Bathtub effect · Floods · Grief · Hawkesbury-Nepean river · Living History · Local History · Local Studies · Macarthur · Memory · Trauma

The rain comes tumbling down, again

Flooding in the Hawkesbury-Nepean River Valley

As heavy rain fell on my roof this morning, I pondered another forecast for heavy rain and possible flooding in the local area.

The Bureau of Meteorology issued a severe weather warning that stated:

HEAVY RAINFALL For people in Metropolitan, Illawarra and parts of South Coast, Central Tablelands and Southern Tablelands Forecast Districts. (BOM, 2/7/22)

This brings back memories of early 2022 and the effect of local flooding. There is damage to property and people’s mental health.

Flood on Nepean River at Camden next to milk factory looking to Elderslie along Argyle Street in the early 20th century (CIPP)

People become worried about the unknown. So let’s help clear some of the fog.

What is unique about floods on the Hawkesbury-Nepean River?

 The ‘bathtub effect‘ of the Hawkesbury-Nepean River Valley

The Hawkesbury-Nepean River valley has unique landform features that make flooding in the local area perilous.

The river in flood does not behave like other valleys with wide-open flood plains that allow flood water to spread out and slow down.

The Hawkesbury-Nepean River valley has several pinch points constricting the flow and creating upstream localised flooding. This has been termed the ‘bathtub effect’ by engineering geologist Tom Hubble from the University of Sydney in 2021.

The 2019 H-N Valley Regional Flood Study describes the river valley this way:

 The Hawkesbury-Nepean Valley consists of a sequence of floodplains interspersed with incised meanders in sandstone gorges. (ERM Mitchell McCotter, 1995).[p.6]  [ERM Mitchell McCotter, (1995). Proposed Warragamba Flood Mitigation Dam Environmental Impact Statement, Sydney Water, July 1995.]

The Geography Teachers Association has produced an excellent teaching resource about the river valley, and it states:

The unique geomorphic features of the Hawkesbury-Nepean Valley make it particularly vulnerable to dangerous, fast-rising floods.

An aerial view of the Camden township in the 1974 flood event. The Nepean River is behind the town centre and flows from R-L. (SMH)

The NSW SES says:

The Hawkesbury-Nepean Valley has a long history of dangerous and damaging floods. Since records began in the 1790s, there have been over 130 moderate to major floods in the valley, including 6 major and 21 other serious floods since Warragamba Dam was completed in 1960.

So local people have a right to be worried when the BOM issues flood warnings,

Flood trauma is real.

Floods cause a considerable amount of anxiety in the local area.

The New South Wales Governments website Emotional and trauma support after flood states:

Natural disasters, cleaning up and recovery can take a toll on your mental and physical health. It’s vital people seek support and look after their own and their loved ones’ wellbeing. 

Flooding at the Cowpastures Bridge Camden in 2022 (I Willis)

The Black Dog Institute states that after flooding:

We anticipate that Australians living in areas affected by the current New South Wales and Queensland floods are likely to experience psychological distress. While some level of distress is a normal and understandable response to these events, we know from previous disasters that for many this may lead to more chronic mental health problems.

Royal Life Saving Australia says that there is grief and trauma after flooding. It maintains:

Looking after yourself during and following a flood event is an important part of the flood recovery process. If you have lost someone during a recent flooding event, or been rescued, it is especially important to check in with your support network and identify steps to help you get the additional support you may need. Everyone processes grief differently, and there is no one ‘right’ way to grieve, but we all need help in difficult times.

For the nerds

There is a lot of nerdy technical stuff around flooding in the river valley.

Technical details

There is an excellent study called the 2015 Nepean River Flood Study for technically minded people.

The study defines the Upper Nepean as the river upstream of the confluence of the Nepean River with the Warragamba River and is around 1800 square kilometres (p1).

For those who want to read a broader study about flooding across the Hawkesbury-Nepean catchment, I suggest looking at a study called the 2019 Hawkesbury-Nepean Valley Regional Flood Study.

