Friday 16 November 2007

Cairns faces evacuation disaster... again

CairnsBlog contributing writer Sid Walker, shares with us the doom and gloom of our city's preparedness for the upcoming cyclone season, hot on the heels of "that" tsunami debacle.

The cyclone season is upon us once again.

According to the Bureau of Meteorology “Queensland can expect more cyclone activity this season than last, when just two cyclones developed in the Coral Sea, neither of which was severe nor made landfall. It's unlikely however that the coming season will be as active as 2005-06 when severe cyclones Larry and Monica struck the east coast.”

Lessons from Katrina?

It’s just over two years since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, killing more than a thousand people and dealing the city's community as a whole a devastating blow.

That event, above all others, signaled the end of the once widely-held but now vanishing notion that the USA is the most advanced nation on earth. If modern America had, wittingly or not, served as Australia’s role model, Hurricane Katrina showed just how ugly and inequitable, brutal and chaotic, that model becomes when the system is subjected to a genuine, as opposed to manufactured, external shock.

This useful timeline tells the story. On August 26th 2005, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin called for a voluntary evacuation of the city. The next day, the Mayor ordered a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans. The following morning of the 28th, the hurricane hit the coast of Louisiana.

Many people took the Mayor’s advice in time, often clogging highways with vehicles that were under-capacity. Still, most folk with vehicles and cash – as long as they weren’t too blasé – did get away to the north.

But a high proportion of the at-risk population did not. Some stayed because they really were blasé. Far too many stayed because they simply couldn‘t get out. No adequate provisions had been made – in advance - for their evacuation. By the time it was plain that the city would be hit hard, a comprehensive evacuation was logistically impossible.

Lessons from Havana?

The nearby island of Cuba is subject to tropical storms as frequent and fierce as any – yet its record for surviving hurricanes is so much better the comparison shames its northern neighbour. This not a subject widely (if ever?) covered in Rupert Murdoch’s limited news papers, so you probably won’t find this out by reading The Cairns Post, Port Douglas & Mossman Gazette, Brisbane Courier Mail, The Australian etc ....

But you can read about it here...

  • “The 2005 hurricane season was the most active on record. The storms are also becoming more powerful: Hurricane Ivan (2004) was the fifth strongest to hit the Caribbean in recorded history, while Hurricane Wilma (2005), was the fastest intensifying one – going from a moderate tropical storm to a Category 5 monster in a few hours. But neither claimed a single Cuban life. “

Here’s a another article you won’t read anytime soon in the Australian mass media...

  • UN disaster relief expert Salvano Briceno said “Cuba must serve as an example.” “The Cuban model,” he said, “could easily be applied to other countries.”

    Six hurricanes striking Cuba from 1996 to 2002 killed 16 people. Hurricane Georges (1998) killed 597 persons elsewhere, only four in Cuba. Michelle (2001), Cuba’s worst storm in almost 60 years, killed five. Ivan (2004) killed thousands in the Caribbean area, mainly in Haiti — but none in Cuba. In Charley (2004), the worst hurricane for Havana Province since 1915, four people died….

    The main preparedness tool… is community organization promoted by municipal assemblies and leaders of local organizations.

    “Community risk mapping” identifies vulnerable persons. Communities hold hurricane exercises each year incorporating the lessons of previous storms.

    Disaster preparedness is taught in schools and workplaces. A civil defense official in Cienfuegos said, “Any child in school can give you an explanation, how you prepare, what you do. Everyone was clearly aware of what measures and procedures they needed to follow in case of a hurricane.” The Oxfam reports notes, “The Cuban population has clearly developed a ‘culture of safety.’”

    Cuban television provides exhaustive detail on approaching storms, days in advance. Family doctors make certain that schools and shelters slated to house evacuees are staffed by full health teams and stocked with medical supplies and food. Hospital patients are moved to safe locations, with medicines and care plans.

    The numbers of those evacuated are staggering. For example, 1.5 million were moved out of Ivan’s way. Civil defense forces evacuated 159,000 animals, along with 215,532 people, from Cuba’s southwest coast prior to Hurricane Charlie. People move into homes of family, friends and strangers, and into schools.

    The mobilization continues into the post-hurricane recovery period. Prefabricated houses are put up, people are fed and salaries are maintained.

Cairns: ready or not?

Cairns is not unlike a Cuban coastal city – or New Orleans. A major storm surge could have dire consequences here. Literally tens of thousands of Cairns residents – under imaginable scenarios – could find their homes uninhabitable, at least until water levels recede.

