Poet Dorothea Mackellar got it right- We are a sunburnt country… of droughts and flooding rains:

At the beginning of March 2017, much of our state was drought declared. We anticipated a less than average wet season; dam levels were lower than the State and Water Authorities would have liked, and it appeared that Coastal communities would not be impacted by severe acts of nature- cyclones and floods. That all changed on 23 March, 2017 when Cyclone Debbie, the first cyclone of 2017, was named and was tracking, moving slowly, with Coastal Communities from Cardwell to St Lawrence and their respective Local Governments preparing for the worst.

The only thing predictable about Cyclone Debbie was her unpredictability. As the Bureau of Meteorology released its hourly bulletins we were uncertain where Debbie would strike- would it be Townsville, Ayr, Bowen, Proserpine, Airlie Beach, Whitsunday islands or Mackay? Debbie would make landfall just before noon on Tuesday, 28th March between Bowen and Airlie Beach, packing 260km winds, 500mm of rain and a storm surge unleashing a violent path of destruction across the Whitsunday region.

By Thursday, 30th March, Cyclone Debbie was downgraded to a rain depression, but would continue her path of devastation. Local Governments south of Proserpine, adjoining Western Local Governments, and large areas of the South- East Corner were impacted by strong winds, heavy rain, flooding, power loss, road, businesses and school closures.

How well prepared were North Queensland Local Governments and communities in the Warning Zone and Areas affected?

In Queensland in 2016 we experienced the lowest number of tropical cyclones on record and a relatively quiet period for flooding and storms. In October, 2016, the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) forecasted an average to above-average number of serious weather events likely to be experienced in Queensland for 2016/17. BOM was correct- Cyclone Debbie, a category 4 storm, was the most powerful cyclone to hit Queensland since Cyclone Yasi in February,2011.

Local Government Elections were held in March, 2016 and some new Councils and Administrations were not experienced in Disaster Management.

Early observations on Local Government preparedness within the warning zone and areas affected by Cyclone Debbie

  • There were 9 local government areas in the Cyclone Debbie BOM warning zone and areas affected when Cyclone Debbie was named on 23 March, 2017.-Cassowary Coast Regional Council; Hinchinbrook Regional Council; Palm Island Aboriginal Council; Townsville City Council; Burdekin Shire Council; Charters Towers Regional Council; Whitsunday Regional Council; Mackay Regional Council; and Isaac Regional Council.
  • Six (6) of the (9) Mayors (67%) were newly elected at the March,2016 Local Government Elections, although three (3) of these Mayors had previous local government and Disaster Management experience;
  • Four (4) of the (9) Council CEOs (44%) and the principle advisors to their Councils were appointed following the March, 2016 Local Government Elections;
  • All (9) Local Governments (100%) had well prepared procedures and Disaster Management Plans compliant with Section 57, Disaster Management Act 2003; with well- developed informative Emergency Management Web Pages; excellent community engagement strategies by releasing timely and informative Disaster Management messages to the media; and compliance in their dealings with relevant support agencies.
  • Four (4) of the 9 Councils (44%) did not comply with Section 59(2) of the Disaster Management Act 2003, by reviewing the effectiveness of their Disaster Management Plans at least once a year;

In October 2016 Reinforcements published an article encouraging regular reviews called “Disaster Management Planning is Important this Year”. It is worth another read.

When the winds die down and the flood waters abate

The challenges for Local Governments and Queensland communities will be now moving into and being part of whole-of-government relief, recovery and mitigation response in those communities affected by the disaster event. The recovery phase is usually a prolonged period which the affected communities and their individual members readjust to and return to pre- disaster stability. This phase is much more than reconstruction of infrastructure. Historically, disasters have significant social effects on communities and these can be felt for many years afterwards.

Where to go for support

Within Queensland, one of two financial arrangements can be activated to assist Councils, individuals, small businesses and primary producers.

Natural Disaster Relief and Recovery Arrangements (NDRRA): This Commonwealth Assistance Scheme assists States and Local Governments to restore or replace eligible essential public assets damaged as a direct result of an eligible disaster and loans to small businesses, primary producers and loans/grants for non-profit organisations; freight subsidies to primary producers; grants to need individuals; and in some situations, community recovery packages.

State Disaster Relief Arrangements (SDRA): The SDRA is 100% Queensland Government funded to assist in the relief of communities whose well-being has been severely affected by a disaster event (natural or non-natural). This scheme is not subject to the Commonwealth event eligibility provisions or the Small Disaster Criterion that exists under the NDRRA.

Do you need Reinforcements in these difficult times?

Nature has demonstrated her fury on many local governments and their communities. Reinforcements has suitably qualified personal that may assist Queensland Councils and can assist in all areas of Disaster and Risk Management support or in developing NDRRA compliant submissions.

Article by Graham Webb PSM

FOR A RELATED ARTICLE ON THIS SUBJECT SEE “Disaster Management Planning is Important this Year”

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