Posts Tagged ‘natural disasters’

The Reluctant Ringnut

datePosted on 20:23, March 21st, 2011 by Lew

Since the 5.1 magnitude aftershock on the evening of March 20, various Ringnuts — that is, people who take Ken Ring’s moonie earthquake “predictions” seriously — have been saying things along the lines of “SEE ITS TRUE HE TOLD YOU AND YOU DIDN’T LISTEN!” Their ranks include people who really should know better, who’re revealing that when faced with a bit of smoke and a couple of mirrors they’re as credulous as the next rube.

Such as Brian Edwards, who asks “So – was Ken Ring right or wrong?”, and after arraying a series of banal and rigourless equivocations, attempts to turn scepticism on its head by appealing to the old charlatan’s fallback: cosmic uncertainty, man. We don’t really know anything, so everything’s as good as everything else, man.

The trouble is that Brian’s banal and rigourless equivocations — I’ll not repeat them here — are of a piece with those issued by Ken Ring, and that’s the whole point. Brian tries to have a lazy bob each way on the question of whether Ring is right or wrong. Ring has a bob in each of a dozen different ways, from earthquakes of unspecified magnitude across a very wide area, or possibly a weather event of unspecified nature, occurring in a very broad span of time; or possibly nothing at all. The predictive uselessness these banal and rigourless equivocations have been very thoroughly thrashed out in the past month — notably by David Winter, Alison Campbell [edit to add: and Grant Jacobs]. The punchline is that it would have been a shock if his “prediction”, such as it was, had not “come true”.

What separates the Ringnuts (both the reluctant, who claim the mantle of scepticism, and the True Believers) from the rest of us is the realisation that, given the nature of Ring’s “predictions” it is impossible to answer Brian’s question, “Was Ken Ring right or wrong?”. Ken Ring doesn’t give us a testable prediction, so we can’t even get to the point of assessing its rightness or wrongness. Ken Ring is neither right nor wrong. He doesn’t even get to the point of being wrong, since he hasn’t said anything meaningful.

Given all of this, being wrong would be a considerable improvement for Ken Ring.

L

The Disaster Roulette.

datePosted on 15:57, March 19th, 2011 by Pablo

2011 is shaping up to be a most unhappy year. The seemingly endless parade of human misery caused by the three C’s–calamity, catastrophe and chaos– got me to thinking about which is “worse:” human-caused or natural disasters?

The answer lies in the response. In natural disasters the majority of people band together to work together for the common purpose of overcoming individual and collective hardship and tragedy in pursuit of the common goal of re-establishing normality to the lives. The solidarity exhibited during such times is born of the realisation that nature is a force that cannot be controlled and that no blame can be attributed to it or anything else. It just is, and we live at its mercy. If societies are to thrive, the only response to natural disasters has to be social union and commonality of purpose.

Human disasters, on the other hand, tend to bring out the worst in people. In fact, they are often the product of and the motivation for human cruelty, opportunism and greed. Unlike natural disasters, which are indiscriminate in application, human disasters are discriminate and often deliberate (because even negligence affects some more than others given socio-economic, political and cultural demographics). War and genocide are extreme expressions of human disaster, but the reach of malfeasance is vast and wide. Think of the looting that followed the Iraq occupation or pro-democracy protests in Cairo. Or the cynical use of false information supplied to ISAF forces to settle personal vendettas in Afghanistan. Or the wave of drug-related murders in Mexico (over 35,000 in the last five years) that rides on the back of poverty, ignorance and an unwillingness by consuming societies to recognise the demand aspect of the equation. The same willful blindness and self-serving logics applies to human sex trafficking in SE Asia, which leaves a terrible toll of human and social costs in its wake but which is allowed, even encouraged, by states simply because it channels sexual predation to foreign localised areas (such as Thailand, which is the recipient of well-advertised sex tours from countries such as Japan and Germany). Then there are the corporate disasters ranging from the tobacco industry’s lying about the effects of smoking to lax safety regulations at chemical plants in places like Bophal to the manipulation of financial derivatives by bankers that produced the global financial crisis of 2008-present and which exacted a terrible toll in lost jobs, lost homes and, in some countries, lost public benefits imposed by austerity measures prescribed by the very people who caused the crisis in the first place.