Are we ready for that type of event? Will our response look more like the smooth Cuban adaptation to stormy weather - or the disastrous outcome in Louisiana? Are we, like many of the denizens of New Orleans, continuing to plan and build absurdities that are statistically unlikely to survive the next few decades?

Do we have anything resembling a Cuban-style evacuation plan for Cairns? In the most at-risk, close-to-sea level areas, have comprehensive and detailed evacuation plans been prepared? Are they publicly-available? Have there been practice runs? Does everyone in those areas know what to do, who to contact, where to go if it looks like the big one may be coming?

Has anyone thought to invite representatives from the nation of Cuba to Cairns, to help inform our disaster management planners and specialists and stimulate community debate? Probably Mayor Byrne has not. What about a Val Schier administration?

As the saying goes, disaster planning is "not my area of expertise". Nevertheless, just as we don’t give generals overall control over matters of war and peace - or allow doctors sole control over health policy - we may be ill-advised to leave emergency planning entirely to ‘experts’. Perhaps, in this case as in so many others, many of our best ‘experts’ have actually been sat on by short-sighted politicians or ignored by a mass media lacking wisdom and responsibility?

An intelligent public debate about these issues would be useful, before nature deals a wildcard or two to this region’s major city.

We know these cards are in the deck. It’s only a matter of when they fall - not if.

Will the Cairns community cruise these predictable extreme events like Cubans - or lose it like Louisianans?


As of today, November 15th 2007, a Google search for cairns + storm + surge + risk + evacuation gives 779 results. Most do not seem to be very informative for anyone wanting advice in a hurry.

Down the bottom of page one is an emergency guide. I clicked on it and got an error message. It's a dead link promising to redirect me to the Cairns City Council Homepage. The page sits there, unchanging. The clock continues to tick.

Eventually I find the Cairns City Council homepage myself.

I adjust my glasses and locate a link to Important Cyclone Information in tastefully small print (pale blue on white) at the top right of the page. I visit that page, mostly a list of links, and eventually find Evacuation Advice.

Read it yourself and form your own opinion about the adequacy of Cairns' evacuation plans.

I'll just say I'm glad I live in Kuranda. :-)

Article by CairnsBlog contributing writer Sid Walker


Anonymous said...

The current council probably doesnt want to save a lot of the older areas of Cairns. If these areas where destroyed, they would be able to fill them with Hedley, Glencorp and CEC style rabbit warrens so they can collect more rates than before.. and .. the developers would be able to make millions more. As for the people, it would leave less people to question how the mayor and council waste rate payers money.

Anonymous said...

The Mayors current policy as contained in the brochures the CCC mailed out is: "HEAD FOR HIGHER GROUND". That's it. Not a damned bloody thought for the frail, the elderly, those without vehicles etc.
I was incensed when I read it.
Our tsunami scare a few months back saw Mulgrave Road bottle-necked practically within an hour.
We need a comprehensive evacuatio plan, and probably need to do a practice run first as well.

Anonymous said...

Good grief, do you expect our corporatised media would write something good about Cuba?

Anonymous said...

There is no real plan for evacuation because there is no where to evacutate to...if we leave here we won't be able to get back for a week or more as Cyclones are huge and don't just hit the coast. Who's to say where we go will be any safer than here. The tableland towns can not cope with 130,000 homeless people especially when they are being hit too.
I hope for the best but prepare for the worst everytime a cyclone starts to brew...and as my house is on fairly high ground, away from the ocean and creeks, I am always prepared to be self sufficent and cut off from the world for a week or two without assistance or complaint. It's all part of the fun of living in this remote and beautiful part of the world.

Anonymous said...

130,000 homeless is on the high side. kazba.

I think the number of potential Cairns’ evacuees is smaller - but still in the tens of thousands.

Here's an interesting map on the 'Future of Cairns' website, which indicates the parts of Cairns and the northern beaches most likely to be under water after storm surges up to 6 metres.

At minimum, I would have thought Cairns needs a workable, well-rehearsed plan for relocating and sheltering the inhabitants of low-lying, 'at risk' areas.

I appreciate that other disasters may befall Cairns - and we can't expect the authorities to plan for all eventualities. We could be hit by an asteroid or scorched by a supernova... or spend all our lives worrying about such unlikely disasters :-).

However, while a devastating asteroid strike is a very rare event, storm surges are rather more common - and likely to increase in frequency given global warming and its predictable consequences for sea level and the frequency and intensity of cyclonic events.

kazba wrote: "there is no where to evacuate to".

