As an academic specialist in the politics of crisis and disasters, it is clear that there are aspects of familiarity across most, if not all disasters. Of course, each has a unique set of circumstances, never to be experienced in precisely the same way again, but there are recurring patterns.
The floods in Queensland are no exception.
At the moment we are in the middle of the acute phase where the emphasis is on saving lives, protecting property and so on, but fairly soon we can expect to enter the aftermath.
It would be easy to breathe a sigh of relief and say "its over" but for political leaders through to ordinary citizens, the difficult issues are just starting.
Recovery is not just a logistical one, involving the draining of surplus water, restoring power supplies, cleaning up the mess and rebuilding. Recovery is also an emotional and political one. I would expect the coming weeks, months and even years to pose a number of challenges.
They are also opportunities for regeneration, so they should not be construed simply in a negative light.
1. Could we have seen it coming? Hindsight is a wonderful thing, because the story ends with a "bad" event, and it is only natural for politicians, public servants, the media, victims and their families to look back and see if there were warning signs that could have been (a) better understood and/or (b) used as a guide for improved warning procedures. We can expect there to be one, or more likely several, post-flood inquiries. I would expect a major issue to be the availability and affordability of technology which is better placed (than at present) to predict flash flooding.
2. Could we have been better prepared? Again, one or more inquiries will be the main means of investigating such issues. An important point to make is that it is unfair to expect emergency services and contingency planners to have a plan for every detailed aspect of a disaster response. So, they typically have framework documents - setting out broad processes, responsibilities and tasks (including those of volunteers), while leaving room for individual initiative and improvisation, depending on the specific circumstances faced.
Getting the balance right is difficult. Disasters, by their very nature, have a large element of unpredictability. Again, however, hindsight leads us instinctively to seek out aspects of a response that could have been handled "better".
No doubt some issues will emerge which can be used as the basis for future upgrading of emergency plans and risk assessments. The most common areas of concern are typically flaws in communication with the public, communication and coordination among responders, as well as the availability of appropriate equipment.
3. Who if anyone should be blamed? For societies and communities that have experienced trauma, there is often a need to find someone to blame. This can be part of the healing process. The process can be fair (in the sense that individuals made mistakes or misjudgements that were easily avoidable) or they can be unfair, because public opinion turns against a public figure because of few inappropriate words, or the clothes they wear. Separating the two is difficult.
The world of crises and disasters is littered with political casualties, despite much evidence that they did many things "right". Michael Brown, the Head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency during Hurricane Katrina is a case in point. He was hamstrung by Homeland Security reforms which had downgraded his agency and cut his funding. Yet he became the "villain".
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