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While homes are in ruins, residents displaced and fingers pointed regarding the recent Maribyrnong floods, one question is everywhere: did a wall built to protect Flemington Racecourse make it worse? By Martin McKenzie-Murray.

The Maribyrnong flood debacle

Joe Fakhri cleans up damage to his home from the Maribyrnong River floods.
Joe Fakhri cleans up damage to his home from the Maribyrnong River floods.
Credit: AAP Image / Diego Fedele

Sitting in a hotel room, Jane Trewin says she feels “a bit lost”. A few kilometres away, her house of 40 years sits condemned on the banks of the Maribyrnong River, in Melbourne’s inner-west, its fate to be determined by building inspectors. “It will either be a bulldoze or a major reno,” she says. “One of my sons is a builder, and he thinks it’s a bulldoze.”

Trewin turns down the television before continuing. Since arriving at the hotel a fortnight ago, she’s kept it on 24/7 for company. “That house and the river is everything to me,” she says. “People walking the river would see me sitting out the front with my boom box and a G&T. It was my happy place. It’s gut-wrenching. I don’t know if I have enough insurance, and I’m a pensioner, so a bank won’t give me a loan. But every morning I tell myself that I’m lucky and there are others worse off. I’m nearly 68 but I still have fit and healthy parents. I have two gorgeous sons and four grandkids. My friends are amazing. It could be worse.”

Trewin was home alone on the evening of Thursday, October 13. It was raining heavily – as it had been most of the day – and she was refreshing various websites for flood and weather warnings. She had experienced the 1993 flood and knew the Maribyrnong had peaked then at 3.83 metres, so early suggestions that evening of a peak of just 2.4 metres comforted her.

She was also delaying something. She had recalled her late husband’s advice – Shane Trewin passed away in 2019 – that when floods threaten, you should drive your car to higher ground. He was always insistent about that. Jane was reluctant to leave her home in the pouring rain, knowing she’d have to walk back, but she was more reluctant to spurn the advice of Shane. She returned soaked, changed her clothes and stayed up late following the ever-shifting flood advice. The expected peak was now 2.9 metres, still not enough for serious alarm, but Trewin didn’t know the waters were rising higher and faster than many anticipated. “I stayed up to about 2 [o’clock] waiting for the next alert, but it didn’t come and I must have fallen asleep around 2.30,” she says. “Then I woke to my phone buzzing at around 4.30am and it was an alert saying ‘Evacuate immediately’. So obviously somewhere between 2.30 and 4.30, which I believe was about 3.30, they changed from a moderate warning to major. So they cocked it up. Definitely way out. Two-point-nine is a bit different to four-point-bloody-two, which is what it was.”

Trewin pulled on her husband’s old gumboots, quickly packed a toiletries bag and salvaged some documents. Then she left her house, realising the water had reached her street and was rising quickly. Later that morning, after the sun came up, she was sitting on the other side of the river looking at her dramatically flooded home. “I just burst out crying,” Trewin says. “I was inconsolable. It was a daggy house from the outside, I guess, but I had done it up really nice inside.” Altogether, 245 homes were flooded in the area.

On Tuesday evening this week, there was a community meeting. Maribyrnong council was there, as well as members of other organisations helping in the recovery. Trewin thought about going, but felt fragile and exhausted and wasn’t sure if being around similarly distressed people would help. She streamed part of the meeting online, and it was probably best that she did. The meeting became fractious: residents complained that the warnings came too late, that communications had been poor, that the council was unresponsive.

The streets out here are still muddy and there’s a faint, funky smell of organic decomposition. Driveways and verges are stacked with corrupted beds, couches, armchairs. There are piles of children’s toys, fat rolls of muddy carpet and countless black bin bags. The Environment Protection Authority issued an asbestos warning this week, while displaced brown snakes occupy abandoned homes. 

 

Almost 20 years ago, Jane Trewin’s husband led a community protest against a wall that would ring the riverside perimeter of Flemington Racecourse to protect it from flooding. In the major flood of 1974, the track had been swamped.

The racecourse is a natural flood plain, and Shane Trewin, alongside the hydrologist he collaborated with, Geoff Crapper, and the local council, argued that the wall could displace the water into surrounding homes. Modelling was conducted by Melbourne Water, which approved the wall in 2004. Construction was completed in 2007. For years, a giant banner opposing the wall was strung up at the front of the Trewins’ home.

