I grew up in a small town in south east Queensland and from as far back as I can remember, it always seemed that we were in drought, or it was flooding. It was just a way of life. We weren’t connected up to water mains and so we relied on tank water. I can remember our toilet was connected to dam water to save water, and when the tanks ran really low, we had to share and recycle the bath water. But then I remember it would always rain in February. The roads often got flooded, and we would get days off school because the bus wouldn’t come to pick us up. The cyclical nature of the climate in Australia makes it hard to always be prepared for flooding, as we forget. Flooding subsequently seems to be a cyclical concern, extremely relevant for 5 or 10 years after a flood has occurred, but then it falls off our radar as the rivers run dry and the fear of drought takes over and drives government spending and focus.
In Brisbane it flooded in 1974, and there still remains a vast wealth of local knowledge of this event. However there has also been immense population growth in Brisbane (more than double), with many new residents blissfully unaware that the city of Brisbane is built on a floodplain. So in 2011 when it flooded, many people were caught off-guard; but they shouldn’t have been.
In 2011, I was living in Brisbane when South East Queensland experienced tragic flooding, which really impacted me. 21 people were killed in apocalyptic flash floods in Toowoomba and the Lockyer Valley, when rainfall of up to 150 mm over two hours swept down the Lockyer creek. Over 18,000 homes in Brisbane and surrounding areas were inundated by varying degrees of flooding. I will never forget cleaning up my friend Cheryl’s house, whose house was FULLY inundated (over the roof). She had no insurance, but had to completely rebuild. Cheryl had no idea that her house was at risk of flooding; no one had told her. During the flood event, she was not given adequate warning time to remove precious valuables and photos.
In 2012 I moved to Calgary, Canada and experienced another record flood in 2013. It was the result of a rain on snow event, where high temperatures resulted in accelerated snowmelt, and this coincided with a large rainfall event over the catchment. About 75,000 people were evacuated. 5 of my friends were forced to set up camp in my small apartment. The learnings which came out after the flood, revealed a similar story to Cheryl’s. People felt that they did not have enough understanding that their property would flood, and they did not have enough warning time to properly evacuate. But why? As a water resources engineer myself, with a good understanding of flooding, I know that detailed flood maps exist, for both Brisbane and Calgary. How can it be possible that people can live in a house on a floodplain and not be aware? Why aren’t people accessing the publicly available information? How can we make it more accessible? How can we improve emergency warnings?
The cost of flood damage impacts individuals, businesses, industry and government. On a micro level this means someone’s livelihood; someone’s local business which may never recover. On a macro level, this means financial losses for insurers, state and local governments. Investment into flood risk mitigation could save Australia billions.
In 2017, Cyclone Debbie killed five people and cost insurers 1.56 billion dollars. Coal exports suffered 1.5 Billion in losses, and our farmers endured damages of 1 Billion dollars. The Australian Business Roundtable for Disaster Resilience and Safer Communities recently released a report and the findings were alarming. Natural disasters are costing the Australian economy 18.2 Billion a year, projected to increase to 39 Billion a year. Of this, flooding accounted for about 50%. Between 2007 and 2016, flooding is costing the Australian economy an average of 8.8 Billion dollars PER YEAR. This is not a small problem, and it’s only predicted to get worse. Whilst some of these losses is inevitable, I’m convinced that much are preventable, with improved preparedness and response.
And why are these losses occurring? Because people don’t know they are going to lose everything until it is TOO LATE. I see that flood communication is broken down into two different types.
Preparedness communications. These are communications on an everyday basis about where the floodplain areas are, and what houses may be at risk. For example, making home buyers aware of flood risk when they are looking to buy a property in a new area. Emergency communications, being the dissemination of flood warnings to the relevant people in the event of a flood. I believe that there are problems with both types of communication. On the preparedness side, there is a wide-spread lack of understanding about flood risk within communities, and this is largely due to the way in which flood risk information is communicated. In the case of my friend Cheryl, she bought a house in Goodna which she wasn’t aware was at risk of flooding. This data wasn’t communicated to her in a meaningful way. In some communities, flood data may still accessed on hard copy maps, or pdf report style documents which are hundreds of pages long, and not intuitive to interpret. These are not useful to individuals such as you and me on a property level. Would you read a 180-page flood engineering report? Didn’t think so. Full disclosure… I actually would, but that’s because a) I’m a huge nerd and really interested in this stuff, and b) because it was part of my job. On top of this, the cyclical nature of our climate exacerbates this problem, as we know that during periods of drought, the risk of a flood is long forgotten. So, this lack of community engagement leads to a subsequent lack of preparedness and mitigation for flooding. In an age where most of us rely on the interactive google maps for road trips and coffee meetings alike, how can we expect communities to resort to communication mediums which are rapidly becoming outdated? So that’s the first part of the problem.
The second part I see is that there is room for improvement in real-time flood event communications and emergency warning systems. In a flood event, this typically results in a risk that community residents or tourists:
may not receive flood warning messages at all;
may not receive messaging within a sufficient time frame to allow corrective action;
will not have specific information about what course of action to take (i.e. who will be affected, who should be evacuated); or
are required to actively check the Bureau of Meteorology website for flood heights and details; which requires them to know their catchment details.
This means that in the event of a flood, because of the way that data is communicated, people may be missing out on valuable minutes or hours in which they could have retrieved their personal valuables, saved their commercial goods, moved livestock to higher ground, or moved their vehicle.
I believe that there are opportunities to improve both preparedness and real-time flood communications and that this can mitigate losses. We need to remember flood risk in times of drought. We must always be prepared. As a water resources engineer with a good understanding of flooding, I feel that I have a responsibility to communicate flood risk to the public. I’ll tell you more about my journey and progress with that in my next blog. In the meantime, please take a look at floodmapp.com