If my view is correct then the answer is clear: human disasters are “worse” than natural disasters.

But there is another scenario that brings the worst of both together: where human folly has magnified the impact of a negative natural event. That may be the case in Japan. If it turns out that concerns about nuclear safety standards were ignored or covered up by power company operators in the years before this year’s earthquake and tsunami, and/or that they are currently downplaying the gravity of the situation in an effort to save face, then the current nuclear crisis is a human add-on to what otherwise is a terrible but surmountable natural disaster. The same is true if it turns out that the supposedly “earthquake-proof” buildings in countries with known fault lines have not been built to code due to corruption or cost-cutting (this is especially true for states located with the Ring of Fire earthquake zone and Central Asia where such standards, if they exist, are haphazardly enforced). I use these two examples because they are in the news at present, but the list of instances where human failures worsened the negative impact of a natural event is long. As for the bible-bashers who place blame on victimised societies because of their supposed failures to adhere to God’s teachings: the less said the better, but they too add unnecessary suffering to those already in distress.

In sum, it seems to me that natural disasters are tragedies for which humanity is socially hard-wried to cope. Human disasters are worse because they promote self-centred advantage-taking, meanness and division rather than solidarity and unity. Human and natural disasters combined are the most calamitous of all because the presence of the former compounds and exacerbates the problem while making more difficult a common response to the latter.

All of which is to say, if I have to spin the disaster wheel given where I live, I bet on natural causes and prepare accordingly (easier to do in NZ than in SG, which is another reason to return home). However, should I ever again live in a conflict zone or where corporate and/or political corruption abounds (and that could well be most of the world), then I will hedge my bets with a human disaster contingency plan as well.

Put it out of its misery

datePosted on 23:12, March 11th, 2011 by Lew

After defending New Zealand’s broadcast news media in recent weeks, and bemoaning the lack of funding for public service broadcasting in particular, TVNZ has tonight hit rock-bottom. The so-called national broadcaster has been comprehensively shamed by TV3, and in the battle for news credibility it has capitulated having barely fired a shot.

John Campbell announced the Sendai Earthquake live on Campbell Live, and TV3 interrupted its broadcast of the high-rating Glee with micro-bulletins (leading the ad breaks) not long afterwards, and eventually ditched the show altogether to show live coverage from Japan’s English-language NHK network. TV One, in contrast, let MasterChef play to the end before switching to NHK. The digital-only channel TVNZ7 was also broadcasting coverage from NHK.

Both commercial channels continued to play ads, but other than that, did a pretty good job of balancing raw foreign coverage, context provided by their local presenters, and important updates for New Zealanders (tsunami alert status, etc.). And then, after broadcasting quake coverage for about an hour, One switched back to its regular programming, showing “Pineapple Dance Studios”, a reality TV show about “the larger-than-life exploits” of the dancers at said London studio. TVNZ’s other channel, TV2, was broadcasting American Idol. At some point (I haven’t been watching it) TVNZ 7 switched back to its regular programming: a book show of some sort. TV3, apparently without a second thought, cancelled the rest of its scheduled programming, and continues to carry the NHK feed, interspersed with relevant original content, including reports from New Zealand expats in Japan.

The contrast could not be more stark: while both One and TV3 remain general-purpose TV channels with a bolt-on news component, TV3 thinks of itself as and actually behaves like a bona fide news outlet, while for all its big talk TVNZ has revealed itself to be just another vehicle for empty escapism. TV3 demonstrated considerably better newscasting chops than TVNZ during the Canterbury earthquake of 22 February, but the comparison was unfair because TVNZ’s live broadcast infrastructure was more or less destroyed in the earthquake, so they had considerably less capacity to respond, for reasons outside their control. It is true that, given the volume of disaster coverage we have had recently, there is a need for an escapist bolt-hole — not least, for the traumatised survivors of the Canterbury earthquakes. But that’s what TV2 and American Idol are for. Make no mistake: given our current disaster awareness, the relatively strong links between New Zealand and Japan — including the presence of Japanese USAR teams still in Christchurch — that country’s broad and deep experience of coping with events such as these, and the fact that the tsunami waves are predicted to submerge entire islands in the Pacific, including, presumably some of our protectorates — this is of legitimate news interest to New Zealanders. It is apparently the largest earthquake recorded in Japan in the past century, and one of the ten largest earthquakes ever recorded. By any meaningful metric it is an important news story worthy of our attention.

