Too little, too late - a tale of disaster

What makes the floods in NSW and QLD even more devastating is that governments knew they were coming and did very little to prepare, writes CCA CEO David Crosbie in Pro Bono News, who argues it is time charities and community groups were placed at the centre of resilience and recovery. 

Too little, too late – a tale of disaster, Pro Bono News, 10 March 2022

Emergency Management Australia is within the Department of Home Affairs. Its website states: “We lead the Australian government disaster and emergency management response. We work to build a disaster resilient Australia that prepares and responds to disasters and emergencies.”

Tens of thousands of Australians are now homeless; many more are suffering. More than 20 lives have been lost. The floods in NSW and QLD have been devastating for individuals, families, workplaces, and communities. What makes them even more devastating is that governments knew they were coming and did very little to prepare. 

Last weekend CCA was contacted by people desperate for help. We did what we could. CCA chair Tim Costello directly contacted senior government ministers alerting them to what was happening in the disaster areas and directly connecting them to people on the ground. Invariably the government response was too little too late. 

On 13 October last year I attended a briefing hosted by Emergency Management Australia (EMA) on the upcoming disaster season. It was called a Preparedness Briefing. We were told the briefing would provide an understanding across the emergency management spectrum of the risks and preparedness for the upcoming high risk weather season. 

The agenda for this meeting included:

  • detailed meteorological and climatic outlook
  • summary of observations, responses and contributions from the Commonwealth for the 2020-2021 season
  • updates to the Australian Government Crisis Management Framework
  • updates to “enhanced” Emergency Management Australia
  • formation and function of the National Recovery and Resilience Agency and the Australian Climate Service
  • Commonwealth response arrangements
  • Crisis Appreciation and Strategic Planning initiatives
  • defence / DACC update
  • arisis weather scenario to stimulate discussion

While this was a closed Department of Home Affairs invitation only meeting, I can say that a map was provided by weather experts outlining where disastrous floods would probably occur in the upcoming high-risk season. This map proved to be remarkably accurate in predicting the flood events that have unfolded over the past week.

We know that governments, insurance agencies, and defence forces have all had access to this information. They knew there was a very high probability of flooding occurring this year and where it would most likely impact. 

In any emergency response there are some key essentials, and most can be planned for in advance. 

There needs to be a way of communicating with people. Most people rely on mobile phones. Building disaster resilient phone systems is critical to warning, rescuing and supporting people. For people in the floods, their risk was often compounded by the lack of workable communication options.

Food, water and shelter are essential. Having ways to provide safe food and water across multiple isolated homes and communities is critical in any emergency response. While many communities took on this challenge over the past week, including some local heroes and committed charities, there were few supports from government to meet these needs. 

Many local individuals and communities have provided critical shelter when access to emergency shelters (usually set up by local councils) was very limited. 

Power, fuel and emergency transport need to be secured in any disaster. Again, in the floods these critical elements were not available. Locals pitched together to get helicopters and boats to people in need, enabling them to rescue more than 2,000 people.

Defence Minister Peter Dutton has defended the government’s response, in part by deflecting criticism of the government as criticism of serving ADF personnel: “I’m not going to cop criticism of the ADF,” he said. “They have looked at the situation on the ground, they’re responding, they’re bringing vehicles in, they rescued 113 people who otherwise would have drowned.” 

Reports into disasters across Australia have repeatedly highlighted the need for immediate access to appropriate financial and other support. Talking with people who have applied for support during these floods, the process for making a claim was, at best, both time consuming and burdensome.

What this disaster highlights is that governments have again failed to adequately plan, prevent or mitigate the dangers associated with what we know will be increasing levels of storms, fires and floods across Australia. Knowing there was a very high probability of floods in Lismore and elsewhere, why were no preparations made? The cost of preparing communities properly would be high, but it would be a fraction of the disaster recovery bill. 

I have repeatedly asked the National Recovery and Resilience Agency about their investment in resilience and prevention. They agree they need to invest more in this area, and yet the resilience component of their work currently amounts to around 3 per cent of their total expenditure. This is woefully inadequate.

Governments have failed on climate change, and are failing on dealing with consequences of climate change. Australians are not being kept safe by their governments.

From a charity perspective, these failures of government place a massive burden on many large and small organisations, desperately trying to fill the yawning chasm of emergency need created by government failure. All too often, the infrastructure charities themselves rely on is not available.

Phones, food and water, fuel, shelter, power, emergency transport, access to financial support, healthcare, animal welfare, counselling, childcare, workable disaster registration processes, clear emergency management and recovery processes, we know what is needed, but our governments have refused to put the appropriate measures in place.

It is time charities and community groups were placed at the centre of resilience and recovery. We know that it is people working together in their local community that best facilitate both prevention and recovery. So why are we not investing in bringing local people together to plan for natural disasters before they happen? How is critical community infrastructure going to be protected as the intensity of natural disasters increases? Where is the recovery team in each community? 

The very least Australians should now expect is that next time there is a well-informed warning about increased disaster risk, locally informed preparation and resilience measures will be put in place. Anything less would border on criminal neglect.

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