Tuesday, 31 January 2023

Some gratitude amidst the flooding


[Pic source Classic Kiwi]

Anger is said to be the second stage of grieving. The first stage however is denial.

It's natural, when disasters happen, to find someone to blame. To vent your anger. When a natural disaster happens, however, that's pretty pointless. It looks like anger redirected. Like trying to deny the reality of the disaster that's just happened.

I think we've seen a lot of that these lasts few days, which is certainly understandable. There have been many moments of humour in the sudden change in the city's landscape (kids and dogs playing in the floodwater*; people paragliding on the new Lake Domain; ) and at least one blessing (I for one can only celebrate the cancellation of the appalling Elton John) but for many it's been an unrelieved bloody disaster. Who wouldn't want to grieve, and to vent. To be angry at the folk you think caused it!

Sure, there is plenty of bureaucratic bungling in evidence around Auckland since last Friday -- much of it arguably because of Rodney Hide's super-sized bloody council (a predictable man-made disaster about whose formation I'm still angry). And much of it, too, because too many have come to expect far too much from government appointees and electees, as if the power of government somehow makes them all super-human and immune to common bloody sense (well, that last but at least is true). 

But what caused the disaster is not those non-entities, you know; it's all that bloody rain!

So the anger against Mayor Wayne Brown for saying this or not saying that -- or for not saying it early enough, or often enough -- looks to me more like anger redirected from the heavens, where the blame really lies for sending down rain in such 1-in-500 year buckets -- and against which there's really no point in ranting. That would literally be old men (and women) yelling at clouds.

We've had (and are still having, it seems) a disaster here in Auckland. A natural disaster. And it seems to me that instead of angry ranting about who said what to whom, and how, it may now be time to begin counting some blessings.

Reality has thrown at us Aucklanders rainfall of a magnitude that just isn't designed for. Engineer's design flood-resistant infrastructure for a 1-in-100 year event. Those buckets of rain represent something like a 1-in-500 year event. Rainfall of a magnitude that no stormwater or infrastructure engineer would have expected, or could realistically design for. Monsoon-level rain that's caused at least four deaths. And yet for all the many slips and outages, and the tragedy of those lives lost and the many homes, families and businesses disrupted, we've come through it a whole lot better than you might have expected.

With exceptions so notable as to be newsworthy, the vast majority of us are still supplied with water and power and refrigeration, and are as warm and dry as we want to be -- and able to offer help to those who aren't.

That it isn't a whole lot worse than it is is almost entirely due to the volunteers and emergency services who have responded to the disaster (who generally do get the praise they deserve at such times), and to the skill of our engineers in designing and building the infrastructure and flood measures that have coped with something well beyond their design load (who however are generally unsung).

The Auckland Domain's new lake, holding water (as designed)
to minimise the water's impact downhill otherwise [pic by Paul. D.]

Things like the culverts they've designed which are taking away the masses water; the nib walls, flood walls, stop banks and bunds that have kept water away from where it shouldn't be; the de-watering pipes in soft ground; the rain  gardens and water diversion devices, which help to slow down the damaging speed at which the water rushes past we fragile humans; there permeable paving that allows water to flow into the ground instead of in damaging sheets across it, and these down overloaded pipes; the work done over many years in identifying and re-engineering all these ways potentially the most dangerous places...

It's not straightforward. Many of the places most effected today were once swamps only a century-or-so ago, or are on soft land that's spent centuries frittering away, and nature is now doing its level best to return those places to their natural state. Yet despite the unprecedented scale of nature's efforts, well beyond what was designed for -- and with the effect of all that rainfall magnified by all the hard urban surfaces built across the city over the last century -- with some well-reported exceptions those places have all held.

[Pic source: Auckland Art Gallery – Toi o Tāmaki. Caption source: Te Ara]

We may not have, nor can afford, world-leading infrastructure. But despite this, that we aren't seeing huge casualty figures and an extremity of damage is something to applaud; applause directed especially to all those unsung engineers who so rarely receive any credit for anything -- and to the folk who created sufficient capital to put their ingenious design-work in place.

So as the city begins to endure the predicted second round of what reality can throw at us, I'm thinking that instead of anger at the grey ones for being as inept as always, we might instead direct more gratitude at those folk who deserve it.

It's time for us all to pause for a moment, and thank an engineer.

We may doubt the just proportion of good to ill.
There is much in nature against us. But we forget;
Take nature altogether since time began,
Including human nature, in peace and war,
And it must be a little more in favour of man,
Say a fraction of one percent at the very least,
Or our number living wouldn’t be steadily more,
Our hold on the planet wouldn’t have so increased.
~ Robert Frost

* * * *

* Kids, don't try this at home without washing your hands afterwards.


Anonymous said...

For all the crap often spouted about over-engineered bureaucratic residential building codes, it was good to see that most roofs actually performed more than adequately. The Building Code design lower limit for 100mm/hour on roofs at 1 in 500 years obviously is about right. As you noted, it's just removing that water post rain event that needs more work! Along with removing idiots from the gene pool that do stupid things during such events. Infill housing in the natural drainage channels should not be allowed. PMofNZ

Anonymous said...

Wonderful. Brava!

MarkT said...

Well said. Engineers don’t promise to protect us from all risk. They protect us from risk up to a certain point that’s deemed acceptable. Once you get past a certain point (eg: a 1% risk of exceedance every year) you get diminishing returns, because the cost of protecting us from the risk exceeds the value of the damage when it happens.

Even if you don’t understand that well, it’s moronic to blame Wayne Brown for the disaster because he didn’t declare a state of emergency early enough. As if declaring an emergency is going to help protect you from an emergency.

MarkT said...

I completely disagree with your sentiments. Making people adhere to conservative design standards regardless of the cost/benefit trade off is what’s crap. Leaving people to make their own judgment around the cost/benefit tradeoff is not crap.

Peter Cresswell said...

..."crap"? I'm confused ...