At the heart of my defence of public service broadcasting lately has been the argument that public service broadcaster raise the bar of competition, forcing commercial broadcasters to sharpen their game. To quote myself (from a comment on Red Alert the other day):

The British broadcast media are very good indeed, and the main reason for this is the BBC. Yes, the BBC itself makes up a lot of the broadcast media environment there, but more importantly, it forces commercial competitors to compete with something other than lowest-common-denominator mass-market ratings. The same dynamic exists in the two other major media markets with strong and well-provisioned PSBs: Canada and Australia, where the CBC and ABC respectively set an enormously high standard for commercial competitors to meet. This is one of the major roles of public service broadcasting, especially in news: to set a high bar for competition.
If you want to solve the problems within New Zealand’s media environment, if you want to raise the bar: make the commercial media outlets compete with something that hasn’t been gutted and hamstrung. Fund TVNZ and Radio NZ properly, give it freedom to hire and retain the best people, buy the best content, and generally do what it does, and let the others work to match them. Everyone wins.

To give just one tiny example of how this might have worked: TV3 may have reconsidered its decision to air advertisements for fast food and outboard motors between shots of buildings and fleeing vehicles being swept away by ten metre waves, if there had been a viable ad-free newscast in competition with it. To give another: perhaps, if there was some competition prepared to put up the NHK feed overnight for those whose family members and friends are in Japan, TV3 might not have cut to Sports Tonight after Nightline had aired. But there wasn’t any competition. When governments underfund public service broadcasters or hamstring them by imposing the contradictory roles of a public service mandate and the need to return a profit to the consolidated fund, both roles are weakened. We get the worst of both worlds: as taxpayers, we pay public money to fund public service broadcasting, provision of which is undermined by the channel’s need to remain obedient to market imperatives, and in exchange for putting up with ads we end up with a pale imitation of a commercial broadcaster as well. One News — and to an even greater extent TVNZ 7 — supposedly a dedicated ‘factual content’ channel — disgraced themselves and failed New Zealanders tonight. The tagline “New Zealand’s news. Anywhere. Anytime” should perhaps be revised to “Anywhere. Anytime. Except when there’s third-rate reality programming to air instead.”

TVNZ, by waving the white flag tonight, has demonstrated that it’s all but worthless as a public service broadcaster. The market is doing its job for it. If the government isn’t going to fund it well enough to turn it into a proper public service broadcaster, they might as well sell it, if they can find anyone who’ll pay anything for it. If they can’t, perhaps they can just take it out behind the shed and put it out of its misery.

L

The three cities of Christchurch

datePosted on 12:59, March 2nd, 2011 by Lew

As local context and in contrast to my recent posts on the media response to the Christchurch earthquake, you must read this arresting report from Christchurch resident Peter Hyde. It is long, but the following facts are crucial:

