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What a difference a day makes: Katrina to Cairns

By Edward Blakely - posted Monday, 21 February 2011

We have been spared the horror of large scale loss of life in the Cairns region because we had the days and took precautions. In most events, like the terrible tragedy of Katrina time is against you. In the case of Cairns, we had the benefit of seeing close up what can happen if you are not prepared and you lack the time to prepare because Brisbane preceded Hurricane Yasi.

When natural disasters occur nearby and there is time to absorb the lessons, all of us do well. But Katrina was an instance where the disaster struck quickly so people had little time to prepare and memories of the last event - Hurricane Betsy in 1963 - were dim. Nonetheless the evacuation of New Orleans was remarkable in that almost 90% of the population left the city. Those who could not get out were people without the resources, poor - many black and lacking transportation or money or both.

The real difference for Cairns was the fact that Katrina was a lesson for them and Cyclone Tracy is close enough in time. Furthermore, the dangers posed by hurricanes and severe weather are well enough known in North Queensland so there was little doubt about what to do and how to do it. Australians and most of the world learned valuable lessons from Katrina on both what to do and what not to do.


The To Do’s

  1. Have a well organized disaster plan for evacuation and crisis response ready for any emergency.
  2. Have in place building codes that prevent or mitigate damage to public and private property (we changed building codes post Cyclone Tracy) and this has saved both lives and properties.
  3. Have a recovery plan as well as a disaster response plan. Community needs to know how local authorities and other levels of government will respond to re-settlement and damage repairs to civic structures and vital infrastructure aw well as how and when orderly re-settlement will take place.
  4. Have a communications system in place to reach all community members before, during and after the crisis. All the modern tools need to be put in place ranging from mobile phone messaging to radio, television and social media.
  5. Have a clear single source for information so rumours can’t spread and trust can be gained for the long process required for rebuilding.

If these things are done well it provides us with a better chance to respond to disasters.

But the more important lesson from Katrina, Brisbane and now Yasi is to begin the process of increasing our national resilience across all of our communities to prepare for severe weather no matter the cause. It matters little whether climate change or bad luck spawned the weather or natural disaster; we will experience many more and increasingly dangerous weather and man induced events.

The best way to deal with them is to be prepared. Preparation begins with a national vulnerability assessment that lays out the likely events and the potential consequences. Some of this work is complete and other portions are underway. We need to move this work forward to reach conclusions within the next year or so. This data needs to be assessed by well regarded international scientists, many of whom are Australians.

We need to then take the next steps of incorporating this information in the regional plans that are currently called for by The Council of Australian Governments (COAG) endorsed by all the States as the baseline for all regional plans. These plans should serve as the base information for regional plans and the foundation for Commonwealth Infrastructure funds which need to be matched by State funds for hardening and/or decentralizing vital infrastructure (such as back up local power generated by solar power with large battery storage technologies, already on the market).


Beyond hardening infrastructure, new greenways and hazard proofing of cities will have to be put in place to reduce risks along coast and in flood plains. This will require some form of long term dedicated funding source(s) that may be part of a carbon tax or increased GST or the use of Tax Increment Financing (value capturing the increase in tax until debt is re-paid for project).

No matter what approach is used we must get started on these needed improvements in our cities and towns. We have to start now. Tomorrow we may not be so lucky and we know from Cairns luck improves with preparation.

New Orleans wasn’t so lucky.

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About the Author

Edward J. Blakely is Honorary Professor of Urban Policy at the United States Studies Centre, Sydney University. Professor Blakely is an international expert on urban planning and development and most recently head of recovery in New Orleans. He also served as the Chair of the Sydney Metropolitan Plan Reference Panel 2003-2004. He can be heard on the radio Sunday nights at 8PM on internet radio Blakely City Talk broadcasts the same podcast anytime.

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