Wet Day Timetable

This was often a response we got when the girls came home from primary school on a rainy day. It meant they had to stay inside and out of the rain and water. In some respects, this is no different to the situation that has been unfolding in New South Wales, as authorities urge people to stay out of the water, get out of harms way.

Floods occupy a different place in our psyche to fire. Often their threat, and their impact are underrated. Fire touches a raw nerve. Perhaps its biblical for those of a Christian tradition. Dante’s Inferno comes to mind. Death by fire is a horrible thought, to be avoided. The imagery is also dramatic, made for TV and You Tube and Twitter. The lasting effects are a constant reminder, blackened landscapes, and destroyed buildings. These mental markers last for years.

With flood, though, our perceptions are different. As a nation since invasion, we haven’t  moved too far from the coastline or water courses, we are more aquatic. We learn to swim at a young age. We recreate by water in the summer to cool off. Subliminally we probably think we are an even chance with flood water. “it won’t kill us”. I know, I’ve done this myself, as a 20 something trying to ford a fast flowing river in NZ, thinking I’m fit and strong, and I can swim. I made about 2 metres into the river, waist deep and could feel my feet losing their grip. Thankfully I turned around, as not far down the river was a significant waterfall. The rest, would have been history, and I wouldn’t be writing this.

Media imagery of flood waters are usually of people in kayaks, kids playing in the EColi infested waters, or the hard luck story of the guy with the water in his car. They are trivialising the issue. This is partly the reason, despite the warnings, people drive through flood waters. There are, of course many factors, and psychology gives us clues, as Mel Taylor and her colleagues write in this great Conversation piece. Biases play a big role. I see someone else doing it, then it must be OK (A bit like what drove toilet paper shortages with time last year, I see others with it, I must do the same). Craig Reucassel’s Big Weather Episode 3 on driving in flood waters should be required watching before any driving test.

As the flood waters recede, the carpets will get lifted, mud will get swept out, central heating pumped out, chipboard carpentry thrown out. People will ask each other “how much water you get?” There will be a few weeks of kerbside collections. And then it will seem like it never happened. There might be slight watermarks on buildings, these will fade. Inside those houses though, people will be dealing with insurance claims (“was it flood or storm damage”), to finding new accommodation, mould and mildew, shifting foundations, cracking floorboards, rescuing and restoring keepsakes, increasing asthma, and fraying of tempers.

In the floods that we had in my suburb 10 years ago, there were families who had to move 8 times in 9 months while they waited for repairs to their home. About 12-18 months afterwards, in one of the most severely affected streets, there were a lot of for sale signs. One parent confided in my that she was worried about both of her children, who didn’t seem the same after the flood. Anxious, particularly when there was heavy rain, and not concentrating at school. There was no formal recovery support. The local council’s support extended to picking up hard garbage, and the state government provided an emergency grant. People’s psycho-social wellbeing was not addressed. The flooding was seen as trivial and an inconvenience.

Part of the challenge, is that we have little good research into the long term impacts of floods. Gerry Fitzgerald’s paper looking at the Brisbane Floods of 2011 finds that in 2017 there was 21% of respondents reporting a mental illness, and 26% reporting lingering health impacts. Rebecca Whittle from Lancaster University’s seminal work into the 2007 Hull Floods identified the challenges of flood recovery, its long term impacts, hidden populations. Seeing her present certainly opened my eyes to the hidden complexity of flood impacts. We need to better understand these impacts, in the same way that we undertook the Beyond Bushfires research program that now gives us ten years of research that influences policy and practice. If there are any research funders out there, this is one you should consider looking at.

The challenge will also be that many of these communities have also experienced the fires of last year. They may have been making tentative steps to recovery. Or, on the flipside, maybe their social capital has been improved through the recovery process, and they may be able to deal with this. The impacts of double and triple disasters are something we haven’t really started to get our heads around. And with the future we are facing, we need to. What is the tipping point for people’s protective factors, their social capital and other forms of resources they can draw upon to deal with adversity?

We can see how this can work, at the very local level. The Dungog Community Centre, led by the fabulous Sarah U’Brien supported their local community not only recover from their devastating floods in 2015, but to build their preparedness and resilience. Neighbourhood Houses and Community Centres are important resources, as they are very local in their focus.

The numbers of people directly affected by the floods I suspect are likely to be tenfold or more than those affected by the fires. This is not about league tables or cricket scores, its just my experience. I am hoping that these insidious impacts are assessed and recognised by people themselves, communities, agencies and governments and appropriate support is put into place. It may sound like it, but none of this is to downplay what people experienced last year with the fires. Flood impacts are different, but equal of being treated with respect as a cause of major disruption to people’s lives.

And when people’s lives are disrupted, they aren’t able to lead the full, enjoyable, participatory, contributing lives that we have built our society on.

We need to peer behind the closed doors.

An oldie, but a goodie.

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