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How can we do better? A personal reflection on the 2022 eastern Australian floods anniversary

By Juliette Murphy, CEO and Co-founder


This week marks two years since the peak of the catastrophic 2022 Australian floods that devastated eastern Australia. It was such a significant event for many communities, businesses and individuals and it’s important we take the time to reflect, remember and learn from this event.


Data from the Insurance Council of Australia shows that the storms and floods that hit parts of Queensland and New South Wales in February and March of 2022 are estimated to be one of Australia’s costliest flood events in recorded history. Munich Re reported approximate losses of $6.6 billion USD ($9.6 billion AUD), but under $4 billion USD ($5.8 billion AUD) of this was insured; leaving over 40% of losses uncovered by insurance1. Queensland alone suffered $7.7 billion in economic damages, with 500,000 people affected2. I guess this is not surprising given that Queensland is the most disaster-prone state in Australia. The cost alone is a great indication of the tragedy it caused. This includes tangible costs such as residential and commercial damage, damage to infrastructure (roads, rail, energy networks and telecommunications) and agricultural damage such as lost livestock. But on top of the direct financial impact are the intangible costs. Some were badly injured. Some lost their jobs and livelihoods. Many, including children, suffered severe mental health impacts from the trauma. Most importantly, some people lost things that will never be replaced: friends, family members, loved ones and pets.


Reflecting on this event is not easy. This time two years ago was a challenging and devastating week for me. This time one year ago, I tried to write this blog, but failed. I couldn’t see through my tears. My experience in the 2022 floods was twofold—professionally, it was an honour to see FloodMapp provide emergency managers with the tools they needed to make timely, informed and critical decisions that ultimately saved lives and protected properties and assets. But personally, I was devastated for members of my family who had lost everything.


As CEO and Co-founder of FloodMapp, I led the team as we worked around the clock to support emergency services and other clients during the catastrophic flood events. FloodMapp developed a world-first live flood intelligence technology for emergency managers and during the flood event, we were inundated by requests for help from all levels of government, critical infrastructure owners, private entities and even the public—each of them lacking timely situational awareness on the unfolding flood impacts. They all needed real-time, localized intelligence on the flood impact to people, property and critical infrastructure - to help them make vital decisions to support their preparedness, response and recovery. Through our ForeCast, NowCast and PostCast products, we were grateful to be able to help our clients like Queensland Fire and Emergency Services, Noosa Council, Energy Queensland, Origin Energy, Transport for NSW, the National Recovery and Resilience Agency (now National Emergency Management Agency) and several others by providing them with live flood intelligence to support dynamic situational awareness as the flood event unfolded, and a common operating picture. This supported inter-agency coordination, and informed their decisions regarding community safety, resource allocation and deployment.


This was a significant time in my professional life with FloodMapp. I cannot express how much it meant to me to see our software leveraged by emergency managers and public safety officials to successfully coordinate targeted evacuations, deploy swiftwater rescue crews, maintain safety in the energy network while restoring power as soon as possible, fast-track disaster assistance payments to those who were impacted. Supporting emergency services in their mission to save lives and help people in recovery is the most rewarding job I’ve ever had.  


But my personal connection to the devastation made it an intense and challenging time.


At the time, my brother, sister and her partner lived in a house in a small village, The Channon, in northern New South Wales. Their area was predicted to receive significant rainfall, but their local community was never provided with a flood forecast, warning or evacuation alert that provided enough time and information to prepare for the peak. From the historical intelligence they gathered from their community and my advice on rainfall forecasts, my family was able to make informed decisions on their preparation and response. They knew their risk and they were prepared with a detailed flood evacuation plan. They proactively elevated and secured items, packed up their dogs, chickens and valuable belongings and evacuated safely to a friend’s house, well ahead of time. I couldn’t be prouder of the way they prepared.


The catchment where their property was located received 839mm (about 33 inches) of rainfall in less than 48 hours. The neighbouring community Dunoon saw 1000mm (39.4 inches) over 48 hours. The creek that runs through their community rose to a peak of 12.2m before the gauge was inundated and stopped transmitting data altogether. The day after that, when they were staying at their friend's house, an emergency alert was issued to residents downstream of Rocky Creek Dam to evacuate to higher ground. Following that, there was a major landslide stretching 100m (about 328.08ft) long which cut them off from their house altogether. There was even a period when I couldn't contact them, and I was terrified for their safety.


Their house was destroyed—flooded to the roof, holes in the walls and logs washed into their living room. Like many others, they were left with nothing. The floodwaters destroyed their community and left them without work for months. The initial recovery phase took months, and they were still dealing with the impacts over a year later.


Impacts of 2022 Australian floods

I am so happy to say that they made it through this catastrophic event safely and physically unharmed. I’m forever thankful that they were proactive, decisive and able to evacuate early and that they are all alive to tell the story. I acknowledge not everyone was as lucky and my heart breaks for those who lost their lives, and their loved ones. I can’t help but feel as though our industry of flood engineering professionals and governments has let them down.


