"Look them in the eye and treat people like grown-ups."
- Queensland Minister Crisafulli, playing the role of Premier of Queensland as a not-so-hypothetical Category 5 cyclone approaches Townsville in 2018.
To prepare for Townsville's next major cyclone, Green Cross Australia worked with Townsville City Council and ABC Radio National's 'Big Ideas' program to produce a hypothetical scenario planning exercise. The Townsville Hypothetical explores relationships between civic leadership, business and community self-reliance, and how media and social media pressures influence preparedness, response and recovery. This event was funded by the 'Get Ready Queensland' program.
Townsville has experienced 53 major cyclones since the 1850s, including Cyclone Althea in 1971.
Since 1971 Townsville has become a major regional centre with a population of 190,000. Townsville embraces the largest defence force community in Australia, multiple industrial developments, a thriving tourism industry and some of Australia's largest scale master planned communities.
You can watch the hypothetical here.
The scenario - Cyclone Claudia approaches Townsville, February 2018
We modelled a cyclone the scale of Yasi, which lands at 3am at high tide, creating a storm surge of nearly 4 metres on top of 2 metres HAT (highest astronomical tide). This scenario has been modelled by CSIRO - you can watch the storm surge animation here.
The scenario teases out the tension between the need for strong and consistent political leadership on the one hand and the importance of community self-reliance on the other.
Three weeks after Cyclone Claudia hits Townsville directly bringing onshore the most powerful modern storm surge in recent history, another major rainfall event hits Townsville bringing over one metre of rain down on cyclone-affected areas. Townsville's health, transport, energy and communications systems are tested to the extreme, and ideas for a rebuilding a stronger Townsville emerge. Key insights follow.
Taking confident steps in the face of uncertainty
In this scenario, as Cyclone Claudia approaches four days before landfall, the Bureau of Meteorology issues warnings across a 550-kilometre stretch of coast from Cairns to Bowen. Energy, telecommunications, food supply and health care providers kick-start their emergency preparedness planning into gear, planning for back-up power generation and staffing capacity, fuel supplies, food and water.
Small businesses marshal their staff to care for customers and infrastructure while minding family preparedness. Additional doctors, nurses, and emergency supply volunteers are shored up right across the region and reaching into Southeast Queensland. Wherever the event hits, locals will need to care for their homes and families first, and with transport cut off, other people and supplies need to be brought in as the cyclone advances.
As families prepare for a minimum of three days without food, water, power and communications, and possibly more - political leaders navigate the fine line between building confidence with clear direction and rolling with an uncertain scenario.
The warning narrows to a swathe of coast 60 kilometres north and south of Townsville 24 hours before Claudia hits.
Political leaders are tasked with empowering people to prepare without out knowing who will be hit hardest. Yet the community will also go to social media to stay informed - how does official information layer into community content ?
Community scale preparedness builds resilience
Most of the 40,000 people living in Townsville's Red, Orange and Yellow coastal evacuation zones will need to evacuate to friends and relatives on higher ground. A response depends entirely on high levels of community connectedness and engagement.
To cultivate resilience in advance, the ADF reaches out to new military families, Stockland promotes the "Get Ready Queensland" program through its shopping centres and communities, Telstra reminds people to get out those old push button phones that don't rely on power from the cupboard, and Ergon rehearses its preparedness messages.
This is a well-rehearsed city in a region that regularly buckles down together, but the scenario calls for the largest scale evacuation in Australian history.
As Wayne Preedy from Queensland Fire and Emergency Services reflects, "People generally don't get killed by flying debris - it's about getting them out of the storm surge area."
Authentic leadership means telling it straight - no spin
Queensland leaders appreciate the importance of taking a hard line attitude in the media. This can backfire when a major storm system veers track - but as Claudia approaches safety comes first.
As the scenario unfolds, 'Premier' Crisafulli comments, "The important thing in a disaster is to look people in the eye and say 'you must make a decision, once you have made a decision, you've got to stick it out.' "
Mayor Hill texts her community with a clear message: "If you are in the storm surge area you could drown - get out. Don't expect us to come and get you."
Inevitably cyclones throw up challenges: mistakes are made, communications get muddled, and confusion arises. In this scenario the decision to evacuate Palm Island, with 4,000 indigenous residents, is made too late to get all people off the island with planes, ferries and boats available. 1,500 people are left to weather the eye of the storm on the island where there is no evacuation centre.
Rather than dwell on political consequences, leaders call it straight and use social media and any other form of local persuasion to encourage people left behind to find shelter on higher ground in newer, more resilient homes and buildings. The time for investigation and inevitable recriminations will come later.
