Brisbane floodLook familiar?Photo: Erik VelandLook at the images of the city of Brisbane underwater. Go ahead, look at them. Because even though Brisbane is on the other side of the planet from the United States, it is a city very much like many American cities — sprawling, car-dependent, suburbanized, with a high percentage of detached homes. And sadly vulnerable to an extreme weather event like this one.

Brisbane is, in fact, something like Nashville, Tenn. That river city suffered its own catastrophic flooding in May of 2010 — an event that was notoriously ignored by a media fixated on the Deepwater Horizon spill and the attempted car-bombing in Times Square. So seeing SUVs submerged in suburban Brisbane is easier for Americans to relate to than, say, the scene unfolding now in the mountain towns of Brazil, where hundreds were killed by floods over the last few days.

Here’s one reason it’s important for us to look these catastrophes in the face and realize that they can happen to us: They reveal how weak our systems are. All of our modern sophistication, our gadgets, our smart cars and phones and grids, can be knocked out by an extreme weather event. And even people who don’t believe those natural disasters are becoming more frequent because of human action have to deal with the reality of them when they do happen.

As Dan Hill wrote in the riveting post on City of Sound about living through the flood:

“Natural disaster” seems the wrong terminology, actually. As far as I can see, nature is having a fine old time. Ducks, toads, insects, snakes, cockroaches, turtles — all are thriving. The water, so foreign to this terrain in recent years, is gulped greedily by the undergrowth. I’ve never seen Brisbane so green, so tropical. So it’s slightly solipsistic of us to describe it in terms like “disaster.” It’s only our inflexible, non-adaptive infrastructure that can’t cope with this.

And the infrastructure is failing for sure. Everything feels very contingent, very fragile. I spend a fair amount of time helping design various flavours of “resilient urbanism” in cities around the place, and it’s clear that this is not at all resilient.

If you were to anthropomorphize the flood, you might say it is taking a perverse pleasure in pointing out just where the shiny, mighty city is weakest. Water poured into a seven-story hole in the central business district — a hole that was the foundation for a massive project never built because of the global economic crisis. It threatened to undermine a major city boulevard. Even as the floodwaters recede, the city’s downtown remains closed.

Cars in Toowoomba, 80 miles inland from Brisbane, were swept up from their orderly rows in parking lots and dumped downstream in random piles. People circled around them, taking pictures of the eerie sight.

About those parking lots: the rapid paving-over of Brisbane and surrounding areas may well have played a role in the catastrophe. From The Christian Science Monitor:

“One of the things that has really come to the fore in this disaster is that Brisbane has grown so quickly over the past 25 years,” says Chris Eves, a professor of property economics at the Queensland University of Technology.

Mr. Eves says it was not a case of suburbs being built where they should not have been, but rather the collective impact of rapid urban expansion — and all the concrete that goes with it — on catchment areas and water flows.

“Development from the 1970s onward has not occurred in flood prone areas, but it has increased the potential impact of floods on existing areas. We’ve taken greenfield areas and replaced them with hard surfaces.”

The sprawl development also means that when a disaster strikes, resources are not as likely to be close by. From Dan Hill at City of Sound:

Today, certainly, I would have liked everyday needs to have been met locally (and actually everyday in the suburbs I feel that way). It would have been better to have been in a place with a Walk Score of something approaching 100 (see walkscore.com.) But there is nothing around us, barely pavements, and now the connecting infrastructure of roads is so easily compromised. “Network redundancy” is not a particularly motivating term for wider propagation, but it will be an increasingly important idea for Australian cities, whether they like it or not. The flood makes that much clear. 

But Hill doesn’t sound very optimistic:

There will be a time for discussing how to achieve more resilient patterns of settlement in Australia. I’m not at all convinced that Australians have the appetite for genuinely addressing this, even despite the floods. Most people are apparently incapable of thinking about the future on the scale required for investment in things like urban resilience, even accepting we need to get better at communicating all this. I’m not sure people see the connection between devastating flooding and a culture where property developers call the shots, where cost drives aspiration in building and infrastructure, and where a car-based fabric of dispersed tarmac’ed low-density communities is virtually the Australian dream. But if it’s not events like this, I’m not sure what else it would take to make this clear and force the issue.

In the aftermath of the Nashville disaster, there has been a call for better forecasting, better coordination between federal agencies, better alert systems. The National Weather Service has admitted it made mistakes. But is there an acknowledgement of deeper mistakes that may have been made, in the way we have built up our cities and our society? Has there been a meaningful investment in constructing a more resilient local infrastructure? Not that I’m aware of. If you know different, hit the comments. And we’ll see what happens in Brisbane.