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Queensland floods: the aftermath – experts respond

Posted in Expert Reactions on January 14th, 2011.

Our colleagues at the Australian Science Media Centre have released the following expert commentary on the aftermath of the Queensland floods.

Journalists requiring assistance in tracking down Australia-based experts on the floods, please contact the Australian Science Media Centre on +61 8 7120 8666.

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Professor Beverley Raphael is from the University of Western Sydney’s School of Medicine.
She heads a research unit which tackles mental health issues associated with disasters, terrorism and other adversity. As a former Director of the NSW Centre for Mental Health, Professor Raphael, has been involved in the mental health response to disasters including the Black Saturday, Canberra and Ash Wednesday bushfires, the Newcastle earthquake, the Bali bombings and the South East Asian Tsunami.

“The immediate need is for practical and emotional assistance. Now is the time when acts of kindness and support such as checking on neighbours and helping friends and family in need will help people deal with the initial shock and emotional trauma. Practical support for families and communities is the critical aspect of these earlier stages – counselling can begin later as it’s needed.

“The personal impact of the floods in Queensland is devastating, but in the face of such tragedy the community has shown time and time again to be very resilient. Initially there is shock, disbelief and grief as people begin to comprehend what’s happened and the size and scale of the tragedy.

“The floods will also bring back sad memories and distress for those who have experienced similar extreme natural disasters, or trigger reminders of personal memories of sadness.”

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Dr Vivienne Lewis is a practicing clinical psychologist and a lecturer in the Faculty of Health at the University of Canberra.

“It’s normal for people to feel distressed following a natural disaster. For most people, with the support of those around them (family, friends and the community) they will cope and recover as the weeks and months progress. For a small group they may need professional assistance such as that from a psychologist. It is in the weeks and months following a disaster that mental health concerns become apparent. The best support for people right now is from friends and family.”

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Professor Michael Sherris is from the Australian School of Business.
Professor Sherris has been looking at the ways of managing the cost of these catastrophic events and whether there should be a national disaster scheme that pays for the cost of these disasters and thus spreads the cost more widely.

“The question is how to fund this [national disaster scheme], since it would be expensive. Also we should look at limiting developments in flood prone areas, ensuring that the costs of this is reflected in premiums if insurance companies decide that they can provide cover.

“Not all policies cover flood but those that do limit flood to flash flooding from rain and run-off. For instance in Queensland, Suncorp includes floods from rising rivers as an event. What is not covered by most insurers is riverine flood where rivers flood and cause damage. Most of the flooding in Brisbane is riverine flood. Many insurers will not cover this because it is very predictable and systematic in its impact, however some insurers have been providing riverine flood coverage for additional premiums, and many people are likely to now look at this option, again increasing demand and pushing up premiums.”

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Dr Robert Johnson is a spokesperson for the Australian Veterinary Association.
He specialises in Australian wildlife, reptiles and amphibians. He addresses the impact of the floods on Australian wildlife.

“All species will be affected. Some (e.g. birds) may be able to escape more easily than others but will be affected once they try to return to their preferred habitat. We expect that semi-aquatic animals such as freshwater turtles and frogs will suffer greatly due to loss of habitat and for freshwater and marine turtles it is the breeding season, so numbers will be profoundly reduced as nests are destroyed. We also expect to see large numbers of drowned wombats and echidnas in burrows – the are the unseen victims here are small land-based animals that make homes in bushes.

“Flying foxes – already doing it tough but the rain has washed the nectar off the flowers – expect more orphaned young as their mothers lack the energy to feed them. Flying foxes are more likely to appear in backyards and get caught in fruit tree netting. There is also an increased risk of viral diseases spread by mosquitoes over the coming weeks – such as the arboviruses and pox virus.

“Immediate factors affecting animal rescue and care include the availability of carers and communication, the facilities available, the availability of feed and the equipment available. Lack of feed means that young macropods such as kangaroos and wallabies are more likely to die from high parasite loads over the next two months.

“Triaging of animals once delivered to carers will include orphaned animals (marsupials, birds) which will need to be hand reared, injured animals, diseases (this will happen later as infections take hold). We are advising rescuers not put their own life (or others) at risk when rescuing an animal. They should take special care when with venomous or aggressive animals, they should also to be aware of the risk of disease especially from things such as bat bites and contact with dirty water.”

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Professor Gerald Nanson is from the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences at University of Wollongong

“A number of media commentators and numerous letters to the editors in major newspapers have suggested that the recent floods in Queensland are some sort of bellwether of global warming and Australia’s hazardous climatic future in a warming world. There is no doubt the globe has been warming over the past century or so, and it seems very likely that this is a function, at least in part, of our introduction of excessive Greenhouse gases to the atmosphere. But Australian weather is far too variable today, and indeed has been so for thousands of years, to enable any confident predictions to be made about the changing magnitude and frequency of extreme events.

“The last major flood on the Brisbane River was in 1974 which coincided in many places with the most extreme flood events continent-wide since European arrival. So while we have just two such truly ‘catastrophic’ flood events in our recorded history, it is very difficult to say anything scientifically sound about their changing magnitude and the likely frequency of their occurrence. Scientists sometimes use smaller events analysed statistically to predict the likely size and frequency of extreme events, but Australian climate is well known to move in cycles, several decades in length, which commonly result in clusters of decades producing very different conditions to those before and after. Indeed, our natural climate is something of a rollercoaster ride.

“When ‘old timers’ say that a particular flood is the largest they have ever seen in their area, it isn’t necessarily because climate is changing, it’s mostly because even ‘old timers’ don’t live for hundreds of years. Global movement of the ‘climate goalposts’ can be used as an excuse for poor urban regional planning. There is abundant evidence of extreme flood risk in many areas of Australia, including in Brisbane, and much of this evidence was collected before the global warming was an additional significant variable to consider. The human cost of flooding in Australia are mostly the product of poor planning, not climate change.”

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Previously issued comments on the Queensland floods can be found on the AusSMC website

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