The brave new world of social media creates its own storm
In our scenario, the Townsville Storm Facebook Page becomes the voice of Cyclone Claudia. As millions of hits reach a global audience, the Queensland Police Force and other agencies will dive deeply into Twitter and Facebook to bust myths and offer up to date information. Moderators of Townsville Storm FB work from Cairns and other places left with power as Claudia passes through. They continuously link back to official information where possible. But the community will post its own stories and these grip the nation.
Gradually grim facts emerge: lives lost, homes destroyed. Roads are cut and the airport is knocked out, so Townsville relies on bulk ship supplies to get through. Given mass confusion, facts get blurred in the buzz of social media.
The ABC embraces a dual role throughout the event. On the one hand the ABC is our official disaster communications agency, and its role is to report developments on the ground and communicate official messages in real time. On the other hand the ABC follows good stories - even if they are uncomfortable for political leaders.
As Alan Sunderland (title) explains, "Accuracy and completeness is the solution. People have a right to know and you can do that in a way that is not sensational or alarmist."
Building back better
The final chapter of our scenario offers intriguing ideas for how Townsville can build back stronger, more resilient infrastructure. But prickly questions are raised: Why and how should development be allowed in storm surge areas?
Here the wisdom of Australia's leading built environment experts come to the front. James Cook University's Cyclone Testing Station and our business panellists explore resilient materials and design approaches. They embrace the opportunity to find value for money ideas that lift resilience above and beyond the existing building code.
Mark Gibbs of AECOM reminds us that catastrophes offer the opportunity for lifting standards. After the Brisbane floods of 2011, Brisbane City Council swiftly lifted minimum floor heights by 500 millimetres in flood affected areas - a reform that otherwise might take years to emerge.
But not all agree on the new wave of ecosystem-based mitigation which is beginning to take hold overseas (see James Russell video above).
'Premier' Crisafulli is absolutely interested in not replacing infrastructure to the same standard in the same location. Infrastructure should be rebuilt stronger. But improvements to resilience should not come at expense of Townsville's identify, including its beloved foreshore.
Mayor Hill agrees - pointing out that a four metre storm surge at high tide would reach 6 kilometres inland. Townsville is built on a flood plain, so how can leaders of today restrict coastal development when others have been allowed to live on the beach for such a long time? She looks for opportunities to rebuild differently with this in mind.
On the insurance front there is positive news: unlike the situation during 2011 floods, people with insurance from reputable providers will be covered for storm surge related to a cyclone. If their insurance is covered and sufficient, that is. There are signs that insurers may have an appetite for rewarding people that build back stronger with lower premiums - so a marketplace for coastal resilience can emerge.
Business resilience at the core of prosperity
Tony O'Connor from Kookaburra Tours explains the importance of being open for business as soon as possible after a cyclone. Thousands of responders will envelope Townsville for weeks and months - they all need a place to stay and eat. Business continuity and a joined up response across the tourism sector are challenges that experienced North Queensland businesses know all to well.
Our scenario tests Townsville's emergency response capacity and community resilience with a follow-on flooding event a few weeks after Cyclone Claudia devastates Townsville. Recurring major events are well documented in Queensland's natural disaster history. Several large industrial facilities are damaged by the combined cyclone and flood impacts, and industrial pollution spills into the rivers and ocean, putting ecosystems and eco-tourism at risk.
Should Townsville embrace heavy industry as part of its long term rebuilding vision?
Both the 'Premier' and Townsville Mayor say yes - representing both sides of politics. Beyond the ADF, heavy industry and mineral processing are Townsville's largest employers. Continued investment from these and other sectors will create the job opportunities that draw back residents who fled from Claudia.
The challenge is: how to ensure that new industrial developments embrace state of the art, improved environmental controls. That too is part of Townsville's better future.
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We are grateful for the participation of the following people in this event
Paul Barclay - ABC RN Big Ideas - Moderator
Jenny Woodward - ABC Queensland Weather Presenter - Mock cyclone warnings
Jeff Callaghan - Retired Senior BoM Forecaster - interviewed by Jenny Woodward to set the scene
David Crisafulli, Minister for Local Government, Community
Recovery and Resilience
Cr Jenny Hill-Townsville Mayor
Rob Webb- Queensland Director, Bureau of Meteorology
Tony O'Connor-Operator, Kookaburra Tours
Wayne Preedy - QFES
Glen Fisher-Defence (ADF)
Robert Cedar- Indigenous Committee Representative
Shane Williams-Townsville Storms
Rachel Cliff-Telstra David Henderson-JCU
Tony Coleman-Insurance expert
Ross Davies- BlueScope
James Davidson - Architect
Leading the Audience Q&A
Andrew Powell, Minister for Environment and Heritage Protection
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