Oblivion, Part 3

A bit over ten years ago, the city of Brisbane flooded. It was a major event. I watched a lot of news that week, and they played and replayed this amazing video. It captures one perspective on the floods, from a town just outside Brisbane.

The 2011 flood was the costliest flood in Queensland history – but not the biggest. A flood in 1974 had brought higher water levels. The incredible urban growth in the intervening years, however, meant 2011 was a bigger deal, affecting more people.

We learn a couple of surprising things about memory from this event.

First, the 1974 floods helped save Brisbane from even worse in 2011. One of the good things about the flood was the small amount of warning authorities were able to provide of imminent rising waters. (Albeit not enough to save the cars in the above video!)

Before the flood peaked, news media was able to warn local residents. An episode of current affairs program 7.30 aired before the waters peaked. Presenter Leigh Sales: ‘Even with the emergency response in full-swing, some experts in disaster management believe it’s not too late to learn lessons from the devastating floods of 1974’. The segment interviewed a survivor of 1974, and others.

I thought whether or not an event is publicly and widely remembered would be set in stone at the time of the next disaster. But that is not the case. So long as records exist somewhere, so long as memories are held by private citizens, they can be flushed out and made into public memories Another example: the ABC in Brisbane got people to send in photos of flood markers and flood memorials from the 1974 event – many of which were unobtrusive, mousy little things you’d easily miss – and collated them on a digital map in Brisbane.

One of the tenets of disaster memory is that memory of old events is re-activated by new events. You can see this in the very blog you’re reading – the obvious reason I’ve become focused on memories of Spanish Flu is the current pandemic!

This Google Trends data shows the same thing – Spanish Flu emerged from obscurity to become suddenly a scorching hot topic in 2020.

The historian whose work I’ve relied on for understanding the Brisbane Floods is Scott McKinnon. His paper “Remembering and forgetting 1974: the 2011 Brisbane floods and memories of an earlier disaster” is brilliant. Here’s a great quote from it:

“Sally and her partner, Jane, for example, lived in the ground floor flat of a two-storey and two-home dwelling. Their actions in the flood were largely determined by the memories of a neighbour.

“A lady across the road, Margaret, was in the ‘74 flood and she came over and said, “If it’s going to be worse than ’74, you girls have to get out, or else be up top and get everything you can up”.”

Sally and Jane were shocked into action, and despite being trapped, survived.

Eagle Street Brisbane, 2011. Photo: Andrew Kesper.
Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Memory matters. It helps determine how we respond to the next disaster. We can reactivate memories. This is why it’s so important to understand how we forgot the Spanish Flu. But as McKinnon points out, our memories are not always helpful.

HISTORY IS WRITTEN BY THE VICTORS

You’ve probably heard the expression. This – it turns out – is true not only of wars but, in a strange way, of disasters too. History is written by survivors. In Brisbane, the memory of the floods is of triumph over adversity.

“I want us to remember who we are. We are Queenslanders. We’re the people that they breed tough, north of the border. We’re the ones that they knock down, and we get up again.” Queensland Premier Anna Bligh.

McKinnon’s whole bit is digging out the memories that are excluded by this way of looking at history. The marginalised communities. The people who died. The ones who got PTSD.

This really speaks to me because I am fascinated and appalled by war stories that involve a narrator who survives against terrible odds. I have been since I read about Roald Dahl’s ludicrous run of good luck that led him to survive World War 2 and go on to be an author.

His story is survivorship bias at its most obvious, but it is there in every war story. Actually, all the stories we hear are survivor stories. People who die in wars, people who die in disasters, they don’t get to tell a story. Their story can be told by someone else, but we never hear their perspective

“It was horrible, but somehow we survived,” people say. Somehow the city survived, somehow the country survived. The thing that survived is abstract – but lots of very real things didn’t survive at all. The “somehow we pulled through” narrative emphasises what endured.

This statue in Lisbon honours King Joseph I’s response to the Great Earthquake of 1755, which opened up 5-metre wide cracks in the earth and killed 30,000-40,000 people.

McKinnon cites renowned memory researcher Astrid Erll: “Things are remembered which correspond to the self-image and the interests of the group’. This is the second major lesson of the Brisbane Floods.

We make public memories that make us feel comfortable and reassured, ones that don’t make waves.

I never imagined this when I dived into learning about disaster memory. It’s not just time that kills memories, such that they die off slowly over time, it’s not just convenient narratives either. It’s power. Oh shit.

“What should we remember about ourselves?” is arguably the question that sparks the culture wars. Once you start thinking about this, it is strange how memory is at the forefront of culture war topics. It could be pulling down statues, or re-naming parks. It could be a Prime Minister objecting to a “black armband view of history”. It could be a major journalistic effort like the 1619 project, which aimed to give new perspective on the history of the USA.

In a way I’m horrified by this – I wanted to write about volcanoes, not the bloody culture wars! But the more I look at it the more I can’t deny our identity is formed by remembering certain bits of the past and forgetting others. Which is affected by who has power. It’s not the only factor but you can’t address collective memory without thinking about it.

When we make collective memories about disasters we need to be aware of the fact that they are also affected by these powerful forces. Even in the context of something seemingly apolitical, like a flood, this happens. The ten-year memorial video made by the ABC, for example, focuses on the rescuers – the heroes – and concludes with a rescue technician talking about a letter he got from someone he rescued. “That’s probably one of the things I cherish as a memory of that day,” he says.

It’s a nice note to end a video on. But is the rescuer the most important thing to remember about the floods? Is it the sort of memory that will make us change? Or is it just a memory that makes us feel safe and comfortable? As McKinnon puts it, one of the way we create memories of disasters is as “successfully negotiated moments securely located in the past.”

It’s over, it’s finished, we handled it, we don’t need to worry about it.

Such memories discourage people from rocking the boat. Which is exactly the way of thinking that meant we weren’t ready for Covid-19.

This is part 3 of the series. Part 1 is here and Part 2 is here.

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thomasthethinkengine

Thomas the Think Engine is the blog of a trained economist. It comes to you from Melbourne Australia.

6 thoughts on “Oblivion, Part 3”

  1. Really enjoyed this series, the astounding denialism-based failings of we humans, eh! I agree, this does deserve to be published more broadly.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Very thought-provoking stuff Jason. Thank you for all three sections. We need to ponder this and take steps to improve our responses for next time – what are brains for???

    Like

  3. I really enjoy reading your insights on disaster memory, Jason! Have you spoken to anyone at Australian Red Cross? John Richardson and Kate Brady would be good to talk to. Thank you for your awesome posts!

    Like

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