There are THREE cities in Christchurch right now, not one.
RESCUE CITY is inside the four main avenues, and it is cordoned off. That means almost all our knowledge of it comes from media, and man is it a honey-pot for them!
It’s given us understandably-incessant tales and images of injury, tragedy, loss, broken iconic buildings, heroism, sacrifice, leadership and gratifying international response. It’s extremely television-friendly.
My quake experience started there, but actually almost nobody lives in Rescue City. The resources and attention which are seemingly being poured into it right now are NOT addressing the most urgent post-quake needs of the population of Christchurch.
SHOWER CITY is any part of Christchurch where you can take a hot shower, because you have electricity and running water and mostly-working sewer lines. By latest estimates, that’s about 65% of the city — much of it out west.
In that part of Christchurch, weary and stressed people are getting on with life — though some may be wondering if they still have a job. And a few of them with energy and time to spare are wondering if they can do more to help the rest of the city.
The media naturally lives in Shower City, and they talk almost exclusively to the business leaders and the Rescue City leadership who also inhabit it.
REFUGEE CITY is the rest of Christchurch — mainly the eastern suburbs, though there are pockets elsewhere. It includes perhaps 50,000 to 100,000 people, though a more-mobile chunk of them may have self-evacuated by now.
Only half of those who remain in Refugee City have power, and almost NONE have running water. Many have been living on their own resources, and their neighbours’, for over a week now.
That means that batteries have run down, gas (if they had any to start with) has run out, other supplies are low or gone. Roads are often very bad – and a lot of those from the poorer suburbs have no transport anyway.
Their houses may or may not be intact. Their streets may be clear, broken, or full of silt. Or sewage. There are no showers. Or ways to wash clothes. Or to wash dishes. Or to heat the “must boil” water that is available — assuming they can make it to the nearest water truck, day after day. No refrigeration. No working toilets, and precious few portaloos. No face masks to defend against the blown silt.
They have no internet either, and usually no phones. And their radio batteries are dead or dying. The papers — if you can get one — are rapidly dated, and usually far too general in their coverage. It really doesn’t help someone without a car in Aranui to know that Fisher and Paykel are providing free laundries in Kaiapoi!
All the above means the locals have few resources, little information, and no “voice” either. It’s remarkably hard to call talkback radio – or your local politician — or emergency services — when your landline is out and your cellphone battery is dead. Or when it maybe has JUST enough charge to stay on hold for 5 minutes – but not 20! – when calling the sole government helpline.
The media flies over, drives past and dips into Refugee City, usually at the main welfare or water points. But they don’t cover it that much. From my observations, the officials – those who are making decisions about the relief effort – seem to do likewise.
[…]
IN THESE POWERLESS SUBURBS, THE OFFICIAL RESPONSE IS FAR FROM ENOUGH. Especially in terms of the fundamentals.

It continues at considerable length, and I urge you to read it all, particularly the bit which tells you what you can do to make a difference.

Edit: There is another similarly grim comment from Puddleglum at The Standard:

I’ve spent the last few days shovelling silt in the east of Christchurch. My nephew who had helped dig a friend out of his house in Bexley on Saturday has been over more of the eastern suburbs. Basically, it gets exponentially worse the further east from the central city you go.
These people are already angry, stressed, dismissive of the reactions of most authorities and doggedly trying to do it themselves – yet, as the poster notes, they had the fewest resources to begin with. It’s heartbreaking. Bitter jokes punctuate emotionally strained comments about ‘you just have to go on’, ‘what else can you do?’, ‘THEY won’t help’. They did really appreciate the volunteer ‘diggers’, though.

Read the whole thing.

I’m on deadline and short on time, but my initial response is as follows.

The response is not blind to class or social station. Of course it’s not; as early as last Wednesday I was seeing tweets from people in what is now Shower City saying “we’re doing it hard, but those poor areas down the line haven’t got anything”. This is a feature of disaster responses everywhere. Of course, those suburbs hardest-hit are those suburbs hardest-hit. But what’s really problematic is intersectionality: live in a hard-hit suburb and you’re poor? Tough for you.

I suspect the problem is not so much exploitation as it is ignorance, both wilful and otherwise; by both officials and others. Referring back to the discussions of exploitation on my previous posts, it might be that the residents of Refugee City would welcome a horde of snooping cameras, as long as they could be assured that the footage they captured would stimulate a greater and better-targeted response.

The media has a responsibility to tell this story, as much as it does to relay the uplifting narratives of solidarity and community resilience from Rescue and Shower Cities. A week on from the event, it should not fall to an insomniac resident of Refugee City who is fortunate enough to have the electricity, technical means, personal wherewithal and social networks to tell this story as if it is some sort of revelation. That is the job of the professionals. We should already know all of this.

