Flash flooding, brought on by sudden torrential rain, killed dozens of people in Australia in 2011. Because of their very nature, it has been difficult to provide effective warnings. And that is a significant gap in Australia’s natural disaster management, according to the submission of RMIT University’s Centre for Risk and Community Safety to the 2011 Queensland Floods Commission of Inquiry.
We now have the technology to deliver such warnings, says director of the Centre, Prof John Handmer. “But using it would raise issues about how quickly both the authorities and people at risk are prepared to make critical decisions when they receive the information.”
Based on more than a decade of local and international research, the Centre argues that improving warning systems, and eliciting community responses to them, is one of the most cost-effective ways of reducing losses and saving lives. “We know how to raise awareness [of flooding], but not how to ensure action,” John says.
The submission also underlines the general problem of communicating the uncertainties of warnings—an issue relevant not just to flooding, but to many other natural disasters, such as bushfires, tsunamis and violent storms. Because public understanding of numerical estimates of probability is limited, the submission suggests defining and using language such as “could,” “at least” or “between X and Y” to accompanying them.
The Centre, which is based in the University’s School of Mathematical and Geospatial Sciences, was established in 2001 as a collaborative project with the Centre for Resource and Environmental Studies (now the Fenner School) at the Australian National University, and the then peak body for dealing with natural disasters, Emergency Management Australia (now part of the Attorney-General’s Department).
Photo: Technology could mean more effective warnings against flash flooding, like the kind that hit Toowoomba, Queensland in January 2011.
Centre for Risk and Community Safety, RMIT University, John Handmer, firstname.lastname@example.org, www.rmit.edu.au/about/our-education/academic-schools/science/research/research-areas/mathematical-and-geospatial-sciences/risk-and-community-safety/