall when the torrent hit, forcing the flood into neighbouring houses.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to realise that all this is hardly world's best practice urban planning.

Some of the worst-hit homes in the region were built on often steeply sloping ground near the foot of the escarpment.

In normal times, the natural setting and striking views of the plain below and the sea beyond make living on such sites very attractive. But on the night of the deluge, torrents of water, mud, uprooted trees and boulders smashed through many such areas, wrecking houses and sweeping away residents.

Arguably, the council should never have permitted houses to be built in such locations. For a start, it is demonstrably unsafe.

Moreover, the gradual encroachment of development is beginning to blight the beauty of the escarpment.

Perhaps most importantly, it is clear that the more the escarpment and its foothills and their vital tree cover are left untouched by "development", the more effectively will devastating run-off be soaked up or diminished and the risk of landslides reduced.

Having survived the deluge, residents now face another battle — to gain insurance compensation. It seems certain that the NRMA, GIO and other big insurers will reject most claims.

The council may face legal action since it permitted development in such vulnerable areas and generally failed to ensure adequate flood mitigation measures.

We shouldn't be surprised at the council's profit-before-people orientation. Wollongong is still very much a company town. Despite the decline of employment in its Port Kembla steelworks, BHP remains a dominating presence.

Successive councils and state governments have been very good at doing what big business wants. But to stand up to developers and business on behalf of ordinary people? Don't hold your breath.

Finally, what about the "one-in-300-year" notion? The problem with such claims is that recently so many places seem to be enduring their own "one-in-300-year" natural disasters.

In China, for instance, terrible floods have devastated the country, affecting some 250 million people. Earlier in the year, in the United States, unprecedented tornadoes wrecked large areas of Florida, and not long ago a record heat wave in Texas killed scores of people.

Until recently, NSW was gripped by a drought of record duration and severity and water was going to be rationed in the cities; now large parts of the state are awash.

A socialist or an incurable cynic might see all this as evidence of climate disintegration brought about by the insane addiction of the big capitalist corporations and their governments to energy policies that produce large amounts of greenhouse gases but which are very, very profitable while the alternatives are not.

No human agency directly caused the Illawarra floods, but we can be fairly sure that it wasn't an act of God.

Unfortunately, we are unlikely to have to wait 300 years for a repeat performance. Next time, if the local and state authorities don't change their priorities, the results could well be even worse. Under capitalism, the system works for the rich and powerful; the rest of us will always lose out.