Towards a Sane Policy on Natural Disasters

The Australian continent is not Camelot. Extreme variations in climatic events are part of its very existence. They are not a product of recent times. They have been recorded since European occupation and in indigenous folklore. Events like cyclones and flooding usually give enough notice of their arrival to allow communities and government leaders to take preventive action to reduce the consequent damage.

Yet those governments and communities continue to ignore the lessons of history. In fact, they frequently defy them, as we have seen in Victoria and Queensland and Western Australia in recent months. This article attempts to show why, with the exception of the Lockyer Valley flood, every recent Australian “disaster” was predictable and preventable at well below the financial cost of the subsequent restructuring.

Let me commence with defiance. During my term from 1998 to 2001 as Minister for Forestry and Conservation in the Howard government I became alarmed at the heat intensity of forest fires in the United States. Australia had dispatched some experts in fire suppression when it became clear that the Americans were having little success in extinguishing these fires with conventional methods. Upon their return, I convened a ministerial council of state forestry ministers for a briefing by a senior member of the team.

Those in attendance included the West Australian minister, who had rewritten the state Local Government Act to empower the executive of local authorities over the elected councillors. By coincidence, at this time, the executive of the Armadale Council in Western Australia was implementing a policy of no protective forest burning, a policy which has just delivered urban Western Australia its most destructive wildfire.

The advice of the senior firefighter was succinct and to the point. This new breed of wildfire had reached almost nuclear intensity due to recent government policies of banning timber harvesting, tree thinning and debris reduction on the forest floor by cool burning. One of his charts showed that the heat generated had sterilised the soil to a depth of one metre, leaving nothing from which the forest could regenerate.

Established suppression technology including water bombing was of little effect and of significant risk to the firefighters. The real damage to life, forest infrastructure and private property was the unseen superheated shock wave that preceded the flames. It had the destructive equivalent of the nuclear devices dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. He predicted Australia would be next.

After his departure I asked the state ministers what they intended to do in response. Their response was: “We must put out a press release.” When I asked what it might contain they replied: “We need more firefighting appliances and orange overalls.” They ignored the professional advice they had just received.

My suggestion that the focus should be on prevention, not suppression, was met with silence. When I also suggested prescribed burning and the maintenance of an adequate forestry access system to allow early intervention with heavy machinery rather than shovels and rakes, one minister said, “If we have to touch one tree, we won’t do it.”

It is ironic that, in its attempts to suppress the Black Saturday fires, at one stage Victorian government organisations had about eighty bulldozers pushing down trees to make containment lines. This effort of forest destruction exceeded the preventive measures I proposed at the time. This destruction plus the permanent death of old growth forest far exceeded the past harvesting by the forestry industry. It also produced massive amounts of carbon emissions which the industry would have sequestered in sawn timbers utilised for long-term building and furniture. While I am yet to be convinced on the global warming debate I also find it ironic that no formal measurement of the Black Saturday emissions has been published.

During the condolence debate in federal Parliament after Black Saturday, I was frowned upon in my attempt to state these facts in the hope that we could prevent such events from happening again. I was accused of being insensitive to the relatives of the deceased, most of whom were not buried, since the heat was so intensive there were none of their remains left to bury. 

After arriving in Carnarvon in 1958 as the twenty-three-year-old proprietor of the Port Hotel, I was given, during my first two years, a swift and violent education in flooding and an eye-of-the-cyclone event. Our hotel roof was torn off and on two occasions I watched the flood, capable of filling Sydney Harbour in four hours, surround the town and flow up the main street, damaging many properties. It clearly showed me, having staked my investment on future population growth, that no land adjoining the town’s limited flood-free residential area was available that was not going to be inundated in the future.

Isolation, however, was what you made of it. With a population unable to get out of town in the first flood, my beer sales increased and stocks were running low. My personal response was to harangue a very reluctant truck transport manager into transporting a load of beer from Perth to a known flood-free position about fifteen kilometres out of town where I promised to unload it upon arrival.

This I achieved with a flotilla of aluminium dinghies, attracting a headline and photograph in the West Australian: “Beer Before Butter”. The second half of the load of cartons, which could be brought closer to town as water levels subsided, was unloaded by a human chain standing waist deep in water flowing through a washout. In neither instance did I lack volunteers, nor did we cry for government assistance or public sympathy.

