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What are the long-term implications for Brisbane and other flooded areas after 2022 disaster?

What are the long-term implications for Brisbane and other flooded areas after 2022 disaster?

8 March, 2022

Standing on the edge of floodwaters, talking with neighbours - possibly for the first time since the last flood - and the tales of despair inevitably emerge.

“This family just moved in two months ago” ... “That bloke was just about to sell” ... “Our business barely got through COVID, and now this happens” ... “Old mate has now been through four floods.”

But in among the sadness and empathy as people rally to help out the victims of the flooding crisis in southeast Queensland and northern New South Wales, anger festers and uncertainty is rife.

Perhaps reflecting such sentiments was Ken, whose son’s home in the inner Brisbane of suburb Auchenflower was flooded.

“I was here in 2011 and each flood since then, doing the same work over and over again, knowing he and his family are going to have to come back and start all over again,” Ken told 7NEWS.

“Until we start using our brains, learning to control the water, get some dams in. I mean, how many years have we been talking about getting dams in.

“No government does anything about it.”

Difficult questions about the long-term livability of Brisbane and surrounds have been raised by the natural disaster.

The head of the federal government’s National Recovery and Resilience Agency, Shane Stone, caused a stir when he questioned people in the flood zone. “What do you think is going to happen?”, he commented to a news outlet.

Similar sentiments have been expressed on social media, but they have largely been met with calls for compassion and sensitivity.

The damage bill from the disaster could top $1 billion and insurer Suncorp’s chief executive, Steve Johnston, has urged the state to “build it back better”.

“The inevitability here is that we are going to be repairing homes that have been repaired three or four times,” he said.

But experts have warned that if predictions that floods will be more frequent and intense in coming decades hold true, land in flood zones could become unlivable.

‘Resilient city’

That’s an absolute worst-cast scenario - and positivity around Brisbane’s future remains.

“Brisbane is an incredibly resilient city. After the last floods, there was a drop in house prices in the short term, but in the long term I think people looked to the amenity that is offered by the Brisbane River and by Brisbane city,” said Jen Williams, the Queensland head of the Property Council of Australia.

“While there will be some short-term pain, I’m confident the resilience of Brisbane will rise up and those house prices will go back to their normal value.

“Each time we go through an event like this, we learn more as a city about we can handle it and be better prepared.”

Margaret Cook, a historian who wrote the book A River with a City Problem: A History of Brisbane Floods, isn’t quite as optimistic.

While she speaks glowingly of the “lovely city” that has “a lot going for it”, she concedes land in flood zones could “probably” one day be worthless.

“We have already reached the point where some areas are uninsurable, and it’s definitely going to devalue people’s property,” she said.

“We live on a sub-tropical river system, we live on this river plain. Floods unfortunately are going to happen again. With climate change, potentially, they’re going to be more frequent and more intense.

“And they’re getting a little bit harder to predict.”

What’s the solution?

Dr Cook has advocated a suite of “proactive” preventative measures, including retrofitting and building houses with flood-resilient materials, ensuring areas of vegetation are protected and having more grass areas in backyards and public spaces that absorb rainfall.

Better forecasting and warning systems were also needed, as well as more efficient evacuation processes, she said.

Then there’s the issue of planning - and whether more developments should be allowed in flood areas.

“We’re exacerbating the problem,” Dr Cook said.

“We’ve now in recent years built a nursing home in one of the most flood-prone sites (Yeronga) in Brisbane, and my aunt is in that nursing home.

“It was evacuated in the dark and the army had to remove the security grills to get her out.

“We need to stop doing things like that.”

Those sentiments are met with incredulity by the property industry.

Ms Williams says there are already an “immense number of hurdles people need to jump through if they want to develop in flood areas” and they will only be strengthened following the latest disaster.

Flood mapping will also be updated. But Chris Eves, an expert in the impact of natural disasters on the property market, claims they are not foolproof.

“Once they map the flood lines for 2022, basically as soon as they build another 100, 200 houses around the rural or peri-urban areas, then we don’t know if those flood maps are going to be accurate,” he said.

Concerningly, Dr Cook believes not much more can be done regarding large-scale flood-mitigation measures after a range of initiatives were introduced after the 2011 flood, including backflow devices for drainage.

Building a series of dams, Dr Cook argues, is not the solution.

“People think you can build dams anywhere, seemingly. Dams need very, very specific requirements - geological, topographical. They need to be in a place that most effectively catches the rain,” she said.

“They can’t be in the middle of a city. One of the places you could possibly build a dam would be on the Bremer River (in Ipswich), but that would possibly be right where the city is.

“The hydrologists and engineers I’ve spoken to agree there are few mitigation strategies left.

“Levee banks don’t work. Wivenhoe Dam works really, really well in major floods, to a point. It’s withheld a lot of water this time. It withheld two metres last time.

“But the bottom line is dams are finite.”

Hubert Chanson, a civil engineering professor at the University of Queensland, says the issue is more complicated.

Dams could “possibly” be built on the Bremer River and in the Lockyer Valley.

