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Natural disasters in Australia

Photograph by Kerry Reed-Gilbert, Sacred Country Unwrapped

Kerry Reed-Gilbert, Strength Dignity Pride, from exhibition Sacred Country Unwrapped, 2007. Courtesy of Collector Gallery Artspace and Bookshop.

Australia experiences a range of 'natural disasters' including bushfires, floods, severe storms, earthquakes and landslides.  These events cause great financial hardship for individuals and communities, and can result in loss of life, which has become part of Australian folklore.

However, these events are also considered both part of the natural cycle of weather patterns in Australia as well as being affected by human factors such as overstocking, vegetation loss, dams, groundwater and irrigation schemes. These patterns are recognised by terms such as a 100-year drought – a drought of severity that is only seen once in a hundred years.  Fire can often follow drought, and drought can be followed by flood.  Severe fires followed by drought can also contribute to soil erosion.

The experience of natural disaster has come to be seen as part of the Australian national character as described in the poem 'My Country' by Dorothea McKellar (1904).

I love a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains,
Of ragged mountain ranges, of droughts and flooding rains.
I love her far horizons, I love her jewel-sea,
Her beauty and her terror - the wide brown land for me!

Drought

A drought is a prolonged, abnormally dry period when there is not enough water for users' normal needs. Drought is not simply low rainfall; if it was, much of inland Australia would be in almost perpetual drought. Because people use water in so many different ways, there is no universal definition of drought.
Living with Drought, Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology

Australia is the driest of all inhabited continents, with its climates varying markedly over time and space.   At any given moment, large parts of the country may be in drought.  Research has showed that major droughts include clusters in the mid-1860s, 1877, 1888, 1895–1903, 1911–16, 1918–20 and variously between 1926–30, 1934–44, 1944–54, 1958–68 and 1972–81.  The early 1980s and 1990s also saw punishing droughts.  Australia has experienced two significant '100-year droughts' in the last 100 or so years.

These major droughts have resulted in financial losses, personal hardship and environmental damage.  There have been ramifications on land administration and settlement, ecological systems, regional and local economies and technologies.  Social consequences in the 1911–16 drought included larger than expected enlistment of men from drought affected areas in Western Australia into the Australian Imperial Forces during the First World War.

In Western New South Wales and west Darling areas, the 1895 Federation Drought was exacerbated by heavy overstocking, and the arrival of rabbits which crossed the Murray River into western New South Wales in 1881 and reached plague proportions.  Overstocking caused widespread severe erosion and increased the effects of the drought.

1895-1902, the Federation Drought

In the five years leading up to Federation in January 1901, there were intermittent dry spells throughout Australia.  By spring 1901, very dry conditions were being experienced across all of eastern Australia.  Rivers in western Queensland dried up and the Darling River almost ran dry at Bourke in New South Wales.  Murray River towns such as Mildura, Balranald and Deniliquin, which depended on the river for transport, suffered badly.

During this drought there was extended use of stock routes in Western New South Wales and the opening up of new stock routes to take advantage of 'native wells' with consequent evaporation of the wells.  Together with engineering of irrigation schemes along the Murray-Darling River, the consequences were salinity problems and a rabbit plague (Bobbie Hardy, Lament for the Barkindji, Rigby Press, 1976).

1982–83

In 1982–83, large areas of central and eastern – particularly south-eastern – Australia experienced unprecedented low rainfall levels. This was the culmination of the four-year drought that had begun in 1979.  It is estimated that the total cost to the economy was around $A7 billion.  Agricultural losses, such as the death of livestock, resulted in massive job losses in rural areas.  The effects of the drought contributed to the 1983 Ash Wednesday bushfires across Victoria and South Australia (see below).

Photograph of Drought by Mark Rogers

Mark Rogers, Drought, 1999. Courtesy of Mark Rogers.

1991-95

This drought in north-eastern New South Wales and much of Queensland, was the result of the lowest rainfall levels on record.  A number of major water reservoirs went dry and many others fell to critically low levels.  Average rural production fell by over 10 per cent and rural unemployment rose. Loss to the economy is estimated at around $A5 billion.

2002-2007, the Millennium Drought

The early years of this century were a challenging period for Australian farmers with widespread and prolonged drought. 

The 2002–2007 drought, or ‘big dry’, was actually two separate droughts, each of about 12 months duration, 2002–03 and 2006–07, which resulted from two separate El Niño events. Crucially, there was no significant wet period between the two events to alleviate the rainfall deficiencies. Not only did the 2002–2007 drought significantly reduce farm production during the event but ongoing effects continued to be felt in many regions following the return of ‘normal’ rainfall patterns.