When I reviewed the cyclone damage to my hotel the lessons were simple. After reconstruction, my hotel was never damaged in future cyclonic events. Nor was there any damage to the buildings I subsequently constructed, or even the caravans in our caravan park which, like construction dongas, are the most vulnerable to even a strong wind. We simply tied them down when cyclone warnings were received.

The plantation growers shrugged their shoulders. The floods were a nuisance but without them there would be no water to grow crops and the best soil was to be found in the associated flood plain.

Bananas grew well in Carnarvon because they liked the climate that also produced the cyclones. A banana tree is built like a cigar, and as science has encouraged each plant to produce even bigger bunches of large bananas, their capacity to stay upright in a gale let alone a cyclone is not good. This means your business plan must allow for, say, one year in ten without income, or should include a component of annual crops. 

Climatic events only become disastrous when they damage the infrastructure humans have created. During my early years in Carnarvon most cyclones simply crossed the north-west coast at sparsely inhabited areas, maybe blowing over a few windmills or some sheds, and were often barely mentioned in the media. Today, such areas support major industrial activity, and population growth has concentrated in cities where a view of or proximity to the river or ocean is almost an imperative.

The winds blow no stronger, the bushfires are as frequent and the rivers flow no higher. The problem is that they now arrive where people live or work or retire. The associated industries demand that infrastructure be constructed in climatically hazardous areas.

Agriculturalists first chose the flood plains for their rich soil and more ample water. Conversely, our forest industries—which maintained a relatively safe environment in our forests and for commercial reasons maintained roads, equipment and expertise for an adequate early fire suppression response—were vilified as a consequence of a false public belief that trees had a human character and should be left to grow and procreate and die naturally at a ripe old age. That this ageing and procreation created ideal conditions for massive wildfires of nuclear intensity that kills all the trees and their seed in the ground is shrugged off as nature at work, which is the unfortunate truth. In the absence of human intervention nature eventually corrects the problem.

The protected forests of the USA, having tripled in plant density, have so starved the individual trees of water, nutrients and sunlight that they have succumbed in their millions to beetle and other infestations. But don’t worry, the forthcoming wildfire will kill the beetles, along with the wildlife and human populations that live within or adjoining the degraded forests.

So what is the response of the political classes? In nearly every occasion it is to wait for the disaster, then appear on television with the occasional tear, then call upon the generosity of the wider community who often have their own financial difficulties and then, of course, impose some new taxes—and finally demonise anyone insensitive enough to say it shouldn’t have happened in the first place.

In Carnarvon, having seen the flood waters in the main street and anxious to provide a safe residential environment to the new citizens coming in a rush to Carnarvon to man tracking stations and new fishing and minerals industries, I sought election to the local council and made it my business to ensure available land could be protected.

From an engineering perspective, this was not difficult. The ideal areas for development were not in the flow-path of the river even during major floods. Our rivers are our stormwater drains and due to Australia’s generally flat topography, they simply get wider during significant rainfall events (Lockyer Valley and Toowoomba are exceptions). Property and infrastructure that will be affected by this inundation can easily be protected by the construction of a levee system or elevation of infrastructure such as roads and railways above known flood levels. Typically, the river then just expands onto other land which is deemed less economically important. Sometimes, where the topography restricts this expansion, elevated bridges are required.

In Carnarvon the levees were constructed from riverbed sand. Such soil can be obtained from rivers by excavation when our remote rivers are seasonally dry or, in cases like the Brisbane River, by dredging. In both instances some flow rate improvement could also be achieved by the deepening process. In Carnarvon’s case in the 1960s, the state government was totally uninterested, not to mention financially and administratively incapable. The incumbent locals were either not convinced it was feasible or so opposed to the ideas of the new boy in town that they chose to oppose the idea on political grounds.

However, our North-West Minister, Charles Court, responded to my suggestion that the council could do the job by using the proceeds of the resultant land sales. He instructed the relevant ministers to see we had the necessary approvals “within fourteen days”. Some 500 blocks were developed with all services and to this day have suffered no inundation. All prices included a contribution towards the levee system. However, the council’s decision to reticulate the electricity underground as a preventive measure against cyclones was forbidden by the state electricity regulator on the grounds that no one had done it before. The council did not seek any profit from the venture, deeming it a community service.

