It has been five years since the devastation caused by the 2010-11 floods, and over that time emergency authorities have been put under immense scrutiny through several reviews. This article concentrates on the immediate response effort to the floods.
There is no denying that most people believe that as an industry we could have done better in preparing for and responding to the impact of the 2010-11 floods. We have read the recommendations of a number of reviews which can broadly be summarised as improvements and further consideration of the following:
- Accuracy and timeliness of flood warning systems
- Quality, coverage and availability of flood mapping
- Consideration of flood risk in land use planning
- Use of local flood knowledge
- Emergency services command and control arrangements
- Operation of major flood infrastructure (i.e. Wivenhoe Dam)
- Service delivery and community support after a flood
It often takes an event like this to shake things up and we need to make sure that we learn from our mistakes and plan to be in a better position next time around. Although it is terrible that so many people have had to suffer through the ongoing consequences of these floods for us to change how we do things, I see positive signs that we will be better prepared next time. We will discuss some of these outcomes in a future article in this series.
Fires unite and floods divide
Since the floods, the focus has been well and truly dominated by the negative aspects of the emergency response. Very little attention has been given to the huge effort our emergency services put in, and no doubt the countless number of people they assisted. In reading and listening to news media and talking directly to impacted community members, there is a stark contrast in the way the efforts of SES volunteers responding to floods and CFA volunteers responding to bushfires are regarded. The two sets of volunteers and their respective organisations are both selflessly trying to help others, they are putting themselves in harms way and they are both working with the information that they have available to them. Put simply they are doing their best, they are making a difference, but they can’t protect everyone.
The fact that the 2010-11 floods were so widespread across south-eastern Australia meant that our emergency services were stretched. The number of flood affected communities and the length of time emergency services were operational for as the floods progressed down our floodplains exhausted the number of available resources. These volunteers were people who sacrificed income by not going to work, pushed on through long days and nights and kept coming back to help. Some that I have spoken to were busy sandbagging other people’s properties as their own property was being flooded. It is acknowledged that a lot of work was also carried out by community members during the floods, who also banded together to protect their communities, volunteered their time and earthmoving equipment in the response effort.
Flood warning and local knowledge
If there is one issue that I have encountered the most throughout conversations with communities after the floods it is that flood warnings were not accurate enough, were not provided in a timely manner, and did not consider local knowledge. These are key themes that are being taken up in the recently released revised draft of the Victorian Floodplain Management Strategy.
Having been placed in an SES Incident Control Centre during flood events I have seen instances of information coming in from the field that is misleading and could potentially lead to poor decisions. However there are many in the community who have witnessed floods before, have a good practical understanding of how they behave and have provided invaluable information to the Incident Control Centre. Harnessing this information will go a long way to improving future flood response efforts. In some floodplains this has been done in the past through a series of Flood Wardens, who agree to be the eyes on the ground for emergency services during a flood. These people develop a network of contacts that they can call on and report back on how the flood is developing, how big it is compared to previous events, and what impacts they are hearing about in their area. This system works well and goes a long way to building trust between emergency services and communities. I look forward to this initiative being further rolled out and working with these knowledgeable people in future events.
In terms of timely and accurate flood warnings, this becomes a real balancing act. Early flood predictions, prior to upstream streamflow gauges peaking, are generally less accurate than predictions made later, once we have a better understanding of how the catchment is responding to the storm event. The temptation is to hold off on communicating the flood warning until a level of accuracy is available to avoid a false warning. Unfortunately this can lead to some people not receiving timely warnings. There is no doubt that we can improve on communicating flood risk and providing more timely flood warnings. I think a more transparent communication that deals directly with the uncertainty could be made earlier, i.e. at this early stage in the event we expect flood levels to be between X and Y m on the gauge. You can find out what this means for you here (with link to available flood mapping). This advice will be updated as the event unfolds. As the event does unfold and the accuracy of the prediction narrows then a more definitive prediction can be made and communicated. This at least provides communities with an early sense of what they could expect, and they can then act appropriately, with advice updated when more information becomes available.
Ignoring the warnings
In many instances flood information is available yet some people continue to choose to ignore the risk and move into flood prone areas. There is some interesting social research being undertaken exploring people’s attitudes to flood risk that explores this further. There is also a large body of evidence that demonstrates that even provided with adequate flood warning a very large percentage of people do not act on that information, either refusing to accept that the impacts will be as bad as predicted or choosing not to take matters into their own hands, presuming that someone else will save them.
Added to the above, people continue to engage in risky behaviour during a flood. We have unfortunately seen in recent times a number of people sadly lose their lives attempting to cross flood waters in vehicles. This is despite national campaigns describing the perils of driving through flood water. In some instances drivers have been observed getting out of their cars, moving road closed barriers, and driving through flood waters, blatantly ignoring the advice.
We all have a role to play in responding to floods. As an industry we can learn from these floods and provide a better, smarter service for our communities. Since the 2010-11 floods we have better flood information, and improvements have already been made across all aspects of floodplain management. This should allow us to respond better next time. Communities too have a large role to play at all levels of floodplain management. By better utilising good local knowledge in our planning and response we will achieve better outcomes. People must also accept a level of personal responsibility in making good decisions regarding their own flood risk, and have a plan in place ready to implement for the next flood. Learning from the past and working together into the future, we can improve the preparedness and response for the next flood event which will inevitably come.
This is the second of a series of articles we intend to publish, reflecting on these significant past events. If anyone has personal thoughts or material they would like to share or see in this series of articles, please contact us ().
Title image: Creswick, September 2010, http://www.smh.com.au/photogallery/victoria/flood-watch-20100904-14v1t.html?aggregate=