Queensland flood crisis – experts respond

The most recent flash floods in Queensland, which started on Monday, have now claimed at least 10 lives, and left 56,000 properties without power.  90 people are still missing, and the evacuation warnings have been issued in Brisbane.

The Australian Science Media Centre has gathered commentary from experts regarding the flooding, as well as a list of resources.  The quotes below may be used in stories, with further quotes to be posted on their website.  Should you want to speak with experts regarding the floods, please contact the Australian Science Media Centre on +61 8 7120 8666.


The Bureau of Meteorology’s website contains detailed data showing rainfall over the last 24 hours.

For a BoM map showing forecast rainfall over the coming days click here.

Wivenhoe dam facts document is available here.

Amateur footage of the flash flooding in Toowomba can be found on Youtube.

Professor Jennifer McKay, Director of the Centre for Comparative Water Policies and Laws at the University of South Australia. She is also the editor of the Australian Journal of Emergency Management, comments:

“Dams are not the total solution. Brisbane city council and the other upstream councils need to coordinate their land use and development policies to reflect the floodplain. All local councils in Australia do not do this and state governments do not provide leadership in this matter anymore by having a policy restricting development of housing and nursing homes, aged care and hospitals in floodplains. The water plans that the Commonwealth is pushing the states to produce is one way to do this to achieve sustainable development.”

Dr Rob Roggema, a Research Fellow in the Climate Change Adaptation Program within RMIT University’s Global Cities Research Institute. He is a Landscape Architect/Planner and an inaugural visiting fellow at the Victorian Centre for Climate Change Adaptation Research, comments:

“”Recent planning practice has contributed to the magnitude of the flooding disaster in Queensland. In current planning practice, the amount of concrete surface is increased – leading to a much higher runoff than before – while increasing water storage capacity is not a major factor in compiling spatial plans and new buildings are placed in vulnerable places.

“Despite the fact that warnings and predictions of increasingly severe weather events will increase in the future, spatial planners and designers do not incorporate these elements in their spatial plans.

“Current practice increases the magnitude of these kinds of disasters, both because many more people are placed at risk and the amount of runoff water is increased.

“If we are to learn from this for the future, we must create a long-term strategic and anticipative plan for Queensland in which new buildings are positioned in the least flood prone places, the water storage capacity of each catchment is calculated on twice the worst predicted event and the amount of non-permeable surface is halved – instead of literally rebuilding everything in exactly the same places and in exactly the same way. That kind of rebuilding does nothing to help communities adapt to future risks, but simply leaves these areas just as vulnerable to the next disaster of an even greater magnitude.”

Dr Caroline Sullivan, an Associate Professor of Environmental Economics and Policy at Southern Cross University, comments:

“One of the very few things that climate scientists across the world agree about is that extreme events are a likely outcome arising from climate change. There is currently so much evidence from across the world that global weather patterns are changing, it is not difficult to find many examples of extreme events. While the US and Europe freeze under record cold conditions, and infrastructure systems collapse as a result of the ‘unexpected situation’, it is easy to see how countries everywhere are now regularly facing challenges from the environment which were almost unthinkable just a few years ago.

“The floods in Queensland are another example of these ‘extreme events’. While statements from weathermen and climate scientists explain how global processes such as the ‘la Nina’ weather system have caused these floods, it brings little comfort to the thousands of householders facing devastation in their homes, or the whole swathes of the farming and mining communities whose very livelihoods are threatened and will remain so for many months to come. There is no doubt that the clean-up costs and the disruption of our core industrial base will have a big impact on both the state and federal economies, with long term consequences for Australia as a whole.

“What is needed now is to think about what we can learn from this. One clear message is that these weather related impacts are likely to be here to stay, and are likely to be more costly than ever anticipated. When the Stern report on the Economics of Climate Change was published in the UK, followed by the Garnaut report here in Australia, many people doubted the figures, arguing that allocation of federal and state funds in response to such an uncertain area of science was both unnecessary and inappropriate. The lesson we can take from the disaster which has unfolded in the last few weeks across Queensland and other parts of the Nation, is that we have to act now, to implement effective measures to adapt to climate change. The concept of the ‘100 year’ flood or drought seems every year to become more redundant.

“The issue we must consider today is how our businesses, federal, state and local governments can adapt our homes, infrastructure, businesses and lifestyles to the changing conditions we are now facing, so that the next time this kind of ‘extreme event’ happens, (and it will), we will be in a more secure position to deal with it. Let us take advantage of this opportunity to rebuild in such a way as to ensure that all infrastructure developments across Australia are more resilient, and the power of nature is recognised within adaptation policies which ensure that urban planning takes account of the impacts of climate change. Let us make sure that once and for all, we no longer allow vested interests and private profits to drive our communities into the desperate situations we have been witnessing here these last few days.

“Leaving ‘room for the river’ is one of the approaches which has been taken in response to floods in some parts of Europe, and this is certainly a good starting point. If a river floods over its banks and fills up a grassy vegetated recreational area, the cost of the damage will be miniscule compared to the destruction we have seen along the heavily developed banks of the Brisbane river. Recognising the value of our wetlands as a buffer to floods is another important consideration, and capitalising on the valuable ecosystem services they provide is another dimension of how our environmental policies must be more closely embedded into our mainstream macroeconomic decision-making practices. Let us once and for all learn from this, that climate change is real, and we must act now in a concerted fashion, before nature wreaks further havoc on our pitiful attempts to control it.”