Irrigated industries that rely on water storages were particularly affected as major reservoirs in the Murray–Darling Basin, Australia’s most important irrigation region, fell to 17 per cent of capacity in 2003, and remained below pre-drought levels until late 2010
Margaret Nicholson, Sarah Bruce, James Walcott, and John Gray, Elements of a National Drought Policy: The Australian context, ABARES, 2011.

This period from 2002 to 2007 ranks with the Federation Drought and the Forties Drought as one of the three most severe, widespread and prolonged dry periods since 1900.

Fires

Bushfires are different from controlled burning.  Indigenous communities have traditionally used fire as a hunting and farming tool to assist with regeneration.  Indigenous Australians used controlled burning and fire management is used to encourage the growth of new plants and to prevent the growth of long grass which contribute to the tinder or fuel for bushfires.

Fire management also allowed animals to escape, although some were lost to hunters.  Eucalypts, for example, require occasional burns to regenerate.  Fire stick farming used over tens of thousands of years created the fertile grazing plains west of the Blue Mountains.  Long periods of dry, hot weather and natural vegetation that burns easily makes Australia particularly vulnerable to bushfire.

Australian bushfires can be particularly severe as eucalyptus trees contain large amounts of oil which can burn very fast and very hot. Other human management factors which have contributed to the severity of bushfires include high fuel loads, a change from fire prevention to fire fighting measures, and not building adequate buffer zones to protect built assets (Nairn Inquiry, 2003).  As Australians learn to understand more about bushfires, bushfire prevention strategies are being adopted.

The 1967 Tasmanian fires

In 1967 southern Australian was experiencing drought conditions.  On 7 February, 264,270 hectares were burnt in southern Tasmania in just five hours. Of the 110 fires burning that morning, the worst was the Hobart fire.  The fire made its way over Mt Wellington and encroached on the city's western suburbs.  Sixty-two (62) people died, and 1,400 homes and other buildings were destroyed.  At the time, it was the largest loss of life and property in Australia from fire on any single day in Australia's history.

Ash Wednesday bushfires, 1983

In the summer of 1983, conditions in Victoria and South Australia contributed to extremely high ignition levels.  Drought conditions with a heatwave with temperatures of 43 degrees Celsius meant that forests were highly combustible.  On Wednesday 16 February (now known as 'Ash Wednesday'), around 180 bushfires were burning across both states, the largest of them starting in Victoria.  Out of the Ash Wednesday fires, Victorian rescue teams were reorganised to better fight future fires: through improved radio networks, single command centres and establishing linkages between existing rural and city firefighters.

Photograph of volunteer crew of MLO 10 from the ACT Bushfire Service patrolling the Mount Franklin containment line, Brindabella Ranges

Volunteer crew of MLO 10 from the ACT Bushfire Service patrolling the Mount Franklin containment line, Brindabella Ranges, on the night of 11/12 January 2003. Photo by David Tunbridge. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

Canberra firestorm, 2003

In mid-January 2003, extreme weather conditions led to multiple outbreaks of fire in Namadgi National Park to the south of Canberra.  Strong winds pushed the fires into forested areas adjoining Canberra and on the afternoon of Saturday 18 January, firestorms fanned by high winds hit Canberra suburbs. Thousands of hectares of forest and park lands were burnt out.

Black Saturday bushfires, Victoria, 2009

The Black Saturday bushfires were a series of bushfires that ignited or were burning across Victoria on and around Saturday, 7 February 2009.  As many as 400 individual fires were recorded that day. The fires occurred during extreme bushfire-weather conditions.

Background temperatures reached 46 degrees Celsius (115°F) and winds were in excess of 100 km/h (62 mph). This had been precipitated by an intense heat wave and almost two months of little or no rain. A cool change hit the state in the early evening, bringing with it lower temperatures but gale-force southwesterly winds in excess of 120 km/h (75 mph). This change in wind direction caused the long eastern flanks of the fires to become massive fire fronts that burned with incredible speed and ferocity towards towns that had earlier escaped the fires.
Wikipedia, Black Saturday bushfires

Sam the koala receiving water from a Country Fire Authority (CFA) firefighter in burnt bushland. Sam’s image, just days after the news of Black Saturday, touched millions of people. Image courtesy of the ABC.

The fires affected 78 townships, many badly damaged: Kinglake, Marysville, Narbethong, Strathewen, and Flowerdale were all but completely destroyed.  Houses in the towns of Steels Creek, Humevale, Clonbinane, Wandong, St Andrews, Callignee, Taggerty, and Koornalla were also destroyed or severely damaged, with fatalities recorded at each location.  An estimated 7,562 people were displaced from their homes.

