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Brisbane floods: engineering a solution to a natural horror

Over the past 24 hours I have watched in horror at the unfolding disaster in what is locally known as the River City – that is Brisbane – my home town and the latest to be inundated by the massive floods in Queensland.

I have been keeping up-to-date with the event, one of the largest natural disasters in Australia’s history, as photos, stories and status updates on Facebook from my friends and family back home are posted (unbelievable the power of social media at times like these).

I have spoken a few times to my Dad who only arrived back from Europe two days’ ago to torrential rain. He now has an anxious wait tonight when the flood waters are due to peak. My parents’ office building is located in the low-lying suburb of West End across the river from the CBD and is set to take on water if the predictions are correct. He spent all of the morning moving out millions of dollars worth of stock from their premises before the truck he was using was cut off from returning by the rising water. All of the leftover items are currently in the ceiling.

A friend’s father who is the MD of a large civil engineering company in Brisbane is stuck on an island across the bay from the city. He’s sincerely hoping that the job he did designing the structural wall underneath his house was good enough. With their home located right on the river (albeit elevated slightly on a hill), he’s very concerned for when the peak hits.

Another friend of the family had to swim out of her apartment block as times got desperate with no power, no running water and no hope.

I’m aghast at the images I’ve seen of the city’s ferry terminals breaking away and rushing down the river along with a 300m section of the city’s floating river walk – a 181-tonne stainless steel structure with stainless steel reinforcing in 287 floating pontoons.

The cost of the damage to the state is expected to be higher than that to New Orleans in the wake of Katrina.

The damage to infrastructure will be severe and it will take many years for business and industry to recover.

Perhaps it is a time to consider changes to design criteria and planning of new infrastructure and ways to flood proof the existing.

Inevitably, questions will be (and are already being) asked as to what more can be done to flood proof the cities themselves in future and if new dams should be added to the existing Wivenhoe (which was built incidentally after a similarly massive flood event in 1974).

What has struck me is the disbelief of my friends and colleagues here in the UK who have said things like, ‘well you could see a disaster like this happening in a place like Pakistan, but it’s truly unbelievable in a developed country like Australia’.

With climate change, it is no doubt inevitable that these extreme events will only increase so getting better plans and better infrastructure in place is imperative.

It certainly is a wake-up call and a reminder of the challenges those in the infrastructure industry face to deliver the certainty that protection of our assets from natural disasters is well-conceived and considered.

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