Sandy reminds Australia to prepare for the upcoming storm season
Some will say that the wind speeds of Hurricane Sandy (around 150km/h) that hit the East Coast of North America were not high as Australian Cyclones Tracy in 1974 and Yasi in 2011. True, but it covered a much wider area. Apparently the wind gauge in Tracy was destroyed at 217km/h, although the speeds may have reached closer to 300km/h.
Although the measuring equipment and computer prediction models are much better now, it is still not easy to predict the exact path any of these devastating cyclones or hurricanes will follow. However a similar or even a less intensive storm could easily cripple Brisbane , Melbourne, Sydney or any of the other major cities in Australia.
A Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet funded study was made a few years ago to analyse the potential damage to the CBD areas of Melbourne and Sydney should any of these extreme events were to happen. Among the many vulnerabilities idenitified, it was found that many of our buildings and infrastructure are not designed for these weather related events. So it is not unlikely to expect complete collapse or severe damage of them. In another study, many of our buildings can go through progressive collapse even under less severe events.
Preparing and minimising risk for these devastating events is not easy. Although buildings can be damaged or even collapse due to large winds, the main problem can come from damage to underground services due to flooding. We know what this is like in Brisbane but in the USA, more than seven million people were affected by power outages after Sandy. Flooding of road tunnels and damage to storm water and sewage pipes, as well as the water supply network, are likely to take days or months to recover.
Resourcing seems to concentrate on post event assistance rather than pre-event prevention. Although we have progressed a bit in managing these events, we have still not established proper planning guidelines. For example, in new buildings and other infrastructure designs generally in Australia we still use the old wind speed and outdated design guidelines. We do not consider the possible extreme events.
However these strategies are not always clear cut. For instance Emergency managers may say, “Don’t stay behind! The best thing you can do to protect yourself and your family is by leaving the area if advised to do so”. But as we saw in Sandy, these disasters affect a very large area and evacuation is not possible in some instances.
Even with the bushfires in Victoria, congestion could be a major problem and evacuation strategies sometimes don’t work. For those stuck in a storm, there are measures that can be taken: if you are in high-rise building, take shelter in lower floors as winds become progressively stronger, and don’t use elevators. Fire damage is also a major concern in these devastating events.
While property can be compensated for by the use of Insurance, no policy can bring back the loss of life. Good disaster planning makes sense for all scenarios and we should be demanding this of our politicians.
We all need the advice of experts at this time, but we have to develop this expertise. We can learn from Sandy 2012. So be safe this storm season.