The recent damage to some roads and plantation property in Carnarvon was caused by a government land development agency cutting off one mouth of the river to prevent it silting their marina development. This caused unnecessary damage outside the levee system when the flooded river, naturally, sought other access to the sea.

Compare this action of a tiny local authority population of approximately 2000 to the city of Brisbane with a budget that exceeds that of Tasmania and a state government that historically funded its budget from the revenue of its state rail system, which was the monopoly service provider to its inland mineral deposits. Neither the city nor the state has taken substantial preventive measures to ensure a safe environment for their growing population or even to protect their major economic infrastructure or insure them from the inevitable climatic risks. They now expect the rest of Australia’s population to pay for this arrogant failure of public policy. 

Let us review the outcomes in Queensland from the January floods. Sewerage and electrical infrastructure was inundated for want of a localised surrounding levee bank and appropriately designed flood-proof service networks. Major highways and rail systems were cut or inundated for want of their construction above known flood levels by embankment or bridging.

A great deal of suburban housing was flooded for want of council regulations that prevented houses being built to an overall height that allowed the first floor to be above known flood levels in unprotected suburbs, even though it should have been clear why the early inhabitants invented the “Queenslander”. (I am currently constructing my own “Queenslander” on the banks of the Swan River to meet the West Australian government’s hundred-year flood requirements.)

The Rockhampton airport was inundated for want of the kind of low levee bank that has protected the Carnarvon airport for over fifty years. Major Brisbane River installations floated off as torpedoes for want of adequate restraining engineering design. Meanwhile in Western Australia’s north-west, gas production facilities on land and in the sea, as well as coastal housing and business premises, can withstand annual cyclonic events with little or no damage. The people of residential Carnarvon stay in their homes, confident in the levee system they paid for in their land purchases going back as far as fifty years ago.

No amount of tears or posing in the rain with television interviewers can excuse Queensland’s many years of dereliction of public policy, which was all potentially correctable during the period that the incumbent Premier has served in parliament. That her government chose to save money by not taking international insurance over its infrastructure is the height of arrogance. The quote of the state Treasurer that it was not value for money is political-speak for, “Why bother, if we can bludge on the generosity of the Australian people and the underwriting of the Australian taxpayer?”

In 2002-03, as Minister for Regional Services in the Howard government, I became alarmed at the open-ended nature of the federal and state governments’ Natural Disaster Relief Arrangements (NDRA). It is a process that encourages the states to ignore their responsibility to mitigate natural disaster outcomes or, in some cases, not to spend their own money on international insurance cover simply because it is cheaper to have the disaster and let the federal taxpayer pay for 75 per cent of the reconstruction including new for old. It is time the NDRA is managed upon a risk-related basis and that a form of “no claim bonus” applies. Risk rating would either reduce assistance to state governments who failed to implement disaster mitigation in forests or from cyclones and floods, or provide incentives for those who did.

While this malaise is concentrated more in Queensland, there is an Australia-wide failure of various degrees to implement prevention processes as the alternative to suppression or reconstruction. Before someone says, “But Queensland is more vulnerable to climatic events”, surely this why Queensland should lead the nation in preventive technology expenditure and legislation, rather than getting the wooden spoon for the lowest financial commitment to flood mitigation of all the states.

Ninety per cent of the damage to property, loss of life and public infrastructure in recent years would not have occurred if reasonable expenditure in known preventive technology had been implemented. In my view, the cost would be less than the necessary reconstruction and far less than the associated loss of economic production.

Forest wildfires are often the result of politicians seeking preferences from radical minor parties. Yet they defy 60,000 years of history and kill hundreds of people not because of where they chose to live—such as in towns that had survived the traditional bushfires under the private management of the forest products industry—but because politicians put their election to high office ahead of a safe environment. We have media frenzy after every forest wildfire, searching for arsonists or a spark from some electricity transmission system. Yet even deliberate acts of lighting a fire would have no disastrous effects on life or property if there was no deliberately accumulated fuel load to feed and sustain a fire.

