My wife and I are lucky that our Brisbane property was not adversely affected by the Queensland floods of 2011. Losing everything, however it might happen, must be utterly devastating. (We did get a vivid sense of that devastation during the clean-up of the floods in Ipswich after a friend of a friend did lose everything.)
I have, however, experienced personal loss and the seemingly natural need for a place to direct the anger which results from that loss. In other words, needing someone to blame.
In the weeks following the flood, 38,000 claims worth $1.5 billion were made by residents and businesses to insurers. Many residents lost out on their claims with varying interpretations of what constitutes a flood in their policy's fine print.
The support for a class action by law firm Maurice Blackburn against the State of Queensland for losses incurred during the January 2011 flood event would appear to indicate that people still want to hold someone accountable.
Instead of going after the insurance companies, Maurice Blackburn lawyers are after the heads of the Wivenhoe Dam operators. According to their own independent investigation, flooding would have been less severe "had the dam been operated to the standard expected of a reasonably competent dam operator."
To flood victims, I imagine participation in this class action would be enticing.
The Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry did indeed find dam engineers in breach of the operating manual. Despite this, the inquiry also found that "engineers achieved close to the best possible flood mitigation result for the January 2011 flood event."
One of the main accusations against the engineers is that they didn't release enough water from Wivenhoe early enough to cope with future forecast rainfall. The engineers argued that the forecast was not certain enough to be acted upon and dam releases without the forecast rainfall would've resulted in worse flooding.
WeatherWatch meteorologist, David Sercombe, was writing forecasts in the days leading up to the floods "based on most of the rainfall being expected to fall BELOW the dams, and not ABOVE them where the water can be captured." He also notes that situation reports from the engineers showed that they also expected rain below the Wivenhoe catchment.
Regardless, the Commission found in its interim report that "it is not possible to articulate a method by which lake levels could be predicted with any precision or strategies confidently changed on the basis of rainfall forecasts." So, because the engineers could not reasonably predict the lake level, they could not enact appropriate releases, or releases that would seem appropriate in hindsight.
Hydrologist Mark Babister who was assigned by the Commission for his expertise modelled a number of different scenarios to determine whether the flood level could've been reduced. Ultimately though, none of the scenarios were realistic. In other words, all the cases he modelled where the outcome might've been improved required that the engineers possess an unrealistic level of foresight in combination with restrictions imposed by dam's operating manual. (The manual has since been revised.)
Hydrodynamic modelling is incredibly complex and Babister openly and responsibly declared a margin for error in his hypothetical scenarios. According to the Courier Mail, the day after Maurice Blackburn produced a map showing which areas would not have flooded, based on $1 million modelling that took almost a year to produce, they also admitted their maps were inaccurate and were meant "for illustrative and educational purposes" only. The Courier Mail also reported that some Brisbane residents have complained their properties did not flood but were shown as flooded on the map.
Much evidence was presented at the Flood Inquiry so it will be interesting to see what other evidence Maurice Blackburn produces in court if the class action proceeds. With a no-win no-fee deal, it seems obvious that they wouldn't launch a case they didn't think they could win. The cost to the Queensland economy is yet to be determined, but it seems a little ironic that if the case succeeds, it will be paid for by all Queensland tax payers. Needless to say, the biggest winners will be the lawyers.
In the end, perhaps there simply isn't anyone to blame. Maybe the healthiest option is to stop looking for a scapegoat and take what we learned from 2011 to improve the prospects for future events.