Contact chats with author and UQ graduate Margaret Cook about her process in uncovering the stories behind Brisbane's worst floods.
Historian and author Margaret Cook still remembers the smell of the 1974 Brisbane floods.
As part of her parents’ clean-up crew, she was tasked with hosing off dirty washing.
“I clearly remember the streaks of mud coming off the white sheets. And I remember the smell,” Cook recalled.
She was only five years old, but that did not stop her from trying to help the flood’s smallest victims.
“I took in field mice. I had a shoe box and I rescued all these mice that came up onto our high grounds.”
When the Brisbane River flooded again in 2011, Cook was on holiday in Western Australia. All she could do was watch the two cities she had grown up in – Ipswich and Brisbane – disappear under water on television.
Grounded and unable to contact family, she was powerless to help.
These experiences informed the UQ graduate’s (Bachelor of Arts (Honours) ’89, Doctor of Philosophy (Environmental History) ’18) book about flooding in Brisbane.
A River with a City Problem: A History of Brisbane floods, published by University of Queensland Press, explores flooding in the Brisbane River catchment, focusing on the floods in 1893, 1974 and 2011. It looks at the politics surrounding these events, how residents were sold the narrative that Wivenhoe and Somerset Dams would protect their homes, and how we can better plan for future floods.
A Commission of Inquiry following the 2011 floods blamed poor dam management, but Cook thought there was more to the story. The Brisbane River had flooded many times before. Others had looked at individual floods, but there was no singular work that had put the pieces together to tell the whole story.
Completing her PhD at UQ gave Cook the resources to pull all those pieces together. It was important for her to get the facts and the science right.
“I’ve read more engineering reports than I thought I’d ever read,” Cook said.
But she didn’t just stick to the library. To understand the floods, she needed to get her feet wet too.
“My family and I went kayaking up the Brisbane River, because I think you can’t really understand a place until you go and walk it,” she said.
“They talk about historians needing good boots. In my case I needed a kayak. But it was great to go and actually experience the river first-hand and understand how the land works.”
Cook is active in her community, performing voluntary heritage work for Ipswich City Council and getting involved in school committees.
Capturing the human story was just as important as the science to her.
She interviewed flood victims, people involved in clean-up and rescue, dam engineers and meteorologists.
“I love people. That’s my thing. I enjoy talking to people and I like those moments in history when people can make a difference or choose not to.”
UQ PhD graduate and author Margaret Cook. Image: Marc Grimwade
Cook said she wrote her book to bring her PhD research to a wider audience.
“I think at the heart of it, historians are storytellers. And I think if we don’t connect with our readers then we miss a golden opportunity.
“I don’t want to talk to just historians. I want to talk to the people who can make a difference, and can change our future.”
Cook said her love of crime novels influenced the writing of her book.
“I thought if I can try and use the devices that they use in fiction – like plot, narrative, pace – then it does make it more accessible and more interesting.”
“My friends tell me it’s a bit of a page-turner.
“These are moments of drama, tension and real agony and heartache for people, and I wanted to try and get some pace into that. So it’s not just the dry facts. These are life-changing moments for a lot of people and I think you need that energy in your writing to convey that story.”
Cook works with the Mud Army, a group of volunteers who work to clean up after floods, to better plan for the future, and she is passionate about educating people about how to protect themselves and their property.
“What I want to try to do is change the conversation. I think we’re quite good at being reactive.”
“Every time we build another house or building in that flood plain, we’re exacerbating that hazard.
“We need to revise our flood levels and think about building on higher ground. And if we at least do nothing else, we should start thinking about more resilient designs and building materials.
“You can change the design, so the understory is easily washed out. You can build in polished concrete and hardwood rather than chipboard and materials that just deteriorate really quickly.”
Despite Cook living on a hill, not a flood plain, planning for future flooding starts at home.
“I’ve become a burden to my family and I constantly point out where I would not recommend they live. My children will have difficulty buying a house.
“I’ll be following them around saying ‘no, no, not here, not here’.”
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