The fires on 7 February 2009 resulted in the nation's highest ever loss of life from a bushfire: 173 people died and 414 were injured as a result of the fires. That day has become widely referred to as Black Saturday.

A group of researchers from various state fire agencies and research organisations was assembled by the Bushfire CRC to look at key issues arising out of the February 2009 Victorian bushfires. Their research examined fire behaviour, human behaviour, buildings and land issues.

The final report notes that four of the five major fires spread two to three times faster than predicted and that spotting of the fires ahead of the main fire front played a major part in the forward rate of the fire spread.  Many residents were not prepared for the severity of the fire and a considerable amount of last-minute planning and preparation took place on the day of the fires.  In addition fire agencies and councils were only modestly successful in alerting communities about effective preparation and the severity of the fire danger.  Building materials, as well as the immediate proximity to adjacent forest fuels were seen as significant contributing factors as well as the design and location of water pumps.

New South Wales bushfires, 2013

In October 2013, a series of bushfires occurred across the state of New South Wales.  At the peak of the fires, on 18 October, over 100 fires were burning across the state. The most severe fires began in the Greater Blue Mountains Area on 16 and 17 October, fueled by hot, dry and windy weather together with high fuel loads in bushland.

Two fatalities were attributed to the fires. At least 248 dwellings and other buildings were destroyed; with 193 properties destroyed and 109 damaged in the lower Blue Mountains at Springwood, Winmalee and Yellow Rock. More than 118,000 hectares (291,584 acres) of bushland were burnt across the state, concentrated around the eastern seaboard and highlands.
2013 New South Wales bushfires, Wikipedia.

Heatwaves

A heatwave is a prolonged period of excessive heat, which results from a certain combination of temperature, humidity, air movement and duration.

Heatwaves are the most underrated of the natural disasters, as the bushfires that accompany many heatwaves tend to get most of the attention, and in Australia they have caused the greatest loss of life on any natural hazard (except disease).

Unlike bushfires, there is generally no escaping a heatwave. While the 1939 'Black Friday' bushfires in Victoria killed 71 people and are written into our history, the accompanying heatwave – which triggered the blazes – claimed 438 lives and yet remains largely unacknowledged.  On the 30 January 2009, prior to the Black Saturday fires, there had been a week of temperatures over 40 degrees celsius, with 18,000 homes in Victoria without electricity as the heatwave conditions tested the electricity grid.

Floods

Floods occur when water covers land which is normally dry.  Floods in Australia range from localised flash flooding as a result of thunderstorms, to more widespread flooding following heavy rain over the catchment areas of river systems.  Flooding is also a regular seasonal phenomenon in Northern Australia.  Australian towns were built on floodplains despite warnings from local Aborigines. Nyngan (meaning flood in its local Aboriginal language) was severely flooded on 23 April 1990.

Cover of Yarri of Wiradjuri by John Warner.

Gundagai was rebuilt on a new site after a flood in 1852 wiped out 71 buildings, and 89 of the town's 250 inhabitants died.  More people would have perished were it not for the heroism of local Aborigine Yarri of the Wiradjuri people and his mate Jackie, who saved more than 40 people using a simple bark canoe.

Recently, town councils and shires have started mapping the 100-year flood areas so that the extent of the flood plain can be mapped for town planning, building regulations and zoning for land use to avoid building on flood-prone areas.  Regional flood mitigation programs have been initiated by the Australian Government to work with state and territory governments.

North eastern Tasmania, 1929

In April 1929, 22 people died when heavy rain caused severe flooding in the north east of Tasmania.  In addition, 14 people died when the Briseis Dam on the Cascade River gave way, inundating the town of Derby.  A further eight people (six from one family) were drowned near Ulverstone when a truck crashed into a flooded river.

Rain commenced late on 3 April and, in three days, up to 500mm fell over the high country of the northeast, and over a smaller area south of the Burnie/Ulverstone area. The Briseis Dam on the Cascade River crumbled, and the resulting torrent, carrying thousands of tons of trees, rocks and gravel, overwhelmed houses and offices, with 14 deaths. Over 1,000 houses in Launceston were inundated, and most other north coastal rivers were heavily flooded.
Bureau of Meteorology, A hundred years of science and service, 2001, p.16.