On October 14 this year, the day of the flood, the former chief executive of the Victoria Racing Club (VRC), Dale Monteith, tweeted before and after shots of the Flemington track: one of the deluged course in 1974 and another aerial shot of the untouched track – an emerald green island surrounded by water and consumed homes. “Pretty happy that we have left a legacy for [the] future of Flemington,” Monteith wrote. “Was always going to happen but ignored previously.” It was acutely insensitive, and reputationally damaging, and the tweet was soon deleted. The next day, Racing Victoria chief Andrew Jones told Channel Nine: “The VRC took steps to flood-protect its property 15 years ago, which it’s entitled to do. That’s obviously had unintended consequences for neighbouring residents.”

The Victorian premier, Daniel Andrews, has announced Melbourne Water will conduct an inquiry into the wall, seeking to answer the question: Did it increase the number of flooded homes? The inquiry will use sophisticated modelling, and a conclusive answer, while possible, won’t be reached any time soon. Some, including Geoff Crapper and former premier Ted Baillieu, have questioned the independence of the inquiry, given it was Melbourne Water that approved the wall and the Water minister at the time, John Thwaites, is now the head of the agency. Thwaites has recused himself from the inquiry.  

 

Professor Rory Nathan is a hydrologist who has studied flood behaviour for 40 years. Nothing about the Maribyrnong flood surprised him – neither its scale nor its swiftness. It was a natural, predictable consequence of our rain, he says, combined with the already sodden soil and swollen catchments that have followed three consecutive La Niña cycles. Our earth’s capacity to absorb, or contain, more rain is exhausted – additional rainfall now manifests quickly as “flood run-off”. Exacerbating this, Nathan says, are less natural influences: the clearing of forests, channelling of rivers and the construction of increasingly impermeable urban areas. Additionally, climate change makes past data used for modelling increasingly outdated.

I ask Nathan about the Flemington Racecourse wall and he speaks passionately about the importance of restraint: he says that early, impulsive diagnoses – before the evidence is in – are unproductive, even harmful. “I think it’s really unhelpful to allocate blame,” Nathan says. “I’ve spent a lot of time post-Brisbane 2011 floods, 10 years on and off dealing with the aftermath of that, both legally and professionally. And it’s a great example of poor media reporting that really set up community expectations that there was someone to blame and they should seek compensation. There was simplistic and misleading reporting about those floods. And with specific regard to the Flemington wall: I can imagine how that may have adversely impacted on neighbouring properties. But in all truth, I can also imagine how that wall locally really made almost no difference. I think it’s unfair to make a community think they’ve been hard done by before the facts are in.”

Something else animates Nathan regarding the Maribyrnong flood, and that’s the recurring call for a dam to be built upstream at Arundel Creek. “Dams and levees work in one sense, because they protect whoever’s downstream of them or on the other side of them,” Nathan says. “The problem, though, is that people develop a false sense of security. And as soon as you build a levee or dam, there’s more development downstream. And so at some point they fail, because there will always be a big event that comes along that exceeds their capacity. And now the consequences of the floods are a lot worse because you have more development. So any dam or levee can help you with small floods, but it will make the consequences of large floods worse. I’m wary of people trying to find people to blame or coming up with simple solutions, because in my experience it’s usually more complicated. And it just comes back to the point that floods are a result of large rainfalls, and it’s getting worse. What we’ve got to do is work out how to better live with them.”

Nathan’s comments complement those of Dr Margaret Cook, a historian of natural disasters at the University of the Sunshine Coast, and the author of several books including A River with a City Problem: A History of Brisbane Floods. “The fact that we even frame them as a disaster is very anthropocentric,” Cook says. “They’re actually very good for the environment. And they’re a natural process. What makes them a disaster is the cultural factor of us building on the flood plain. So, we’ve occupied the flood plain, and then you need to put in a whole lot of measures to make that possible. So, you build dams, you build levees, you build walls around racetracks, you do things that try and mitigate the damage as much as possible. And that’s what they will do, they will mitigate damage, and they are very effective, but they are never going to prevent any serious flood, and particularly if that rain falls downstream of those structures. We’ve got this idea that we can engineer our way out of these problems. And we can’t.”

Rory Nathan wonders if politicians pledging to help people rebuild is sustainable, when what we need to do is move people from flood plains. Cook makes a similar point: “The word ‘resilience’ is a funny word that we use to describe stoicism and to stay and fight. Whereas another form of resilience is to adapt and change behaviours and don’t rebuild. And the one-in-100 [years] description of events is a big problem because people think they’ve got a bigger gap than they do, but the people of Lismore now know that those floods can come three times in one year.”

If there’s anything good here, Cook says, it’s that the east coast’s punishing run of floods and fire may have built a tipping point in cultural awareness and a sense of urgency regarding climate change. Of course, this will be of little comfort to Jane Trewin who, with her walks and gym sessions, is trying to reclaim some sense of routine in her moment of exquisite uncertainty.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 29, 2022 as "In flood plain sight".

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