In their meagre defence, I have heard some media outlets asking questions such as these. A reporter (from TV3) asked Bob Parker yesterday, after the fanfare resulting from the discovery of the time capsule, whether it was good enough that Aranui still didn’t have toilets. (His reply was not good enough — that the response had been very good overall — and the journalist did not push him.) They toured Aranui yesterday, talking with the residents and broadcasting their concerns — lack of facilities, lack of attention, breakdown of the rule of law. Breakdown of the rule of law. People fleeing their homes because, at twilight, groups of people roam around casing houses for burglary.

The media must report this, and in some cases it has: but ultimately it is for the government to undertake a response which mitigates against this inequitably-distributed misery. And a government who is reportedly considering policy changes which will weigh heavily upon lower-income New Zealanders would be well-advised to look after those citizens’ response.

As they say: the whole world’s watching.

L

(Thanks to Emma Hart for bringing this to my attention.)

The television will be revolutionised

datePosted on 22:50, February 24th, 2011 by Lew

Tim Watkin has written a great think-piece on Pundit about the “birth of a new news” in New Zealand. He asks a lot of good questions about the imperatives and tensions inherent in this (and I hate the term) new paradigm:

Rather than a journalist doing the thinking for the viewers and the carefully condensed report presented, the thinking (and feeling) is done live in front of you, and sometimes is exposed as shallow or headline-driven. It’s real, for better or worse. As Paul Holmes puts it, ‘the curtain is pulled back’. But is the loss of thinking time worth the gain? Are we better informed if we see behind the scenes?
Quantity can become the enemy of quality. Mistakes are made when resources are stretched so far, whether they come in the form of spelling mistakes, tactless phrases, offensive unedited pictures or whatever.
When you have to talk and keep talking and talk some more while the next guest is being moved into position or some pictures are being edited or a dropped phone line re-established, you’re bound to say something off-key and earn ire from your audience. But those skills are being learnt under fire as I write, perhaps making for better journalists down the track, trained in the heat of battle.
I’d be interested to see the comment thread toss these pros and cons around. What do you think of the coverage? Of this trend to such extensive news-telling? What’s stood out? Are you better served? What’s worked, what hasn’t?

While this sort of coverage has been well entrenched in more mature mass-media markets for some years, it is indeed new to New Zealand. The extent of coverage we saw of the Pike River tragedy (and the valuable scrutiny of government and corporate conduct which that entailed) would probably not have occurred without the spur provided by the September 4 earthquake, which forced our local newsmakers to deploy in ways they’d never deployed before, and to consider how they might respond to a greater event.

I’ve been deeply immersed in the earthquake coverage since it happened. Probably too deeply, and it is too early for me to address any of Tim’s questions in any depth. I urge you to go and discuss them at Pundit. But Tim’s next paragraph provides the kernel of my tentative answers: he tangata, he tangata, he tangata:

In TVNZ’s control room this morning decisions large and small were being made in an instant by people who were typing in text for on-screen banners, talking on the phone to journalists about to go to air, receiving updates from the newsroom, and listening to live interviews – all at the same time. Hey, as I’ve learnt in the past year, that’s what producers do. It’s important to understand the complexity of the environment, however, when you’re judging the coverage from the comfort of your armchair.

It is people. All those snap decisions are the reason it’s crucial that serious news organisations continue to employ the smartest and most dedicated people they can find, because when the chips are really down and there’s nobody to direct traffic, news needs to fall back on the instincts, judgement, professionalism and initiative of newsmakers, from the most junior interns to the best-known household names.

For all the howlers (“live bodies” is one I heard this morning; there are dozens more) the overall response by the New Zealand media has been extremely strong, and in addition to broadcasting the facts and context of this event, has served a greater purpose: to make New Zealand and the world care about Christchurch. That’s support that disasters in countries without a robust media infrastructure don’t normally draw: contrast the response with quakes, floods and so on in Pakistan, Brazil, Iran, China, and elsewhere. Individualised human experience — such as that of Ann Voss, interviewed live on TV3 after nine hours trapped in her office, having already farewelled her children — embedded in broader context become emblematic of the event; they provide distant, detached viewers a handle by which to grasp the enormity of the disaster. That’s valuable; not only for those glued to their screens, but for those whose lives and deaths have been laid rudely bare before the cameras. And how much more so for the uprisings in the Middle East, where wall-to-wall coverage, especially on Al Jazeera, has been instrumental in generating worldwide solidarity and sympathy with those who seek to overthrow their oppressors?