A keen beekeeper and stalwart of the community garden, Steve rescues his hives from flooding in April 2022 (S Cooper)

One local sage, community gardener and flood watcher, Steve, commented on Facebook:

There has been some discussion about the possible rain event on its way [1/7/22]. Happy to report that all upstream dams are below capacity as per the Bureau of Meteorology. The [community] gardens are not affected till 8.5 metres, upstream inflows will be monitored and in the event of water reaching 8 metres livestock will be moved to higher ground within the garden where applicable or externally if required under the guidance of any relevant authorities. Note that the lagoon fills slowly from the river via the old creek line. However, if the river reaches 11 metres Macquarie Road floods over. Flooding has typically peaked in Camden 9 hours after Avon Dam Road peaked and 3 hours after Menangle. The last floods #3 peaked @ 20 metres at Avon Dam Road. The previous #2 at close to 17 metres. Note the last flood 12.2 metres in Camden occurred after all dams were also full.

This information comes from the BOM rain and river data site.

Steve was disappointed in his predictions about the size of the weather event affecting the New South Wales East Coast.

The rainfall at Robertson is a good indicator of what might happen in the Upper Nepean River river valley. Up to 9.00am today (3/7/22), Robertson had received 258mm of rainfall; at Menangle Bridge, there had been 185mm of rain. The Upper Nepean River valley is saturated and partly explains the behaviour of the Nepean River at Camden.

This view shows the Nepean River at Camden from the Elderslie side of the river on the right bank. This image was taken at 10.00am today (3/7/22), and the river was rising. By 3.00pm, the water had risen to the height of the telegraph pole. (2022, I Willis, 3/7/22)

Historic river heights at the Cowpasture Bridge, Camden.

The historical records of flood heights at the Cowpasture Bridge provide an interesting comparison of the present flood. The records are contained in the 2016 Camden Local Flood Plan.

Historic river heights at the Cowpastures Bridge (2016 Camden Local Flood Plan)

Updated 4 July 2022. First posted 2 July 2022.

Aesthetics · Attachment to place · Belonging · Cafes · Colonialism · Community identity · Cultural Heritage · Cultural icon · Heritage · Historical consciousness · Historical Research · Historical thinking · History · Lifestyle · Living History · Local History · Local Studies · Memorials · Monuments · Myths · Place making · Second World War · Sense of place · Stereotypes · Storytelling · Streetscapes · Tourism · War

Reflections of a travelling scholar

A journey to Poland

I recently had the privilege of being a visiting scholar at the University of Warsaw at the 2nd Biennial International Conference on Redefining Australia and New Zealand: Changes, Innovations, Reversals. The aim of the conference was ‘to promote the culture of Australia and New Zealand in Europe’.

Poland RANZ Conference Header

The conference

The RANZ conference covered several themes related to national identities ranging across cultural, feminine, environmental, transnational and linguistic perspectives with a particular emphasis on memory, trauma and the image. Many of the papers would not have been out of place at the annual  Australian Historical Association Conference.

The ‘Australian western’ and its display in the film was an interesting theme that appeared in several papers. There was a strong interest in Pacific Islander, Maori and Aboriginal literature, art and performance across a range of presentations.

I presented my paper ‘An Australian country girl goes to London’ about the travels of Shirley Dunk in 1954, followed by a lively discussion with some conference delegates. My presentation raised several questions about this type of counter-migration story and what were these young women were seeking in their lives through their journeys. Were they searching for a greater truth about the forces that drove their ancestors to Australia?

Poland University of Warsaw Signage2 2019 lowres
University of Warsaw signage (I Willis)

 

One issue, not unrelated to migration, that emerged at the conference was intergenerational and transgenerational trauma.  One paper suggested that this has become an issue for descendants of  Polish immigrants to Australia of the post-war period. There was an examination Magda Szubanski’s Reckoning, her story of self-discovery haunted by the demons of her father’s espionage activities in wartime Poland.

