When the flood calls

My colleague and local resident, Kat Haynes from Risk Frontiers published a piece in today’s Conversation on flood deaths. Floods are, heatwaves aside, our deadliest hazard. Yet we see people take risks all the time (and I put my own hand up here, having waded waist deep through flood waters in Elwood with my dog under my arm, not really knowing what is underneath).

Authorities despair at people who ignore warnings and drive into waters, or play in waters. Sometimes there is a bit of blame game in the tone of the exasperation. We are the authorities, if they only listened to us. Which is understandable, because police, and the SES are the one who have to rescue, or pull the bodies out from creeks. And having dealt with my fair share of dead bodies, this is not a fun task.

I have often wondered, why we don’t take floods seriously, like bushfires, cyclones or earthquakes. I think it is possibly to do with the “power” of the event. The above events come to us as powerful representations of nature. They have the power to challenge the things that we take granted, solid structures burnt, twisted, or warped. With flooding, unless it is large deluges like what affected the Lockyer Valley in QLD 2011, structures generally remain standing. The damage is often internal, and hidden. I recall someone saying to me they were in Brisbane after the 2011 Floods, and said “looks pretty normal to me, can’t see where it flooded” Hence our experience of flood is then limited, and not imprinted on our psyche. With the other types of events, the consequences are visual, and apparent for the long term. There is always a reminder, whether it is the blackness, or loss of buildings etc.

The way floods are represented is quite different to fire or cyclone. Often media images show images of kids playing, people canoeing down the street, or some poor punter opening the door of his car, and water draining out, and he’s shrugging his shoulders “Oh well”. Compare this to the horror of the fire, the untamed beast unleashed onto the poor unsuspecting public. These are scary images, and you think, people won’t knowingly drive into a fire (they may drive in a fire as a method of fleeing). There are few “horror” stories that emerge from floods, despite the research indicating that people can still experience post traumatic stress as a result of flooding.

I also wonder if there is a cultural dimension, for us of the judeo-christian tradition. Ingrained in us is that the most horrible death is to be burned alive, and we want to avoid it, ie burn in hell. We fear bushfires, and generally don’t think we can outrun a bushfire. Water is perceived as a gentler element. With floods I wonder whether people think, it’s only water, I reckon I’ve got even money chance of getting across this. It’s harder for people to understanding the physics at work. We see authorities tell people what to do, but not why. “Don’t cross/enter flood waters”. Full Stop. It’s a sensible clear message. But if you don’t believe, or understand what happens, the message can be rationalised away. Can’t be that bad, really. Rarely is the message then; you drive into the water, the force is sufficient to push your car off the road, you will not be able to open the door because of the pressure of the water, it will slowly fill up, and you will die.

If we also think about the cars that many people, they are designed to be safe, and they are marketed as being  safe, and perhaps this creates a false sense of safety. PArticualrly if many people now drive 4WDs, not for the purpose for which they were intended, but to be safe in city traffic. This might insidiously build a sense of safety. “I have a 4WD. It is safe. I can drive through flood waters”

I think we should be working with swimming teachers to help reinforce preparedness messaging about flood safety messaging. 5 minutes at the end of a lesson, or as a kid is preparing for their safety or survival or Bronze Medallion etc. It is a natural fit, an existing conduit, and building a culture of safety in children, that hopefully should translate (particularly given Kat’s research that indicates children, and young men are over represented in the deaths) and a captive audience. Kids, where should you NOT swim, and include the “why”.

Floods are insidious in their impact, and deadly. They aren’t as feared as other hazards. But they should be.

Peter Gabriel sums it up

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4 thoughts on “When the flood calls

    1. Hi ALison, wow! congratulations on your retirement.I hope you have something great planned!. Keep in touch,John

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  1. Hi John, as usual a timely and thoughtful post. Early in your piece you question why people don’t take floods as seriously as they take bushfires, cyclones or earthquakes.

    Maybe this is not the question to pose. Rather, are the profiles of those who die or get hurt or injured across all major hazards very similar? That is, typical archetypes who make these decisions.

    At a recent forum, NSW SES colleagues reflected on the profiles of flood fatalities across Australia. I could have been listening to profiles of people killed in bushfires or those making high-risk late decisions. And that was before this week’s events.

    Just thought, maybe that’s what Kat Haynes wrote in The Conversation. Better look!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. hi tony, yes it is a good point, i think i was more coloured by my recovery experience, where I think some disasters get more attention than others in terms of the understanding of the long term impacts. I’ve got a half formed post in my head about it! I also think one of the interesting things about floods is that we can stand around and observe it (as long as we are on higher ground) few people would stand around and watch the fire front come across, or the cyclone (of course some do!).

    My recollection from the age profiles of those who died in Black Saturday was quite varied.

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