For this reason I have little agreement with those who complain of media exploitation — for two examples, see Steven Price and Jonathan Green — although their arguments are understandable. I think most Christchurchers (and West Coasters, Queenslanders, Tunisians, Egyptians and Libyans) would consider a small measure of fleeting, mostly inadvertent exploitation is a reasonable price to pay for their stories being told to the world in ways which make the world shed tears for them, get angry on their behalf, and reach into their pockets to help. The news production model is mutual exploitation, after all.

A bigger question is: when will it end? At what point will the newsmaking apparatus have outlasted its usefulness, and be doing better service by covering personality politics, celebrity scandal and sporting achievements? Another question I can’t really answer. But I think we can trust the judgement of those people whose decision it is to make.

L

In my view, one of the more shameful episodes in the Canterbury earthquake was the call by some for retailers to implement so-called ‘efficient’ pricing of crucial goods such as water. Among these was University of Canterbury economist Eric Crampton, whose article on the topic was even printed in the papers. Read his blog post In defense of price gouging. I often agree with Eric, but on this topic I just don’t.

I’m no big-city economist, and I seem to have misplaced the argument I wrote on the topic at the time, but essentially the problem is: if nothing is done, the resource just runs out and people who need it can’t get it. Absent some mechanism (rationing, gouging, &c) the criterion for access to the resource is speed and/or ruthlessness — the person who goes down to the supermarket & fills their ute with bottled water wins; everyone else has to rely on other means, such as asking their neighbours or others for help. I see efficient pricing as simply a means to shift the the criterion for access from ‘speed+ruthlessness’ to ‘accessible wealth+ruthlessness’. Those neither speedy nor wealthy (that is, almost everyone) will have to fall back on those same social structures of cooperation and goodwill to get their water in either case, and I don’t accept that privileging those with cash on hand is much of an improvement over privileging those who can get through the gate quickest.

However there is a non-economic factor to consider: in times of disaster, social cohesion is crucial. To large extent it operates on the notion that both the mighty and the humble are brought low; that we’re all in this together, and when the chips are down, Jack’s as good as his master. A resource allocation mechanism which punctures these illusions so as to damage social cohesion, such as by turning the poor against the rich, must deliver an enormous efficiency benefit in order to offset the harm it causes by sapping the goodwill upon which disaster recovery thrives. At a time when the foremost objective should be to promote social cohesion, ‘efficient’ pricing is an ugly imposition of individualism on the collective spirit.

Anyway, the point of this post wasn’t to relitigate that, or to criticise Eric, so much as to say that — by contrast — reports of price-gouging in post-flood Queensland have drawn a firm response from officials. Fair Trading Minister Peter Lawlor warned retailers of the possible strategic consequences of gouging:

“I think traders who attempt to profit from the misery of others during the floods should keep in mind that people have long memories. Even if there’s no official complaint, any quick returns they seek to make will be of little value to the business in the longer term.” [he said]. Mr Lawlor says if there is evidence they are breaking the law, they will be prosecuted.

More robust still was the statement from Ipswich Mayor Paul Pisasale, the same who warned looters that they would be used as flood markers if caught:

Ipswich Mayor Paul Pisasale says the city will remember businesses that try to take advantage of the disaster. “I know I’m not supposed to say [this] – but the health inspectors are on their way and the building inspectors are on their way after we finish this to see if we can help those businesses – [but] like hell,” he said.

