Lessons from Cyclone Larry - 21 October

Submitted by Webmaster on Wed, 15/11/2006 - 09:44

Future of Cairns haspreviously raised doubtsabout the competence of authorities to deal with the impactof a major cyclone on Cairns.  It is always difficult to writeabout the capacity of authorities to respond to emergencies because theemergency response system is an amalgam of differentorganisations.  To my surprise, even those who are directly incharge vital parts of the system don’t fully understand allaspects of the system. For example most emergency planners did not knowthat the local army base is legally not allowed to assist with cyclonerecovery unless this action is approved by Canberra (which takestime).  As someone outside the system, I canonly buildup partial knowledge, but having made reasonable attempts to understandthe system there is no point in being shy.  Here are thelessons from Cyclone LarryNew houses (post 1990)are generally able to withstand cyclones.  Older houses seemprone to coming apart.  Older houses that are re-roofed andhave modern fastenings fitted in the roof are much less likely to losethe roof than old houses with original roofs.  Some commonplants likegolden cane palms can help to break up the windand protect the houses.  The above findings were fromGeosciences Australia who went around and took photos and extensivenotes of damage to houses and infrastructure. Coconut palm on house Thewind was strong enough to blow over coconuts palms - yet the cyclonerated house was intact The evacuations of lowlying areas which were subject to Larry related storm surges wentwell.  One unresolved issue is that people take their pets andpets are not allowed in evacuation centres.  A fact toremember is that evacuation must occur before the winds reach 100 kmper hour.  Some emergency services have a policy that once thewind reaches 70 km per hour, the speed at which debris starts to fly,the driver of the emergency vehicle is given the discretion to abortthe mission should they consider their safety or their vehicle is atrisk.  The window of opportunity for going seems to occur longbefore the threat is imminent.  Modern houses are safe to windspeeds of about 250 km per hour so staying at home is the best ideaunless you are going to be flooded.  Predicted cyclone pathsand flood levels are also not completely reliable so unexpected strongwinds or flooding may arise so deciding whether to stay or go can bevery difficult.  I still have little confidence in theevacuation plans for Cairns City.  Don’t rely onthe council.  Councils are supposed to function as disastermanagement centres during and after cyclones.  However duringLarry, there were major failures in council command structures and theaffected council’s ability to operate following CycloneLarry.  Really simple things went wrong.  Nobodyshowed up for work, because their own houses were damaged. Windows blew out in the council buildings and vital electricalequipment got wet and could not be used.  There was noelectricity and they didn’t have standby generators so theycould not operate.  They ran out of paper for printing maps toshow helpers from out of town where to go.  There were nophone books or street maps in the councils vehicles so the helpers gotlost.  The council had all of their equipment in the councilyard and when a river flooded, they could not get to people on theother side of the flood.  Some councils, including Cairns CityCouncil are reported to have failed to move heavy equipment to highground as per their cyclone plans! The councils were oftenill prepared and incompetent.  I don’t thinkanything is changing.   The roots cause of the issueinclude: disaster preparations are insufficiently and irregularlyfunded, major system weakness are not fixed (eg. council yards on floodplains), and the philosophy of disaster management iswrong.   The philosophy of being a central controlcentre in the immediate aftermath of a cyclone is wrong because thereis a gap of a few hours to few days after a cyclone when littleinformation aboutthe extent of the disaster and what resources are available. Without that information, a central command structure is not veryeffective.  In the immediate aftermath, recovery units locatedacross the city or shire should be able to operate independently butthis capacity is not being developed.  One of the reasons forthe lack of improvement in council response capacity is also aperception in many council staff that mayors will sack disastermanagementstaff if they agitate too strongly for change.  The systemneeds to be changed to make sure that discussion of known issues is notstifled by councillors.  Perhaps the State Government can playa role in bringing out and documenting these issues so that they mustbe dealt with.  In contrast to localcouncils, the State and Federal Governments are generally doing a goodjob of disaster management planning.  Modern disaster reliefefforts should be precision guided campaigns.  Informationpours into the command centre and is entered database, this informationthen pours out of the command centre as maps and instruction sheetstelling recovery teams where to go, what to expect and what to do. Unfortunately,theapproach used by the State and Federal Government was not completelyeffective.  The is that those governments use a top downapproach which concentrates on higher levels of management andsometimes their expertise does not make it down the hierarchy to thosewho need it.  Many council staff also dismissed the high-techinformation based systems as approach as too complex.  Theapproach is complex but it works and council staff should go to theeffort of learning how to use things before they reject them.  Disseminationof information was too slow.  Maps and task lists did notactually get to thecouncil teams and other teams in a timely manner.  Anothermajor failing is that many of the council workers, SES volunteers andothers who were early on the scene don’t know how to putvital information back into the system.  For example, if adamaged house has been searchedand there was nobody in it, then the fact the house has been searchedneeds tobe reported.  The common result was that the helicopterspotter saw the damaged house and tasked another team to go out andlook for wounded people in houses that had already beensearched.  Whenthe power failed, all the refrigerated food was thrown out and theshelves were empty for a few days I believe that thefederal and state government people are very much on the right trackand just have to make sure that the people on the ground are given theequipment and training they need to be able to do effective informationbased disaster recovery.  The solution that I recommend wouldbe to provide the equipment and training and then showcouncils ways of using the equipment and training in theireverydayoperations.  If emergency and everyday systems are‘commonised’ in this way everybody becomes anexpert with the systems they will need during a disaster.  Politicians should stayout of the disaster relief coordination.  When there is asystem that tracks and priorities needs in real time and dispatchesteams as available to attend to these needs, it greatly undermines thesystem when politicians come in and start giving orders. Political interference can also drain resources from thesystem.  For example volunteers unexpectedly show up and nopreparations have been made for their lodgings or for supplying themwith power, food and water, suddenly resources have to be drained fromthe disaster recovery system to look after the helpers.  IfStalin could let his generals get on with the job, then our politiciansshould be able to stay out of things too.ConclusionThe main lesson fromCyclone Larry is that many of lessons will soon beforgotten.  Some fundamental progress is being made,particularly with improvements to cyclone area buildingcodes.  An emergency command centre is also being buildsomewhere in Cairns in a location where it will be above storm surgelevel.  Progressing towards an effective information baseddisaster recovery system is good at higher levels but slow at the grassroots level.  Cairns remains extremely vulnerable to a majorstorm surge and I still don’t believe that the council isanywhere near prepared for such an event.If you have any commentsor suggestions, please feel free to make them in the Future of Cairnsforums. Links toprevious articles on cyclones:- DoesCairns really have a cyclone plan? - ByrneCouncil again fails to seriously address storm surge- Councilresponse to the evacuation issue- Councilremains silent on cyclones however information found is safe citiesreport

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