The vanishing homes on our floodplains

The village of my childhood comprised a dozen or so company houses on the main road, our family home on the hillside above and the farmhouse of my father’s youth down on the river flats – and a newsprint mill along the riverbank.

The great fire that swept down the Derwent Valley on a scorching February day in 1967 burned down the old farmhouse and killed my father’s sister, one of over 60 Tasmanian deaths on that day, but no-one else in the village lost their home or their lives.

Corporate decision-makers did what fire had failed to do. Within 25 years the mill had removed all those homes, those props for old memories, so it could expand. All that now remains is a pattern of driveways and house footings. That’s progress.

Weeks after those fires I moved to Brisbane, where in the wake of the devastating 2022 floods something similar is now happening. Authorities in this “city with a river problem”, as Margaret Cook described it in her history of Brisbane floods, are now helping owners to relocate to higher ground by buying vulnerable homes and demolishing them.

With an annual rainfall double that of either Hobart or Melbourne, the Brisbane River’s catchment is six times bigger than the Yarra’s and half the size of Tasmania. Brisbane’s intense recent flood events have laid bare its vulnerability. 

In an essay in the May issue of The Monthly, novelist Ashley Hay wrote of her surreal experience walking the dog in her riverside suburb of Fairfield, named for the bountiful soils of the floodplain on which it was built. Houses keep disappearing, to be replaced by grass.

As Hay explains, as of mid-March this year, 100 properties in her council ward and hundreds more across Brisbane have been demolished or removed under a voluntary home buyback scheme offered by the state’s Reconstruction Authority in the wake of the 2021-22 floods, out of a total of 678 offers across southeast Queensland. 

In Lismore and nearby centres in northern NSW hit by unprecedented flood disasters in 2020 and 2022, that state’s Reconstruction Authority has bought hundreds of properties. While owners decide whether they can afford to relocate their vacated homes to higher ground, a group of homeless locals and itinerants called Relaim Our Recovery is occupying them and resisting official attempts to evict them.

The process of recovery and reconstruction is fraught with complex, competing needs, as authorities are now discovering. We don’t know if Lismore or Brisbane – or Latrobe in Tasmania or Windsor in NSW or Shepparton in Victoria or numberless other low-lying towns across the country – will suffer a deluge this year or next or any time. We just hope that they don’t.

But as a nation we have to look at at places most vulnerable to flood – or for that matter coastal storm surge, or fire, or drought – and work out how to mitigate damage and heartache when the big events inevitably happen. This month the ANU Institute for Climate, Energy and Disaster Solutions released a report which pushes hard for a national strategy for relocating communities facing an escalating risk as a result of climate change.

The report finds that on top of the 250,000-odd Australians internally displaced by fire, flood and drought since 2008, over coming decades an increasing number of communities living on river floodplains and low-lying coasts and in places susceptible to bushfire and extreme heat will be forced to move to safer locations.

The institute’s head of disaster solutions, Roslyn Prinsley, told ABC Radio National this month that research led by the Climate Council indicated that by 2030 river flooding will see one in 25 homes across the country become uninsurable as a result of river flooding.

In the most affected regions, that figure rises to one home in 10: “So what we’re thinking is that those people should be moved now, pre-emptively, rather than wait till they’re in that situation,” Prinsley said. Hence the empty blocks in Hay’s riverside Brisbane suburb and the vacated Lismore homes waiting to be moved, or to fall down.

The residents of flood-prone homes don’t know when the next deluge will force them to flee, any more than I in my Hobart forest retreat can know when the next fire will come. But there is a trend, measured year on year by rising home insurance premiums. In the case of some floodplain dwellers these are already unpayable.

The ANU study is a good guide for authorities as to which settlements are likely candidates for wholesale relocation. Whatever the cost nationally, estimated to be hundreds of billions of dollars, it will be cheap compared to the cost of repeated disasters.

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