Hunter Valley, South-eastern Australia, 1952

In late February 1955, a monsoon depression moving down from Queensland dumped 250mm of rain in 24 hours over the already-saturated Hunter region.  The Hunter, and several west flowing rivers, swiftly rose to record levels, drowning the surrounding country. In East Maitland, water completely submerged houses, and 15,000 people were evacuated.  It was a similar story throughout the Hunter, Macquarie, Namoi and Gwydir River Valleys, with houses destroyed, metres of flood waters in the streets, and many thousands of stock drowned.

Brisbane, Queensland, 1974

Photograph of the town of Charleville inundated by the April 1990 floods.

The town of Charleville inundated by the April 1990 floods. Image courtesy of the Bureau of Meteorology.

In January 1974, the weakening Cyclone Wanda brought heavy rainfall to Brisbane and many parts of south-eastern Queensland and northern New South Wales.  One third of Brisbane's city centre and 17 suburbs were severely flooded.  Fourteen people died and over 300 were injured.  Fifty-six homes were washed away and 1,600 were submerged.

Queensland and New South Wales, 1990

Over one million square kilometres of Queensland and New South Wales (and a smaller area of Victoria) were flooded in April 1990.  The towns of Nyngan and Charleville were the worst affected with around 2,000 homes inundated.  Six people were killed and around 60 were injured.

Brisbane and Queensland, 2010–2011

Beginning in December 2010, a series of floods in Queensland forced the evacuation of thousands of people from towns and cities including the capital city Brisbane.  At the time, the Premier Anna Bligh announced that at least 70 towns and over 200,000 people were affected.  Damage initially was estimated at around A$1 billion. The estimated reduction in Australia's GDP is about A$30 billion.

Three-quarters of the state of Queensland was declared a disaster zone.  Disaster declarations were made for the Brisbane, Bundaberg, Dalby, Gladstone, Gold Coast, Gympie, Ipswich, Logan, Maryborough, Rockhampton, Roma, Sunshine Coast, Toowoomba, Warwick and Redcliffe districts, representing three-quarters of the state.

The Condamine, Ballone and Mary Rivers recorded substantial flooding.  An unexpected flash flood raced through Toowoomba's central business district.  Water from the same storm devastated communities in the Lockyer Valley.  Thousands of houses in Ipswich and Brisbane were inundated as the Brisbane River rose and Wivenhoe Dam, with flood mitigation capacity, was forced to release thousands of megalitres of water each day.

Clean up volunteers organised via social media after the Brisbane floods. Photo by Megan Slade, courtesy of The Sunday Mail.

As the flooding receded, social media was used to organise more than 55,000 volunteers who registered to help clean up the streets of Brisbane.  Thousands more unregistered volunteers wandering the muddy streets with gumboots and mops in what was recognised as a ‘tremendous spirit of volunteering right across Queensland.

Victorian floods, 2011

The Queensland floods were followed by the 2011 Victorian floods which saw more than fifty communities in western and central Victoria also grapple with significant flooding.

Queensland and New South Wales, 2013

Flooding in the path of ex-Tropical Cyclone Oswald was the worst since European settlement in some areas of southeast Queensland, where rainfall in excess of 1000mm was recorded in 96 hours. In Bundaberg, more than 2000 homes and close to 700 businesses were inundated as the Burnett River rose to a record 9.53 metres, forcing the biggest evacuation in Queensland history.

Most of the east coast of Queensland, and the coast of New South Wales from the Illawarra northwards, experienced very heavy rainfall during the period from 22 to 29 January 2013, as a result of the former tropical cyclone Oswald tracking southwards along a track just inland from the Queensland coast. This rainfall resulted in severe flooding in many areas within 200 kilometres of the east coast, most notably in the Burnett catchment in Queensland and the Clarence catchment in northern New South Wales, both of which reached record flood peaks.
Bureau of Meteorology, Special Climate Statement 44 – extreme rainfall and flooding in coastal Queensland and New South Wales.

Cyclones

A cyclone is an area of low pressure around which the winds flow clockwise in the Southern Hemisphere and counterclockwise in the Northern Hemisphere. I f the sustained winds around the centre reach 119 km/h (with wind gusts in excess of 170 km/h), then the system is called a severe tropical cyclone.  In other countries severe tropical cyclones are called hurricanes or typhoons.  The Tropical Cyclone Season in Australia extends from November to April.  Some of the most destructive cyclones which have hit the Australian mainland include:

Cyclone Mahina, 1899

In March 1899 in Cape York, Queensland, Cyclone Mahina resulted in the greatest death toll of any natural disaster in Australia's recorded history. Over 400 people died, including the crews of around 100 pearling fleet vessels, and an estimated 100 local Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders.

