Lessons Learned: The Queensland Floods

Rod Crowder

Australia, endearingly referred to as “The Lucky Country,” offers excellent businesses opportunities via its gateway to the Asia Pacific marketplace, an abundance of sun, coastal living, and a relaxing lifestyle. However recently, the country has experienced more than its fair share of disaster incidents that have left business devastated caused widespread injury and loss of life and drained billions of dollars in relief aid insurance claims, and rebuilding costs.

The Australian Government’s Emergency Management Institute (www.disasters.ema.gov.au) reports that in 2011 alone, bushfires, cyclones, severe storms, flooding, earthquakes, and urban fires resulted in 208 deaths, 6,753 injuries, and several billions of dollars in insurance costs in the ANZ region.

Water, Water…
One of the most significant disaster events was the Queensland floods, which reached a formidable seventh on Google’s 2011 global overall search list, beaten only by search terms such as “YouTube,”
“Yahoo!,” and “Facebook”.

These floods naturally took the state of Queensland, which was more accustomed to years of drought than flooding, very much by surprise. More than 78 percent of the entire state was devastated, with in excess of 2.5 million people affected; the cost of damage was topped A$5billion.

The Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry (QFCI) was set up soon after the floods in February, 2011 to assess and report on the major issues arising out of the floods. It was a large and daunting amount of subject matter to review.

The QFCI forensically examined the flooding, how the response was handled at a state, district, community, and individual level, and provided 175 recommendations for improvements. That said, it was revealed that at all levels, governments were able to provide a timely, whilst not perfect, response to the incident. Although Queensland’s Emergency Management structure had never been exposed to a disaster of this magnitude in the past, it was generally found to be effective given the circumstances and way in which the disaster unfolded.

Considering that the floods were unprecedented, sometimes completely unexpected, and affected so much of the state at the same time, it would be practically impossible for any government or emergency services organisation to have the capacity to respond immediately, with all of the relief effort that was needed, to every location and every community, at the exact time it was required.

The Findings
In its final report, published in March, 2012, the Commission provided its key findings and recommendations in the following areas:

• Planning and preparation: The need for improvements at a state, district and local community levels in emergency response planning, provision of disaster management training, and widespread community education;

• Community Information and Warnings: Improvements to warning systems, social media, radio and SMS messaging, provision of more information about flood levels, road conditions, signage, and faster and more effective cross- border communications

• Emergency Response: Deployment of new All Hazards Information Management System(s), establishment of additional Emergency Virtual Operations Centres, improvements to Swift Water rescue capabilities, increased capacity of the Emergency Helicopter Network and Emergency Call Centres and more effective response to future flooding by the State Emergency Services (SES).

• Evacuation, Re-supply and Essential Services: Improved evacuation guidelines and evacuation centre planning, better use of the National Registration and Inquiry System to track evacuees, faster deployment of makeshift evacuation centres and evacuation assistance, and more formal guidelines around resupply and provision of essential services (such as power, drinking water, and telephone services) to affected areas.

• Dam Operations and Floodplain Management. Specific recommendations were made in the areas of dam operations and management, preparedness planning and increased training of staff responsible for decision making during periods of intense flooding. Also, improvements in flood plan management plans and more comprehensive flood maps in land planning was highlighted.

Now What?
In a speech by Insurance Australia Group chief executive Mike Wilkins, Wilkins called upon Australia’s governments to learn the lessons from this recent experience to make communities safer.

“If we don’t take action, we’re doomed to repeat this cycle of destruction, devastation, slow rebuild, and lose productivity over and over again into the future… This was not the first time that many of the areas in Queensland (Brisbane, Ipswich, Toowoomba, and Emerald) had been severely flooded and it will also not be the last. In these areas, it is not a question of if; it’s a question of when the next flood will come.”

Of course, the biggest challenge now is this: how many of the Commission’s recommendations are able to be planned, funded, and implemented before that next wave of swirling flood waters hits Australia’s states?

Rod Crowder is an authorized representative of DRI Australia and New Zealand. He can be reached at rod.crowder@dri-anz.org.

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