Australia: flooded by gloomy reporters
For all the disaster porn about a Biblical-style flood, Queenslanders have demonstrated real resilience.
On Christmas Day, Cyclone Tasha hit the Australian state of Queensland. But it was the sustained torrential rain the cyclone brought with it that really made the news.
By 29 December, Australian authorities had classified three towns as disaster zones and 1,000 people had been evacuated. While the rain was easing by this point, the water flowing into rivers from the rain-drenched land was not. And so on New Year’s Eve it was announced that thousands more were to be evacuated, including residents from Rockhampton, a coastal town with 77,000 inhabitants.
Affecting an area the size of France and Germany combined – as reports never tire of telling us – it’s fair to say that the flooding has impaired the lives of a lot of people. This doesn’t just apply to those who have had to abandon their homes. The state’s major industries have also been severely affected. Two of Australia’s largest coal-export terminals – Dalrymple Bay and Gladstone Ports – together with the coal transporter QR National have had to cut back on operations. The mining company Rio Tinto Group has declared force majeure at four Queensland coal mines (which means that it cannot honour contracts because of circumstances beyond the company’s control). Add to that the deluged arable land, from which Queensland produces large exports of cotton and fruit, the damaged transport infrastructure and ruined houses, and the cost of the floods looks set to run into billions of Australian dollars.
Yet if the excitable and confusing reportage and response to the flooding is to be believed, it seems that the real effects of the floods are not deemed arresting enough. So, as the coverage of Queensland’s misfortune has unfolded, the hype and fear-stoking has increased: the number of people in need of evacuation is supposedly in the thousands; myriad unscrupulous looting types are waiting in the watery wings; saltwater crocodiles have supposedly been sighted making their way into Rockhampton; and, as a headline in the UK’s Daily Telegraph declared, residents are ‘facing a plague of deadly snakes as waters rise’. Given the Old Testament tone of some of the coverage, it is little wonder Queensland treasurer Andrew Fraser told reporters that ‘in many ways, it’s a disaster of biblical proportions’.
Yet proportion is precisely what has been lacking in the coverage. Such is the perceived vulnerability of Queensland residents that it’s not just the exceptional weather they ought to be concerned about, but snakes, crocs and thieves, too. As the Queenslanders’ resilience virtually disappears under the disaster-loving gaze of the world’s media, so the potential threats expand to absurd dimensions. If it wasn’t a catastrophe in actuality, then it has certainly been turned into one in the reporting. Perhaps it is unsurprising then that so many people were expected to evacuate the affected areas. After all, with new threats appearing by the day, life would surely become unbearable.
The reality, however, has been a little different. People have not panicked. And many have not fled. It is telling that in Rockhampton, the largest town severely affected by the flooding, an evacuation centre was established for a possible 1,500 people. On 2 January, it housed just 50. In fact, according to Queensland premier Anna Bligh, so far around 4,000 people have been evacuated. This is certainly not an insignificant number – about the population of a biggish village – but it is certainly not the mass exodus reporters were forecasting.
The same goes for the anticipated epidemic of looting. Rather than people seizing an opportunity to nick stuff, as some commentators disparagingly assumed, the police revealed that thefts and break-ins are actually below average for the New Year period.
Queensland residents, despite the taxing conditions, have simply been far more reasoned and composed than many in the media and the authorities seemed to anticipate. One Rockhampton resident, Deon Barden, was positively humorous about his flood-enforced exile on the fringes of Rockhampton: ‘My missus and everything is all stuck in Rocky – I’m out here by myself so I’ll have a bit of peace and quiet if anything.’
Not that the public’s good humour, not to mention good sense, should be a surprise. While flooding may be an unusual problem for many people, for those in the parts of Queensland most severely affected, such events are by no means unheard of. So after praising the resilience of Rockhampton residents, town mayor Brad Carter pointed out that ‘many of the people who live in these low-lying areas have been through these flooding events before’. Their capacity to deal with flooding is not just a testament to character, of course, but to certain technical feats of construction, too. Hence, many of the houses in the inundated areas are built on stilts. (All of which presupposes a level of economic development above that of those countries – like Pakistan – for which flooding does constitute a catastrophe.)
None of this is to downplay the extent of the flooding. It has undoubtedly been exceptional – the worst for 50 years apparently – and the three deaths so far related to the floods are three too many. Yet the ability of people to cope, both practically and emotionally, as demonstrated by the Queenslanders is something that seems to have been effaced in the media-rush to sniff the skirt of a disaster. ‘We have a very resilient community, they’re holding up very well’, declared Mayor Carter. This is the other tale waiting to emerge from the depths of disaster porn.
Tim Black is senior writer at spiked.