It may feel like a quiet disaster season, but don’t get complacent

Kinglake Road after Black Saturday Fires. Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC, Author provided

This summer has seen a predictable share of fires in Victoria, South Australia, New South Wales and Western Australia, flooding in Queensland, and several severe thunderstorms. However, there are already rumblings about the Severe Summer That Wasn’t, with a generally cool and wet January in the southeast.

These are dangerous times – these are exactly the perfect conditions that breed complacency to natural disasters in Australia.

We don’t know when the next major natural disaster will strike, but we do know that the latest State of the Climate released last year by the Bureau of Meteorology and the CSIRO shows Australia is steadily warming, raising the potential for more fires, floods, and heatwaves.

And we also know that some of the nation’s biggest and most lethal natural disasters have happened in February and March – Black Saturday, Ash Wednesday, cyclones Larry and Yasi.

Decades of good research has provided us with much knowledge about extreme weather, fire behaviour, flood mitigation, building in high-wind or earthquake zones, and more. What’s left are the difficult problems, and mainly are about us – people issues – and how we live with the threat of natural hazards.

Memory lapse

Our post-disaster research indicates that many people design and build their rural properties based on what they think is most likely to happen should they be impacted by a natural hazard, based on what they remember happened last time and what neighbours and friends can recall.

Memory is important but it will never give us the full picture of how to manage an unexperienced natural hazard.

If we want to make our communities safer, Australians need to tackle the problems in more innovative ways. Somewhere at some time every year, a town will be flooded, someone will lose their house in a bushfire, a cyclone will pound a coastal community, an earthquake will rattle some buildings, and a tsunami may even threaten our coastline.

For much of our population there is a fundamental disconnect between accepting a risk as a group (that is, as a whole country) and as an individual. This is because statistically there is a low risk of these events happening to you as an individual in any particular year. Most Australians get through the year, even many years, without personally feeling the impact of a natural disaster.

This low risk/high consequence scenario is the trickiest of all situations for governments and emergency service agencies to manage. Our post-disaster research has shown that residents in hazard-prone areas, perhaps not surprisingly, rely heavily on their own experiences of past hazards to inform their current risk situation.

And what could their memory tell them? That they have been in this house for 25 years and never seen a bushfire. That the last cyclone wasn’t all that bad. That the fire brigade arrived so quickly they didn’t really have to do anything. That there was plenty of time to pack the car and depart in an orderly procession into town. That the last bushfire was so big and fast moving that the only effective future plan is to flee as soon as it gets close. That the last earthquake rattled the cupboards but left no damage. That the last emergency warning fizzled out to nothing?

These experiences shape today’s decision on how to prepare for a hazards and how to react to an emerging threat.

Shifting responsibility

As I argued on a recent blog, there has been a long historical transfer of responsibility for the protection against such hazards to the government and its agencies on the belief that it’s better to have properly trained and resourced organisations to respond and protect us.

However, as pointed out by the Victorian 2009 Bushfires Royal Commission, that transfer of responsibility has probably gone too far. Individuals are no longer taking sufficient responsibility for their own risk management.

Governments over many years have allowed this risk transfer to continue through perverse incentives that favour people not taking responsibility. For example, compensation schemes for lost assets rather than subsidies for the reduction of risk.

One of the main reasons why these “disaster risk reduction” savings are not always enacted is because there’s little to gain, politically, from cost-effective mitigation. In fact, American experts Andrew Healy and Neil Malhotra assert that voters reward politicians for delivering disaster relief funding — but not for investing in disaster preparedness.

That presents a fundamental challenge to the implementation of the recent Productivity Commission’s inquiry into disaster funding arrangements, which in its draft report advocated a substantial shift of focus from funding relief and recovery to funding mitigation.

As a population that is learning to deal with natural hazards, our well-informed science and tried and true policies and practises are balanced by dodgy recollections and distorted perceptions of risk. The solution to this problem is not immediately clear.

What you can do

Television and radio advertising for fire and storm season preparations, drawing from road safety advertisements, increasingly focus on the individual in the moment of decision under the threat of a hazard.

It’s your responsibility to have a proper plan, prepared in advance.

Do you have a written and rehearsed plan? Our research shows, most people don’t.

Even among the people who do, many of their plans are vague on detail and don’t allow for worst-case scenarios (roads blocked, debilitating injuries, loss of power and water, escaped and panicked pets).

And most people gravely underestimate the mental stress of being in the middle of a natural hazard. Do you really want to be in your house when the fire or cyclone hits? What – exactly – is your trigger to leave, and where – exactly – will you go? This is crucial not only for residents in the hazard zone, but also for travellers.

The state fire and emergency service agencies have many good resources on what it means to be prepared and not complacent. See here for Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia, Queensland, Western Australia, Tasmania, the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory.

The knowledge exists; the challenge is to encourage more people to take their personal responsibilities more seriously.

Place yourself in this situation - what would you do?

These impressions draw upon a body of post-incident studies conducted by the Bushfire CRC and Bushfire & Natural Hazards CRC since 2009. All the reports are on www.bushfirecrc.com or www.bnhcrc.com.au