The cost of Queensland’s natural disasters

By Nicole Hegarty.

It’s lunch time on Tuesday but the school grounds are deserted. The oval that had been dotted with students days earlier is now a growing mass of muddy slush topped with tree branches and palms. All schools are closed. Business owners have rolled down the screens and locked the doors. Families sit huddled in their bathrooms or apprehensive in shelters. They’re waiting and praying that they will be safe. Winds howl as water laps at the door. Welcome to Queensland in cyclone season.

It isn’t the first time and it won’t be the last.

Natural disasters are not foreign to Queensland. There have been seven severe natural disasters in Queensland since the turn of the century. The total financial damage bill surpasses $18 billion. Disaster recovery is expensive but how does it compare to the cost of mitigation?

Cyclone Debbie damage bill still unknown

North Queensland residents and tourists described shuddering windows and squealing winds on Tuesday, March 28 as Queensland was again hit by a natural disaster in the form of category four Severe Tropical Cyclone Debbie. Wind gusts of 263 km/h were recorded at Hamilton Island before Cyclone Debbie made landfall near Airlie Beach. Heavy rainfall and very destructive winds ripped roofs from buildings, tore boats from moorings and left at least 58,000 properties without power. The reclassification of the storm to a tropical low did not mark the end of destruction with flooding and dangerous winds continuing throughout Queensland. The Gold Coast experienced widespread flooding and power outages as roads were washed away and record dam levels broken. And it certainly didn’t stop at the border with streets transformed into rivers in northern New South Wales. The real effects of Cyclone Debbie on the Queensland town of Rockhampton were visible on April 6 when the Fitzroy River peaked at 8.8 metres flooding the low-lying Depot Hill.

The Fitzroy River swells, flooding land on the outskirts of Rockhampton days before it reaches its peak. Photo by: Peter Hegarty

Although the final damage bill is still unknown, it is expected to pass $2 billion. The National Farmers’ Federation has recorded $1 billion of crop damage, while other vegetable prices are expected to increase. More than 50,000 insurance claims have been lodged according to the Insurance Council of Australia. Federal Government assistance of $1000 per adult and $400 per child is available for eligible residents. Immediate Hardship Assistance of $180 is also available through the State Government. Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said 35 local government areas had been assisted under the program. “More than $26 million [has been] paid out to more than 100,000 Queenslanders,” she said. Opposition Leader Tim Nicholls also praised the efforts of volunteers and service workers. “Our thanks and admiration go to those dedicated and fearless military and emergency services personnel … particularly the power and energy workers.”

The gale-force winds have subsided and locals are back on the street. Now the focus turns towards improving the situation ahead of the next disaster and one way to do that is mitigation.

Mitigation cheaper than recovery

Engineering firm AECOM’s associate director of water resources Melanie Collett said various levels of government were currently examining opportunities to mitigate the impacts of future floods. “If you go up to the state government level they’re looking at supporting local government initiatives but also undertaking investigations of their own,” she said. “For example the Department of Transport and Main Roads and other State Government [departments] are looking at potential infrastructure that may be impacted by flood events and how they can improve the level of service during flood events and also reduce flood damages and the Federal Government is assisting with funding and support for undertaking the works.”

Flooding in Rockhampton in the aftermath of Cyclone Debbie renewed debate about a levee for the south side of the Beef Capital. Collett said there were three approaches to flood mitigation: accommodate, which meant learning to live with the situation and developing emergency evacuation plans; protect, which referred to constructing levees or dams; and retreat, remove development from the area as it is too difficult to mitigate. “In Rockhampton Regional Council they’re looking at the implementation of localised response mechanisms such as levees, flood gates and the like,” she said. The South Rockhampton Flood Levee, which was first flagged in 1992, has had a strong backing from Rockhampton Regional Council Mayor Margaret Strelow. The Liberal National Party’s Member for Capricornia Michelle Landry has recognised the importance of mitigation measures and called for submissions to be made.

Bangalee Beach, Central Queensland, is left covered with trees after Cyclone Marcia. Photo by: James Hannah, Flickr

The cost of the 7.2 km long levee has been subject to inconsistency with reports varying from $60 million to more than $120 million. The $120 million figure included airport flood mitigation while $60 million was estimated to cover the levee project. This is $7m less than the repair costs for flooding in Rockhampton from 2010 to 2014. However, support for the levee is not absolute with more than 71 per cent of 428 respondents stating one or more concerns in a 2014 Central Queensland University survey.

The State Government established the Queensland Reconstruction Authority (QRA) in 2011 to coordinate reconstruction and mitigation policy. Recent mitigation works funded under the QRA’s combined $100 million Betterment Fund and the since cancelled $495 million Royalties for Regions program included a $4.5 million project to increase the wall height at Gordonbrook Dam in the south Burnett and a $641,082 levee on the north bank of the Burnett River. Other works are still in the construction phase.