This suggests a vigilante streak and willingness to bring the coercive force of the state to bear for social, rather than strictly regulatory reasons, and this is not usually a beneficial trait in a civic leader. However I think in cases like this there is some justification for such a stance. Pisasale’s position is a manifestation of the ‘Queensland culture’ called upon by Premier Anna Bligh in her speeches, and which may now be her political legacy. If it all came to pass, perhaps a disgruntled gouger might take legal action against Pisasale or his agencies for harrassment; but this would be an uphill battle, because Pisasale enjoys the protection of being right in the eyes of his society. After all; the only thing most Aussie battlers hate more than a government bureaucrat is a disaster profiteer. He is on firm ground as a representative of his people, because his representation rings true. His commitment is to the cohesion of his society. He is doing what crisis leaders do; efficiency be damned.

L

Stay classy, Atlases

datePosted on 08:11, January 13th, 2011 by Lew

VEXNEWS‘ headline, while verbose, really does nail it: GREEDY GERRY: Heartless Harvey fiddles at lavish Gold Coast party while Queensland drowns.

That’s Gerry Harvey, of Harvey Norman; and John Singleton, who (with Harvey) owns a thoroughbred brokerage aptly named ‘Magic Millions’. This photo and others were taken at its launch while much of the rest of the state of Queensland was underwater. From the article, with my emphasis:

When asked by a reasonably friendly Gold Coast Bulletin scribe about whether continuing the event in light of the hardship endured by the rest of Queensland, Harvey’s partner John Singleton’s response showed a remarkable lack of sensitivity even by the vulgar standards of the average Sydney spiv: “You feel a bit guilty having a good time when you see what is happening in other parts of Queensland and northern NSW, but on the other hand the Aussie way is life goes on.” Charming.

Context, however, is everything. There’s a good reference to the fall of Rome in there, but here’s the real bit of background which brings it home:

Gerry Harvey is closely associated with the brand of his many outlets where so many Australians buy the goods that furnish their homes. Many (fortunate enough to be insured) Queenslanders will come to file into these outlets in the days and months ahead when they want to replace all the things they lost. He stands to make (yet another) fortune. You’d think the man would show a little more decency during this sobering time for our country.

Well, you would — but in fact, it’s worse than that. Many of those worst affected by flooding actually aren’t insured for it — because insurers expressly exclude flood damage from their policies. Most cover storms (falling water in the local area) but not flooding (rising water, or that which originated elsewhere). The Queensland Department of Primary Industry has a summary:

A major obstacle that delays insurance claims is the different definitions for flood and inundation in insurance policies. The Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) defines ‘flood’ as:
“In general terms, flood damage refers to the inundation of a property by water which overflows from a natural watercourse, while storm and tempest damage refers to the inundation of a property by water as the result of a storm.”
Therefore, some inundation risks are covered by the term ‘flood’.
According to ASIC’s Consumer Understanding of Flood Insurance Report, both types of damage are usually linked to a storm, and a property may be inundated by both water from the storm and water overflowing from a natural watercourse. However, most insurance policies don’t cover damage to a property if caused by:
* inundation of water flowing from a natural watercourse
* inundation of water from both the storm and overflow of a natural watercourse (unless most of the damage is caused by stormwater)
* other phenomena, such as earth movement, even though this may itself have been caused by water from a storm.
The Insurance Council of Australia advises consumers to review the terms and conditions of their cover in their Policy Disclosure Statement.
If in doubt, contact your insurer.

It makes sense, as an insurer, to decline to offer cover for anything which might actually cost money; and there abides a regulatory environment which permits insurers to do just this. The topic, and related problems resulting from poor government policy, are covered in some detail in a column by La Trobe University disaster researcher Rachel Carter in today’s Australian. Consequently, despite the present floods being declared the most severe disaster in Queensland’s history and with some discussion today that it may be the worst in the history of the Commonwealth, insurers were, a few days ago, saying that the losses to their industry would be modest.

(Sidebar: if you’ve not connected the dots, this is the same insurance industry to which the Key government intends to deliver ACC early in their second term. Don’t say you weren’t warned.)

And so it is as it ever was: even in an affluent, modern first-world democracy with strong disaster-response agencies, which likes to regard itself as an egalitarian nation where the “little guy” gets a fair suck of the sav — when push comes to shove the big guys make out like bandits, and the little guy goes under.

In both cases, literally.

L