‘Decisions Determine Disasters’ is the headline of one of our articles this month. It refers to an article published in Psychology Today that suggests that irrespective of the environment, a disaster related to natural hazards is ultimately caused by humanity’s activities, attitudes, behaviour, values, and decision making. In terms of flooding that begins with the decisions to put development in a location prone to flooding and ends with the decisions people make during and after a flood. Those decisions are the key as to how disastrous the event turns out to be.
What is of concern is that other research we report on this month suggests that, in Australia, flood messaging campaigns are having little impact on improving decision making during floods, particularly the messaging around not driving, walking or riding through floodwaters. Other research we report on this month argues that the key to effective disaster preparedness is contingent upon the public taking an active part in the content and methods of communication. Perhaps our top-down approach to flood response messaging is not striking the right chord with the Australian public.
Clearly, however, there has been appropriate response to warning messages in the US, Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan where tens of thousands of people were evacuated ahead of dam failures without any loss of life. We have little detail about the warning times available and messages delivered in those events but however it was done, it was effective. It is nevertheless concerning that dam failures are occurring with so many lives at risk downstream. Apparently, there were safety concerns since 1999 about the dam that failed in the USA.
It is therefore understandable that Sunwater has lowered the full supply level of Paradise Dam in Queensland as a safety precaution against its potential failure after a succession of floods uncovered deficiencies in its design and construction. We helped Sunwater some years ago look at whether emergency response planning would be a sufficient means of protecting the safety of the thousands of people at risk in Bundaberg and along the 100 km of floodplain in between. While it would be of significant benefit in reducing risk, it is reliant upon dam operators making good decisions during an event and residents making good decisions in response to warnings issued. Recent court decisions and the response of Bundaberg residents to flood warnings in 2013 underline the fragility of relying on such decisions during an event. While an independent inquiry has supported Sunwater’s decision to reduce the dam’s capacity as a long term safety measure, downstream irrigators are critical of the decision because of its impacts on water supply security. Ultimately, decisions now will determine whether there is a future disaster on the Burnett River.
Finally, I would like to say how pleased I am that the Floodplain Management Australia (FMA) online conference was so well supported and attended by more than 800 participants. Nevertheless, it was an odd experience presenting online and I am looking forward to meeting and mingling in the flesh at next year’s conference.