Flood warning: full potential not achieved

May 25, 2023
Stormy sky and rain.

The recent announcement by federal ministers Tanya Plibersek (Environment) and Murray Watt (Emergency Management) of substantial investment in upgrading the nation’s flood warning gauge network is welcome.But gauging is only part of the problem of flood warning: there is another element which is not routinely well recognised in flood management circles.

This is the reality that warnings too often fail to stimulate appropriate responses from those in the paths of coming floods. In the context of protecting items of property on farms and in residential, commercial and institutional contexts, and in terms of people needing to evacuate from situations of impending danger, warnings are frequently not sufficiently understood or heeded. Communities thus lose more than they should in terms both of lives and property.

Every significant flood in Australia demonstrates the truth of this statement.

The problem lies in the communication of information to those in the path of floods. Too often, the likely effects as a flood rises to its predicted peak level are not spelled out clearly and people thus do not understand where the water will go, how dangerous it will be and what interests (including roads, farms, dwellings, institutions and businesses) will be affected. Effective management responses are thus not facilitated.

Many people are oblivious to the flood risk they face: some, indeed, are unaware of the fact that they live or otherwise have interests on a floodplain. Most, too, lack an appreciation of how widely floods can vary in heights attained and consequences produced; they think of floods in a location as being much of a muchness in the impacts they deliver. Few have a clear notion of what an ‘extreme’ flood might look like and what it will do.

Given these realities, and given that some are unaware of the location of relevant gauges or how floods are measured, it becomes clear that how a warning of a coming flood relates to people’s interests is limited. What constitutes appropriate responses will not be readily apparent to them.

The words that accompany flood forecasts are critical. They should identify impending consequences on the one hand and the appropriate responses to those consequences on the other. People need to be advised about who and what will be affected and given clear indications as to what they should do in the time available before floods arrive.

Generally speaking, the prediction of flood heights is done competently by the Bureau. Less well achieved is the communication of the consequences that can be anticipated and the responses which people will need to undertake to ensure those impacts are minimised.

Clarity and completeness in the flood warning messages that are disseminated via the electronic media, over the internet and in the more severe events by doorknocking must be sought. Too often the information provided is generic, bland and unpersuasive and a clear sense of its relevance to those in the path of a flood is lacking. The messages thus fail to persuade people to take purposeful action.

Locality place names and streets need to be specifically referenced, therefore, and the language of warning messages couched so as to convince people of the nature of the threat to their interests.

This is so because an inbuilt human torpor which promotes inaction must be overcome. Given uncertainty about potential flood impacts, and concerned about doing things which may prove to have been unnecessary, discourages people from taking positive action.

In the context of needed evacuation, emphasis needs to be given to the dangers of being in the path of coming floodwaters or of trying to wait a flood out in situ in dwellings likely to experience over-floor inundation. Too many lives are lost thanks to the failure to evacuate. Evacuation is not something people wish to do: it is nobody’s hobby. The innate tendency is to stay, and the risks of leaving (including having one’s house looted) are easily perceived. Messages need to recognise this: the natural tendency not to leave must be overcome.

Again, people need not just to be advised but to be persuaded. Part of this relates to emphasising the dangers to health and safety (indeed lives) of staying.

There are, of course, situations in which people should be advised to stay: sometimes evacuation itself (for example through floodwaters) is the greater danger especially in the context of fast-flowing water laden with debris.

Whether the need is for people to evacuate or stay, clear (and sometimes arresting) language is needed. Compare, for different situations, the following statements: “You must leave: staying will leave you at risk of injury or death” with “You must not evacuate: the floodwater in the streets will be dangerously fast-flowing and laden with debris”. Distinctions like this one are rarely apparent in broadcast flood warning messages.

Warning messages should be practised, that is written in anticipation outside flood time and the words experimented with, and then revised in the real time of an approaching flood when there is precise information about it. ‘Planning’ messages out of flood time helps in achieving the appropriate content and tone and thus hitting the necessary psychological notes.

Effective warning practice, then, is not just a matter of ensuring that flood gauge networks and flood-height forecasting practices are fit for purpose, important though these things are. More is needed, especially to persuade people to behave in ways that will enable them to protect items of belongings and keep themselves and their families safe.

There is much scope for education here, both in schools as part of science, geography and personal development/health curricula, and for adults who live or have other interests on floodplains. An educated population will be more able to comprehend and react to warnings than a population which is ignorant of the risks and how to manage them. People must know not just about floods but about the relationship of warnings to them.

The costs levied by floods, in terms of lives and property damage, are everywhere capable of reduction. But flood warning as it is practised in Australia is limited in scope and does not fully serve community interests. Educating people about flood risks and communicating warnings effectively are vital in the contexts of damage mitigation and public safety.

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