During the event, I lived in a suburb in Brisbane partially impacted by flooding. I did not receive any alert. After the flood peak had passed, I remember watching Brisbane’s Lord Mayor Adrian Schrinner on the news, advising residents to “use your intuition” to evacuate. That statement was very hard to digest. Under the Queensland Disaster Management Arrangements, the local government is responsible for disseminating warnings for flood events. Nowhere in the disaster arrangements is there a guideline provision for the intuition of residents. It’s becoming increasingly apparent to me that although the government is responsible for disseminating adequate warnings, they often lack the localized intelligence to do so. Inquiries and post event reviews confirm this, and FloodMapp can provide this.


I appreciate that this is a complex problem with multiple layers:

  • Communities have been built on flood plains in high-risk areas due to historic government planning decisions and access to waterways.

  • Many small communities (such as the Channon) lack even a basic flood study or recent hazard mapping.

    • Catchment-scale flood studies undertaken by engineering firms are expensive, and not all local governments have funding available for flood studies, or to update flood hazard mapping with recent developments in the flood plain.

    • Many flood studies focus on urban areas.

    • There are often gaps in flood hazard mapping for low-density rural areas, which are often susceptible to flooding, and often lower-socioeconomic areas, with vulnerable populations.

    • Property prices are lower in floodplain areas, which appeals to anyone who cannot afford to buy a big house on a hill. When flood events inevitably happen, they perpetuate this cycle and the inequity.

  • Some communities lack education and resources to help residents understand their risk.

  • Some communities have flood risk information, but are not operationalizing their risk management with live flood mapping intelligence and impact analytics. Each and every flood event is different, so we can’t rely on static maps as a flood unfolds, and as we continue to see unprecedented flood events that exceed available maps of a 1% Annual Exceedance Probability (AEP) scenario for example.

  • Many communities have access to flood forecasts as a peak river height. But many communities lack impact-based flood forecasting and localized intelligence of which specific people, properties and infrastructure will be impacted during flood events. This leads to a lack of targeted alerts and warnings.

    • This stems from model evolutions and the fact that rapid hydraulic modelling (which can show the flood inundation extent and depth as a map) was not previously possible, so many flood forecasts have been relying on hydrology (the height of the river) models only.


Many of these technical challenges has now been overcome. FloodMapp has the ability to help by producing real time flood forecasts and current flood extents and delivering live impact data at speeds previously impossible.


Adapting to climate change: more frequent and severe flooding

We are two years on from a catastrophic flood event. But things are not projected to get better. Unfortunately, there are some well researched and documented facts, that are important for us to take in, even if they are uncomfortable.


Flood damages will continue to grow rapidly with climate change

  • In Australia, natural disasters currently cost Australia $38 billion each year in economic damages.

  • These losses are projected to double to 73 billion by 20603 under a low emissions climate scenario, and triple to $94 billion under a high emissions scenario.

  • Flooding is currently and will continue to be the costliest disaster. The net present value of the cost of floods over the next forty years at $525 billion AUD.

    • This models the cost of flood at:

      • More than 25 times greater than the expected cost of Bushfire ($21 billion AUD)

      • Almost double the cost of Tropical Cyclone ($286 billion) over the same period.


Costs of flood damages

  • Flooding is by far the most frequent type of natural disaster globally, ahead of Tropical Cyclone and Severe Convective Storm.

    • From 2000-2023 there were 215 flood events - 470% more than the number of wildfire events4.

    • Flooding was the second costliest peril, amounting to 1.6 trillion in cumulative economic losses globally over the last 23 years. This is 730% (or 7.3X) more than the cumulative economic losses of wildfire during the same period.



Economic losses from natural disasters

It is important to note that these flood statistics exclude the storm surge flooding or inland flooding caused by tropical cyclones or hurricanes.

 

Effective flood early warning systems can save lives and prevent damage

  • The United Nations University reports that that flood early warning systems contributed to the decline in flood disasters and reduced the mortality rate by 45% — from 6,025 deaths per annum in 2000 to 3,331 deaths in 2017. 5 

  • The United Nations office Disaster Risk Reduction reports that an effective early warning is capable of reducing damage by 30% if activated 24 hours before the event.


To accept the status quo is no longer good enough—there are new and effective technology options available to us. We as a society need to significantly improve how we currently manage flood risk and protect our communities.


We can do better, the opportunities to be better are ready and waiting, we as an industry, as emergency managers, and as leaders just need to decide to do it. We need to step up. We need to lead with innovation, research and invest in new ways, with new resources and new technologies.


Our Why: Building a safer future

Though I wish for events like this to never be repeated, these are the moments that fuel my fire. The personal story of my family is reflected across their community, and it reminds me why I’m so passionate about operational flood risk mitigation, effective emergency management and building a safer future. There are thousands of stories just like this one across Queensland and New South Wales that will testify to the tragedy of the 2022 floods. These stories are the core of why we founded FloodMapp. They are the foundation that our technology is built upon.


Yes, we’re a talented team of flood engineers, hydrologists, data scientists, software developers, and GIS experts, but we’re also just a group of people who genuinely care about other people and their safety. We’re collaborative team committed to building more resilient communities. That’s why we dedicate our days developing and improving our technology to play our part in building a safer future by saving lives and reducing the impacts of flooding. This can only be achieved if our emergency managers are accessing the best and most effective tools available to enhance their preparedness, response and recovery. 


If you’d like to know more about how FloodMapp can help you assess the impact of floodwater in real-time, request a demo with our team here or contact us at hello@floodmapp.com.



 

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