Perhaps so, but it surely cannot be beyond our wits to create such facilities.

Anonymous said: "The Mayors current policy as contained in the brochures the CCC mailed out is: 'HEAD FOR HIGHER GROUND'".

I heard that too, but thought it too absurd to be true. If it is... well, at least he didn't advise heading for lower ground!

If 'higher ground' really is Council's answer to the storm surge problem, a few follow-up questions are in order.

Where on higher ground should evacuees go?

What arrangements have been for evacuation? (especially to relocate the solitary, sick and helpless)

What arrangements have been for evacuees' temporary accommodation?

If good answers to these questions are forthcoming, so much the better. I hope they are.

If not... perhaps someone should ask how the Mayor can reasonably seek re-election - after two terms in office - without having made rather basic provision for his citizens' welfare if this all-too-predicable emergency occurs?

Anonymous said...

Scary !!that storm surge map but Smithfield Shopping Centre is above the storm surge line... why can't we use all our large shopping centres for cyclone/storm surge emergency shelters? They are strong, above high tide, hundreds could fit inside and people know where they are. They even have car parking. Would probally only need a few port-a-loos and army cots to make it a comfy place to ride out the storm rather than building special purpose shelters and spending big $$$.

Anonymous said...

Of course, the "higher ground' option makes some sense. Well sort of. Perhaps some consideration has been given to the probability that, given some of the rather risky hillside development going on and up around the ridges, the sensible thing for the the lowly low-landers to do is simply sit and wiat it out. If a likely and prolonged downpour occurs prior to the main event, certain areas of 'higher ground', may in fact make their own way down .. to lower ground.

Anonymous said...

I was born and raised in North Queensland, and have lived here for most of my life. I have sat through many cyclones in the last 40 years, and have never panicked in one of them. Although, cyclone Larry did get me concerned for a while.
I always sit and laugh at the antics of people who start to stress when we are confronted with the possability of another cyclone.
Here is a list of things that I have learnt over the years of living in North Queensland.
* The average family usually keeps a good supply of tinned food in their pantry's.
* the safest place for anyone to be if a cyclone comes, is in your home.
After the cyclone, here is a few things that I have noticed with Cairns. I have looked around to see where to go to in the event of the house I am living in becomes unliveable.
* There are only 4 roads in and out of Cairns. 2 follow the coast and will more than likely be damaged or under water. The other 2 are mountain ranges, which will more than likeley be covered with fallen trees, or landslides.
* A good percentage of Cairns (including the 2 major hospitals) are either at sea level, slightly above sea level, or below sea level.
* Anonymous Neanderthal made a good point that most of the higher level areas, will more than likely be at the lower levels anyway. Just look at what happens to the roads on the Kuranda Range and the Gillies Highway.
Uforntunately, the design of Cairns doesnt really allow for a good exit in a hurry. But iit needs to be done. I know that the current council does not have a successful plan in the event of a storm surge, tsunami or such events. But the big question to ask all the people running for mayor and hopeing to oust Mr Byrne is, "What are you going to do about it???"
I am not a fan of Kevin Byrne. His methods are questionable and his motivation is questionable. But, can anyone else come up with a successful answer to this question? Where I live in Edmonton, we are on reclaimed land, so in the event of a storm surge, the place I am living in will more than likely be inundated. But I have a high roof peak and a small gernerater. that is where me, my partner, 2 dogs and 2 cats will be living until the water recedes. Which is more than what most people have.

Anonymous said...

I grew up at Westcourt, (before Westcourt Plaza was built) and nearly every wet season we could just about be guaranteed a couple of days off school because the water would be too high to get to school in the morning. Ah.. the good old days. The measure was if the water was more than half way up the car tyre rim we stayed home. We couldn't possibly walk because mum would say "it 's dangerous to walk through flood water".. however the danger never stopped us swimming in it... Oh, what joy to wake up after a heavy overnight downpour and discover we were flooded in
(the tropical equivalent to a snow day in other parts of the world).
I agree with Paul that by the time you ate all the defrosting food from the freezer, than ate your way through the pantry most people could survive for weeks without doing the panic buying that is seen everytime the warnings gets serious.Though, it is funny to watch the baked beans shelf dissapear in minutes..
Here is my #1 tip..If you are going to be trapped at close quarters with other house members for several hours(or days)you might like to re-think the baked beans. The wind outside the house is bad enough.
Supermarket bosses must rub their hands together every time a low starts to gather, it must be better than Christmas for sales. The only "panic" at my house is ice making ... because the power will go outand Beer and some food items are better cold.
Paul, we(you,Sid and I) should write a real cyclone survival manual...Here's my rough draft
Page 1 How to make lots of ice....
Page 2 Why your Beach Chic Cyclone Wardrobe should include a life jacket ...
Page 3 Bored children,know the real danger of Cyclones (or the things Dr Phil forgot to put in his book)...
Page 4 Will just be a map to the Mayors House, it's above the storm surge line..BYO ice (see page 1 for details)
Feel free to add your own"survival tips" coz I reckon a sense of humour and adventure is the most important thing to surviving whatever life or mother nature throws at you.