Cyclone Ada, 1970

Tropical Cyclone Ada caused severe damage to resorts on the Whitsunday Islands, Queensland, in January 1970.  Its path of destruction included the islands of Daydream, South Molle and Hayman.  The damage bill was estimated at $A390 million and 14 people were killed.

Photograph of the devastation inflicted on Darwin by Cyclone Tracy in December 1974.

The devastation inflicted on Darwin by Cyclone Tracy in December 1974. Photo by Australian Information Services. Image courtesy of the Bureau of Meteorology.

Cyclone Tracy, 1974

On Christmas Eve 1974, Cyclone Tracy struck the city of Darwin in the Northern Territory.

Small but compact by world standards, Tracy packed unusually strong winds (gusts to 217km/h at Darwin Airport before the recorder failed). Tracy moved in from the Arafura Sea, skirted Bathurst Island, then, swinging sharply south, struck Darwin early on Christmas Day.

Good warnings had been issued, but the combination of public indifference (it was Christmas and no severe cyclone had affected Darwin for years), extremely fierce winds, and the loose design of many buildings at that time, led to wholesale destruction.
Bureau of Meteorology, A hundred years of science and service, 2001, p.17.

One hundred and ninety-five millimetres (195mm) of rain fell in less than nine hours, and winds estimated at around 250 km per hour flattened the city. In terms of damage to a community, Cyclone Tracy remains Australia's most destructive for property damage. Seventy one (71) people were killed, and many thousands injured. Of a population of 43,000, 25,000 were left homeless. Most of the population was evacuated. One result was the priority given to the development of cyclone-proof buildings and other aspects of disaster planning.

Cyclone Larry, 2006

The Far North Queensland coast was declared a natural disaster zone after the severe impact of tropical Cyclone Larry on 20 March 2006. The category five cyclone registered winds of up to 290 km/h. Major damage was caused to homes, other buildings and agricultural crops, but no loss of life occurred. $A1.5 billion was the estimated total damage bill for the affected regions.

Cyclone Yasi, 2011

Yachts, pleasure craft and tourist vessels piled on top of each other at Port Hinchinbrook marina in the aftermath of Cyclone Yasi. Courtesy of AFP.

Severe Tropical Cyclone Yasi was a tropical cyclone that crossed the coast in northern Queensland, in the early hours of Thursday, 3 February 2011.  Yasi originated from a tropical low near Fiji, intensified to a Category 3 cyclone on 31 January 2011 before the cyclone intensified to a Category 5 system.

At Mission Beach, which experienced the most severe damage, wind gusts were estimated to have reached 290 km/h (180 mph).   Areas around Tully, Silkwood, Mission Beach, Innisfail and Cardwell bore the brunt of the damage. Insurance losses were estimated at around $655 million.  According to residents in Tully, the town was ‘...a scene of mass devastation’.  An unknown number of homes were completely destroyed as intense winds, estimated at 209 km/h (130 mph), battered the area, with an estimate that about 90% of the structures along the main avenue sustained extensive damage.

Prior to landfall, tens of thousands of residents were evacuated ahead of the storm’s anticipated arrival on 2 February.   The evacuations along with the preparations for Cyclone Yasi, subsequent to Cyclone Larry, meant that there was no loss of life directly attributed to Yasi.

Australians in the face of adversity

The trauma experienced by many people, such as those who suffered loss of their family members, their homes, their livelihoods and close friends in the Black Saturday bushfires is matched by their resilience to re-establish their lives and sense of identity.

The resilience of Australians is often most apparent in times of crisis.  Grant Devilly, a trauma specialist at the University of Melbourne's psychology department, says the typically Australian 'she'll be right' mentality is invaluable in time of crisis, and Australian's are 'pretty bloody resilient'.  Louise Milligan, in her article 'The Plucky Country' (The Australian, 20 January 2003), points out that victims of disasters in Australia tend to adopt the attitude that 'the main thing is we're alive – it's only bricks and mortar'.

Auxiliary Bishop of Canberra and Goulburn, Pat Power, has a similar view:

I have been a priest 38 years and I stand in awe of the resilience of human nature in situations of personal tragedy. Just to see people retaining their sense of humour and a sense of camaraderie, and the public responding so generously – it's something that makes me proud to be an Australian.
The Australian, 20 January 2003

This Australian character of showing resilience in the face of natural disaster and the natural cycle of drought, fire and floods has helped define our language and sense of humour as well as our music, poetry, literature and comedy.

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Last updated: 25th June 2014
Creators: Kathryn Wells, et al.

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