Polish migrants came to Australia after the Second World War seeking a utopia in a new land and sometimes it failed to materialise. Their own dark clouds created ghosts that have haunted later generations of their family. One delegate suggested to me that this was also an issue from some families in Poland.

Intergenerational and transgenerational trauma raises concerns around how current generations confront and deal with the history of trauma within their own family.  Research suggests that the answers to these questions are more complex than one might expect and that there are wider implications for others. For example, amongst Australian Indigenous populations and the descendants of Australian diggers and how they deal with the long shadow of the Anzac legend.

A less than flattering critique of the Australia migration story emerged at the conference in the form of a special issue of Anglica. The journal editor argues that Australia’s image as a successful model of multiculturalism has been destroyed by increasing intolerance and nationalism. A rather ‘disturbing and ugly face’ of Australia has emerged in a ‘semi-mythical multicultural paradise’.

Dark history and the power of the past

Poland’s deep past and dark history manifested itself in unexpected ways during my visit. The overwhelming presence of the Second World War, particularly in Warsaw, was a new experience for me. It brought into sharp focus the contested nature of my subjectivity and the need for objectivity in this personal reflection. It is a conundrum that has exercised my mind here, as it has done for many other historians on other occasions.

Poland Warsaw memorial 50 Executions 1943 lowres
Memorial on Nowy Swiat in the restaurant precinct of Warsaw. The English caption states in part: Here on December 3, 1943, the Germans killed 50 Poles in a street execution by firing squad. The victims were local residents captured at random in street roundups. Executions were announced through loudspeakers and posters put in the streets in an attempt to increase the sense of fear. (I Willis, 2019)

 

Poland NowySwiat EatingPrecinct 2019 lowres
The Nowy Swiat restaurant precinct Warsaw in the same area as the memorial to the 1943 street executions. (I Willis, 2019)

 

The Second World War lays over Poland like a blanket and its presence is everywhere. The city of Warsaw is like a field of monuments and the city’s dark history is ever-present in the view of the visitor. The past haunts the present in ways that are hard to understand without walking the city streets. Yet paradoxically the city’s dark history is invisible in the mind of many tourists as they walk around the reconstructed old city.

The rebuilt city is a metaphor for the resilience of the Polish people and their ability to be able to redefine themselves in the face of adversity. Polish cultural identity that has been shaped by the war is fundamental to the construction of place in Warsaw, Krakow and elsewhere.

Poland 1944 Uprising memorial 2019 lowres
Memorial to the 1944 Warsaw Uprising on Krakowskie Przedmiescie Warsaw in 2019 (I Willis)

 

I should note that one conference delegate requested that I ‘be kind to the city’ in my reflections of Warsaw. I would suggest that the city needs to be kinder to itself.

For those in the English-speaking world, there are numerous silences in the stories of wartime Poland and its reconstruction. Some of these silences are the result of the hegemony around the ownership of the wartime narrative. The shape and conduct of 20th century German and Russian colonialism are not widely understood in Australia. There is a similar lack of understanding surrounding the role of European modernism and particularly Russian constructivism in the reconstruction of Polish cities.

The horrors of the past haunt the present

The consequences of 20th-century German colonialism are plain for all to see at Auschwitz and Birkenau with their industrial-scale slaughter. For this Australian, the ghosts of these Polish wartime memorials reminded me of the convict ruins at Norfolk Island and other sites.

Yet paradoxically the sacredness of Auschwitz and Birkenau are smothered by industrial-scale tourism that typifies many European tourist attractions. There is a feel of a theme park with the lengthy queues, crowded displays, and constant shoving. The memorial is loved to death.

Poland Auschwitz Camp 2019 Crowds
Auschwitz Concentration Camp guided tours with the crowds of tourists in September 2019 (I Willis)

 

Like travellers of old new experiences are one of the benefits of my journey to Poland. There are parallels with the story of young Australian women who travelled to London including new perspectives, new experiences, and new challenges. Like these young Australian women it has hopefully resulted in: greater empathy; greater understanding; and greater ability to cope with life’s challenges.