And the Wivenhoe Dam, which “reduced drastically the amount of flooding in Brisbane”, could be raised, he believes.

But that will only provide “some protection” and the cost will be enormous.

“And we as a community have to be willing to pay the price,” he said.

Other proposals such as preserving or improving nature areas will have only a limited impact.

“Grass areas will be an advantage when we are dealing with flash floods. Flash floods would be for example, 200mm of rain in two hours,” he said.

“For such an event as a flash flood, yes, having grassy areas and vegetation will definitely slow down the propagation of the rainfall runoff as it goes into the catchment.

“But we’re talking here about small, short events.

“Vegetation and grass areas in urban areas will have very little impact when we are dealing with a mega flood, the flood of a large catchment like Brisbane. I would call it a mega flood even if we didn’t reach the same level as 2011.”

Life in the River City

So what will life look like in the flood zone going forward?

So concerned about people in such areas is Dr Cook that she has gone as far as to suggest councils could look at buying flood-prone houses that go on the market.

“We could move the more vulnerable people. We’ve done that before. We could speed that up. Not necessarily force people to move, but if the house went on the market, could council buy it?” she said.

“It’s more about thinking forward than always being reactive.

“It’s a very different story if you’re wealthy and you can continue to recover. My concern is we do know where these vulnerable people live.”

There is strong evidence to suggest people will want to continue living in the flood zone.

Property agency BuyersBuyers researched house prices in the 20 suburbs in Brisbane most impacted by the 2011 floods.

In the five years following the disaster, 19 of those suburbs outperformed the city’s house price growth benchmark, with industrial Pinkenba the only exception.

The best performer was Fig Tree Pocket, which recorded 53 per cent growth over the five years, compared with 26 per cent for the city overall.

“They’re often of course riverside suburbs and therefore, normally, highly sought-after locations because they’re close to water,” said BuyersBuyer co-founder Pete Wargent.

“I guess people saw the opportunity for a bargain and prices recovered pretty quickly.”

Whether something similar will occur after this flood remains to be seen.

Even those in the property industry have their doubts.

“Post 2011, there was a lot of talk about it being a one-in-50-year event,” Mr Wargent said.

“Secondly, there was a lot of talk that down on Brisbane River, they put in these backflow devices and mitigation procedures.

“But the rain has to go somewhere and there’s only so much that putting a backflow device can do to stop that.

“Having two major floods events in the space of a dozen years, it probably does have an impact on the perception of how regular it is.”

Professor Eves also believes psychology will come into play.

“The bottom line is, there are a whole range of things people look at,” he said.

“And if you look at most of the areas that have been flooded, both in 2011 and the recent floods, their location, the amenities, the infrastructure, if that’s all replaced, then they’re going to continue to be places that people want to purchase.

“It gets to the point where it’s got to be something that’s going to totally limit anyone wanting to live there that will decrease its value to the point where it could be considered to be unusable.

“It’s a case that whenever it’s in people’s minds it’s something that is going to impact. There’ll be people who have less hesitation than others.”

Prof Eves predicted, based on research he had done on previous floods in Sydney and the United Kingdom, it would take four years for housing prices to recover in Brisbane areas hit by the 2011 floods.

It only took 12 months in inner suburbs.

“I don’t think that’s going to happen this time,” he said.

“It’s too fresh in the mind. People in 2011 said, ‘well, the last one was 34 years ago, so if I buy a house now and the next one like this is another 34 years, I probably won’t be here’.

“Now they’ve got a different mindset. A lot of people will be thinking, ‘well, is this going to be every 10 or 12 years?. If that’s the case, I could get hit again’.

Bargain hunters

“So that is certainly going to have an impact in the market. It comes down to the risk-return trade-off.

“A lot of people could say, ‘well it’s twice now. It’s too much. I got through the last one but it’s just too much psychologically, I’ve just got to get out’.

“If we have too much of that and we have fire sales, then it’s going to bring that down.”

Experts agree some people will be chasing a bargain.

With a boiling property market, first homebuyers in particular may be seeing the disaster as an opportunity to get into the property market.

For people in that situation, the advice is consistent: buyer beware.

“Even though there’s the prospect that there might be floods going forward, we’re hopeful that with all this information and the learnings from each event, that each one has less of an impact on people and property,” said Ms Williams from the Property Council.

“I’m not going to give advice to people on where they should or shouldn’t buy. What I would say is there is an immense amount of information out there and it’s all about making informed decisions about where you live.

Be prepared

“If you know where you buy is in a flood area, have a plan for you and your family in place should there be a disaster.”

Dr Cook agrees preparedness is key.

“If you do call on memory, you can actually be a little bit more resilient yourself,” she said.

“You learn when it starts raining to get your stuff out sooner. Some people didn’t get their stuff out in 2011 and they did the same mistake this time.

“Make an educated decision. You can live in these places. You just need to be very aware of your environment.

“What we need to do is turn to the other tools in our tool box, which is public education, town planning, better warning systems and better proactive actions - when the rain starts and the water enters the rivers and creeks, we need to get people out fast.”