Associate Professor Robert Heath,  from the University of South Australia, comments on the nature of crisis management, community expectations and coping with trauma:

In this online blog he discusses:

1. Response and recovery management in the midst of a crisis

2. Some key issues and realities in successful response and recovery efforts

3. Human responses in crisis and recovery phases (psychology/behaviour)

Professor Ron Cox, of the UNSW School of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is the Convenor of the Australian Climate Change Adaptation Research Network for Settlements and Infrastructure (ACCARNSI).He is also an expert commentator on safety of people and vehicles in floodwaters. He is the lead author on recent revisions to Australian Rainfall and Runoff, the guideline document of Engineers Australia for hydrology, water resources and flood design, and comments:

“The recent flood events in Queensland are a clear indication of the need for improved planning to adapt future development for our settlements and infrastructure. With expanding settlements, extreme weather resulting in emergency situations can be expected to become more frequent with higher temperatures and climate change.

On the safety of people and vehicles moving through floodwaters:

“The combination of velocity and depth at which people and vehicles become unsafe is very low so the only practical advice is that people and vehicles should not enter flowing water of any depth. High velocity flows, even at ankle-depth, can knock a person off their feet and put their lives at risk. Vehicles are less safe than people in floodwaters. Generally a mature adult can walk in flowing water to a certain depth more safely than a vehicle can travel in it. Modern vehicles are so airtight that they float very easily.”

Dr Jane Shakespeare-Finch,  a trauma expert from the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), comments:

“The people in Toowoomba and neighbouring areas have had a terrifying time. They had no way of picturing the momentum of the flash flood and no control of the elements. Now they need each other and community support. They need to feel safe and parents need to be able to keep hugging their kids. Those of us not affected can make themselves available with fresh water, food, shelter; the things needed for basic survival.”

Professor Michael Sherris, head of Actuarial Studies at the Australian School of Business, comments:

“As supply falls and demand increases, premiums increase. In this case demand is increasing due to the catastrophic events, and supply is falling due to capital constraints on insurers.

Premiums reflect the underlying risks so that those with houses in flood or catastrophe prone areas will have relatively more expensive insurance. Recent reports, such as one by the ASIC that examined home insurance after the Canberra bushfires, show that Australian homeowners are under-insured. The ASIC report indicated that as many as 81 per cent of consumers have insufficient insurance coverage of at least 10 per cent for the costs of rebuilding their home.”

Professor Sherris is available for comment on the risk of catastrophes, and how it impacts on insurance premiums.

Tony Weber, National Practice Leader – Water Quality for BMT WBM (Engineering and Environmental Consultants) and Visiting Fellow at the Integrated Catchment Assessment and Management Centre, Fenner School, Australian National University, comments:

“With the whole catchment now in a state of complete saturation, any subsequent rainfalls, even though they may not be record rainfalls, will likely result in extreme runoff events as we have seen in Toowoomba and the Lockyer Valley.  Until sufficient drying of the catchment occurs (likely to be in the order of several weeks with no further major rainfall), there will continue to be a very high risk of further major runoff events.

Professor Neville Nicholls, an Australian Research Council Professorial Fellow in the School of Geography & Environmental Science at Monash University, and President of the Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Societ, comments:

“The Queensland floods are caused by what is one of the strongest (if not THE strongest) La Niña events since our records began in the late 19th century (http://www.amos.org.au/news/id/105). Our understanding of the La Niña and its impacts meant that the Bureau of Meteorology, as early as October, was warning of substantially increased chances of above average rain across eastern Australia (http://www.bom.gov.au/climate/ahead/archive/rainfall/20100923.shtml). The La Niña is also associated with record warm sea surface temperatures around Australia and these would have contributed to the heavy rains. The extent to which any of this (the floods, the warm oceans, or the very strong La Niña) is linked to global warming is unknown, because the requisite studies to test this have simply not been done yet.”

Professor Tony McMichael, Professor and NHMRC Australia Fellow in the National Centre for Epidemiology & Population Health at The Australian National University, comments:

“There is an increased risk of outbreaks of Ross River virus and dengue infections in post-flood Queensland, particularly in these warm and humid conditions. Mosquito populations will now have much greater breeding opportunities. (Whereas the Ross River virus is endemic in Queensland, outbreaks of dengue require ‘seeding’ of the virus into the population – usually from a returned overseas traveller.)

More generally, the risk of epidemic infection outbreaks after such disasters is proportional to the disruption of natural and built environments, human population crowding and contact, and displacement of communities. From flood experience elsewhere the most frequently reported outbreaks are:

  • Diarrhoeal (gastroenteritis) diseases
  • Respiratory illnesses (prominent after Hurricane Katrina in the USA)
  • Skin infections

Flooding also has a range of adverse effects on mental health. Long-term post-traumatic stress disorders are common. Deaths and serious injuries cause anguish, and bereavement often progresses to depression. ‘Survivor guilt’ may afflict those who are less affected or unscathed.

Various recent studies in Britain have documented the mental health risks. In one study, comparing flood-affected and unaffected households, up to three-quarters of those affected by flooding (especially older persons) had a subsequent mental health disorder. In a longer-term follow-up study in southeast England, in the wake of a major river flood, adults had rates of psychological distress four times greater than the general population. Similarly, in a large survey of flood-affected persons in 30 locations around England and Wales, their self-reported health-indicator scores revealed considerably higher levels of mental health problems than in the population at large.”