Anonymous said...

I think your right Kazba. A cyclone survival book written by people who have lived through a life time of them, without the help of science. I am always amazed at the baked beans and spaghetti shelves in supermarkets. although, I wouldnt want to be living in any of the houses all the stock has gone to. I remember years ago when I lived in Townsville, and a cyclone hit the Bowen, Ayre and Homehill areas. I was not working at the time, and volunteered to help with the clean up. I got a lift to Bowen in one of the trucks delivering ice to the area, and was shown around the area along with several other volunteers. The front wall of the new Coles supermarket was damaged, and they had no power. So, as a big tax deduction and service to the community, Coles allowed people to to into the store, and get 2 days worth of groceries. This was all htat was required by people, to get them through till power was restored, Coles could fix their front wall and get more stock up from Brisbane.
It is amazing how a community, with or without the help of the local council, will pull together in a time of crisis.
I wasnt able to help too much in Innisfail after cyclone Larry, as I had a dear friend who lives alone on a property in Tully who needed the help of myself and my partner, and I also helped in Cairns with helping people on the southside to clear their properties of fallen trees. But from what I saw while driving from Cairns to Tully on a regular basis, the people of Innisfail pulled together and helped each other out.
My best advise for people who have never lived through a cyclone is to get to know your neighbour. If we get a big storm, your neighbours are going to be the ones who will help you, and you will help the most.
Or, as Kazba has said, make sure you know all the ways to the Mayors house. From what I can understand, he has a nice sized house, and a good yard. Bring a tent, and a portable bbq .. I am sure the mayor will be able to source a generator, and we will be able to live it up on his lawn .. After all, the CCC advise is to move to higher ground. His yard is higher than most .. so we are only taking his advise.

Anonymous said...

Refugees arriving at the Mayor's House may find they are greeted with tasers (extra unpleasant, I imagine, in wet weather).

In fairness, the Mayor's abode cannot be the answer for thousands of evacuees. That's why a plan is a good idea.

Paul wrote:

But the big question to ask all the people running for mayor and hopeing to oust Mr Byrne is, "What are you going to do about it???"
I am not a fan of Kevin Byrne. His methods are questionable and his motivation is questionable. But, can anyone else come up with a successful answer to this question?

Why should we re-invent the wheel? The Cubans already know how to plan evacuations well. There may be other successful models. If so, let's hear about them too.

Unless anyone has a better idea, I suggest the Cairns Council asks a major Cuban city for a twinning arrangement, ASAP. Let's get some real experts over here to advise on an emergency plan. Enough of this clownish Anglo-Saxon arrogance. Let's learn, for once, from people who do something well already.

It's true the topography, population, settlement pattern, transportation and communication networks etc in Cairns make our situation unique. But everywhere is unique. It's not all bad news for Cairns. Our population is quite low by world standards. Unlike coastal Bangladesh, under water as we chat with 2,000+ dead, at least we have 'higher land' close to areas prone to storm surge.

It may be a uniquely Cairns thing to relish predictable natural disasters without adequate planning, preferring to use them as bonding experiences. If so, good luck to you all.

I suspect a serious storm surge event will change attitudes quite quickly, and get the litigiously minded busy once they've dried out.

Anonymous said...

Great idea Sid, to do our own unique plan based on the Cubans idea. Would be rate money well spent I think ( well better than the mall mushroom anyhow).
However the problem may be that the difference between Cuba and Cairns in that they are under Communist rule. If the Government says "evacuate" you evacuated without question in Cuba. I don't think the people in the Cairns storm surge zones would be so accepting if they were told they had to get on a bus and leave their homes and move to an evacuation shelter 24 hours before every cyclone made landfall as they do in Cuba. How many do you think would just say "ok, that sounds like a nice idea."
But as you said Sid, a serious event will change attitudes quite quickly.