We are harangued about rising ocean levels (in centimetres) and more serious storm surges, yet half of the nation of Holland would be under the ocean were it not for the preventive intervention of a wise government. If people seeking an ocean-front lifestyle are prepared to pay millions of dollars for the block of land, plus a further million or two for the boat, why is it not a financial responsibility of the developer to provide the necessary safe environment that protects the development and those luxury cruisers from the predictable and recurring climatic events for which the region is notorious? They don’t bother, of course, because the public, either through their taxes or increased insurance premiums, will foot the bill. Why demonise insurers for declining to accept a bet on a certainty, which is tantamount to insisting a bookmaker accept bets on a one-horse race?

Why does the nation now have a body of uniformed suppression bureaucrats totally committed to extinguishing fires, putting tarpaulins over unroofed houses, ordering people from their homes which they know are at risk, because of their failure to implement even short-term preventive measures to make those people safe in their homes from impending climatic events? 

From my experience, quite simple measures during construction will make a house cyclone-resistant, whatever the intensity of the wind. There are also short-term initiatives that can be implemented before an impending cyclone arrives that will save a vulnerable house or premises. Moreover, building standards for cyclone protection need not be as expensive as the bureaucracy stipulates.

The simple requirement is that the structure must be an integrated unit anchored to its foundations. The anchoring mechanism can be as simple as 25 millimetre by 3 millimetre hoop iron, provided it is securely affixed to the roof and foundations. My choice with brick or block structures was to set 13 millimetre (half-inch) reo bar in the concrete foundation protruding say 200 millimetres and bent as a hook over which hollow blocks can be laid. On completion of the brickwork another length of reo bar was lowered to connect with the original hook and to protrude above the brickwork. The hollow was then filled with concrete and vibrated down. If this is implemented every two metres or beside each door and window opening, the brickwork will withstand wind damage. The roof structure is of course bolted or welded (not nailed with a nail gun) to the protruding reo bar. The roof is best of a truss design to which purlins must also be properly fixed. I don’t like roof tiles for cyclone areas. Colorbond steel properly fixed with screws provides a more attractive and robust roof. My steel-framed “Queenslander” on the banks of the Swan River, set on 6 metre screw piles, has Colorbond for the roof and external walls.

But let us look at existing buildings of doubtful design or resilience. Instead of running around evacuating people, our permanent emergency service officers would better employed out advising and assisting people on preventive measures to protect their buildings. For instance, by the simple act of placing, say, 6 millimetre or 10 millimetre wire rope over their roof and anchoring it to, say, 2 metre fencing star pickets driven into the ground at an angle to within the last, say, 300 millimetres. The cable is then tightened by attaching it to the star picket before it is fully driven in. A rough timber plank at right angles under the cable also improves the situation. Cables are to be spaced at 3 to 5 metres depending on the strength of the roof structure. In my experience, some cheap plywood over the windows and suitable bracing of the garage door has totally protected houses, caravans and dongas. It is also a lot cheaper than rebuilding a house after the event. Furthermore, preventing the demise of vulnerable buildings saves other houses from the assault of their debris.

CSIRO research into wildfires has established that there is a very limited period of time in which the intensity of a fire or its shock wave is at any one point. Homeowners in areas of government-created wildfire hazard should be encouraged or required to install an engine-driven sprinkler system on top of and around their buildings. A swimming pool is a sufficient water supply, or a large tank (not plastic) would suffice. If the resident turns it on when a fire is nearby, the evidence is that they will then be safe inside the house. However, if the water supply is sufficient they can start the pump early and depart. The water usage is not large as the sprinklers apply a mist, and the system could be designed to maintain the spray for whatever period desired. In the Armadale fire, one woman was reported to have saved her house by wetting the roof with a garden hose.

However, the appropriate effort and expenditure in prevention is not nearly as satisfying for the media or premiers seeking to resurrect their political careers. Imagine the dissatisfaction for our news media if a cyclone passes with no loss of life or property, or a flood is contained by adequate levee banks and stormwater drainage, or the trains and trucks keep rolling on properly elevated roadways, or an arsonist’s attempts to start a bushfire fail for lack of fuel in the forest. There are some people who have a vested interest in natural disasters, so there is a battle of ideas on this front that still needs to be won. 

Wilson Tuckey represented the West Australian seat of O’Connor for the Liberal Party in the House of Representatives from 1980 to 2010.

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