Further studies into the role Wivenhoe and Somerset Dams in floods have also been announced. The Minister for Water Supply Mark Bailey was approached for comment but did not respond before deadline. In a statement he said that all Seqwater dams meet current requirements. Seqwater senior communications advisor Chris Owen said dams were regularly monitored and revisions were made to the Manual of Operation for the dams in 2015. “The new manual requires Seqwater to undertake larger releases earlier in events,” he said. “The changes have reduced the risk of flooding for up to an additional 1500 houses in large flood events.” Collett said it would be impossible to mitigate every impact of flooding. “It’s a balancing act, in some circumstances mitigation is not appropriate, but there has always been a need for mitigation.”

The consequences of natural disasters, particularly floods and cyclones in Queensland, are multi-faceted but there have been advances which, although far from cheap, have saved lives and prevented ongoing costs. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull echoed this sentiment during Question Time on Thursday, March 30. “It is quite clear that the building standards in recent years have made a very big difference,” he said. “It underlines the fact that mitigation is absolutely critical in maintaining these high building standards.” Opposition Leader Bill Shorten called on those impacted by Cyclone Debbie to seek help.

Queensland University of Technology public health professor Gerry Fitzgerald said it was critically important to prepare rather than focus solely on recovery. “The non-structural stuff is also critically important in terms of getting people ready, making sure they have an evacuation plan, making sure that they’re in a place of safety,” he said. Professor Fitzgerald said public health initiatives have been crucial in preventing disaster-related mental health conditions. “All we know is certainly that old line of an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

Since 2000 natural disasters have caused more than $18 billion dollars damage and killed at least 39 people. These figures have put the cost of mitigation into context. With more than 10 severe cyclones and floods so far this century the fact that there will be a next time is inevitable, but things could be different.

The state's worst weather since 2000

Marcia wreaks havoc on Central Queensland

At least $750 million in damage was caused to homes and infrastructure in Yeppoon, Byfield and Rockhampton when Cyclone Marcia made landfall on February 20, 2015. The category five cyclone had wind gusts of up to 208 km/hr. More than 600,000 homes were without power. Biloela, south of Rockhampton, experienced devastating flooding when the gates to the Sunwater operated Callide Dam were automatically opened, spilling 1.8 Olympic swimming pools of water per second into the already flooded creek system. The 2015 Callide Creek Flood Review found inefficiencies in the Local Disaster Coordination Centre’s warning system delayed the State Disaster Coordination Centre from entering information into the Emergency Alert system.

Cyclone Oswald makes history

Flooding from ex-Tropical Cyclone Oswald was regarded as the worst flood event in the history of European settlement. More than 1000mm of rain fell in southeast Queensland over four days. The storm reached Bundaberg in late January 2013, flooding more than 2000 homes and 700 businesses. Rain caused the Burnett River to peak at a record 9.52 metres which resulted in the evacuation of 100,000 people, the largest evacuation in the State’s history. Three people were killed in the floods.

Yasi on a mission of destruction

One of the most powerful to hit the state in recorded history, Cyclone Yasi made landfall near Mission Beach on Thursday, February 3, 2011. The category five cyclone was the fourth and most severe of the season and caused more than $800 million damage to homes, infrastructure and crops.

Floods claim 36 lives

January 2011 was marked by extensive flooding throughout south east Queensland. A report from the Australian Business Round Table estimated the total economic cost of the 2011 floods to be $14.1 billion. A wall of water, described as an inland tsunami, tore through Toowoomba’s streets on Sunday, January 10, 2011. The torrent of water ripped high-set homes from their footings and pushed cars from the roads as it continued through the Lockyer Valley. Thirty-six people lost their lives in the floods. At least 6,000 homes lost power and 67 suburbs were inundated when flooding reached Queensland’s capital. A total of 14,972 businesses and homes in the city were significantly flooded while 18,025 were flooded to a lower degree.

Prices go bananas

The agriculture industry was brought to a standstill when category four Severe Tropical Cyclone Larry made landfall in north Queensland on Monday, March 20, 2006.  Cyclone Larry damaged 10,000 houses and destroyed 200,000 tonnes of produce when it hit Innisfail and surrounding areas. Banana crops worth $300 million were also destroyed in the cyclonic winds. There were no fatalities but the Federal Government valued the damage at $1.5 billion. Then Minister for Human Services Senator Christopher Ellison stated told Parliament 60,074 relief applications were granted and more than $1.3 million in funding was distributed as part of the assistance package.    

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