The Truth Is In The Flood Maps (Part Two)
By Ellen FanningMay 18, 2012
It’s the largest mapping exercise in Australia in a generation. Insurers and governments have been racing to chart the risk of flood in Australia. Now they’ve discovered just how vulnerable so many Australian properties are: when is someone going to do something about it?
At 63, Lex Matthews is the sort of outback character who you’d imagine could survive almost anywhere, outside of a big city.
“I’ve done everything from bloody cleaning out sewerage tanks to managing a cattle station,” he says.
But in the past few years, he’s struggled to cope with life in the inland Queensland town of Roma, 515 km west of Brisbane on the Darling Downs, a place newly transformed by the coal-seam-gas boom and the regular threat of flood.
It started seven years ago, when he had an accident at work which damaged his spine.
“Now me neck’s all titanium from me head to me shoulder blades. And I got 14 screws in it,” he says. “That’s what holds me head on!”
The injury left him reliant on a disability pension, just as the cost of living in Roma started to spiral. And then the drought broke.
Matthews reckons floodwaters had never before made it into the humble weatherboard worker’s cottage he shares with his partner, Trish. Their place is on high ground and so was among the last areas of the town to flood, even though it’s just 100 metres from Bungil Creek, usually a little trickle of a waterway towards the northernmost tip of the Murray-Darling River system.
The floods of 2010 saw 15 cm of water go through the house. Matthews reckons that since then, a new development on the other side of the creek, increased his flood risk by splitting the flood waters, so that in February, when the creek flooded again, more than 65 cm of water came through. “It did a hell of a lot more damage than what it did in 2010.
“It affects you psychologically. It affects you real bad, really,” he says. “We got that way that if we hear a spit of rain on the roof we started worrying. Is it going to stop or keep going? It’s quite draining and quite bloody nerve wracking, actually.”
Now after months of repair work, Matthews and his partner Trish find themselves in a desperate situation. They can’t find a buyer for their property, but nor can they afford to stay, as the cost of living in Roma has been wildly inflated by the mining boom, which is tearing at the fabric of country life. They are stuck, unable to begin the life of retirement they dream of in a sleepy, old logging town closer to the coast.
“There’s people leaving Roma in droves. You just can’t afford to stay here, to live here,” he says. Council rates have ballooned in line with house prices, which are up more than 35 per cent in five years. He pays $990 in rates every six months. And Matthews is now bracing for a big increase in his insurance premium as well.
“We’re going to cop that, too. We’re not going to get away with [all this flood damage] for nothing.”
In all, Matthews’s insurer, Suncorp, has paid him $170,000 in repair costs since 2010, part of the $150 million the company has haemorrhaged over three years to flood-policyholders in the towns of Roma and Emerald, another mining centre, 400 km further north. That’s on the back of premiums of just $4 million from both towns.
Suncorp was hit with such massive losses because, unlike virtually every other insurer in Australia, it has offered flood coverage as a non-negotiable part of its insurance coverage since 2006.
As a result, the insurer emerged as a local hero after last year’s Queensland floods because it paid the majority of damages claims, unlike its competitors, whose policyholders were often only covered for storm damage, not riverine flood.
“We had people putting up signs out the front of their houses saying we’d rebuilt it and how good we were. We had examples of [insurance loss] assessors being clapped in streets and houses that we had fully covered for the flood damage. It was phenomenal,” says Mark Milliner, chief executive officer of personal insurance at Suncorp.
Now, after the clean-up, Milliner is making himself unpopular again by declaring that much of the damage – and the damages bill – from the record flooding in outback Queensland at least, was largely avoidable.
“It’s madness,” says Milliner. “In Roma, they spent $11 million on [rescue] helicopters after the flood event … to save people, which is absolutely the right thing to do,” he says. “But they wouldn’t have had to do any of that if they’d built a levee [costing] $9 or $10 million.”
The same levee would have cost just $2 million dollars if it had been built after the 2005 floods, he reckons.
Milliner says better flood mitigation would not only have saved Suncorp the best part of $150 million, but government could have avoided a similar bill for replacing infrastructure.
So, Milliner has decided to place embargoes on both Roma and Emerald, the next town west along the Warrego Highway.
In stern letters to the mayors of both towns, dated 4 April, he announced that Suncorp would refuse to accept any new customers. And there are plenty of those, with hundreds of the new “fluoro-collar” workers flocking to these mining towns. Existing customers, the letter said, would face “significant home and contents premium increases in future renewals from April this year.” You can read both letters in full here and here.
In fact, according to internal company documents seen by The Global Mail, it appears the average premium will increase by a massive 57 per cent for existing Suncorp Insurance customers in Roma.
From mid-June, the average premium will be $3,367. That’s up from an average of $2,144. That increase is driven by the losses sustained by the insurers in the town, and driven up further by the absence of a flood levee to protect against future water damage. And it’s people like Lex Matthews who can expect the steepest rise in premiums. His neighbours on higher ground will only cop a modest rise.
Compare that $3,367 to the $1,277 average premium paid by a policyholder in the town of Charleville, a little further west on the Warrego Highway, which was also threatened by the same floodwaters earlier this year. Why do Charleville residents get such a relatively good deal? Charleville put in a levee bank eight years ago, which protected the town, as an aerial photo shows. There are similar comparisons for two New South Wales towns, South Lismore and Kooringal, and two Victorian towns, Smythes Creek and Wangaratta. In each graph, the red column indicates average premiums for towns with levee banks; blue for those without adequate flood mitigation.)
In Milliner’s letter banning new customers, sent to Roma’s Mayor Robert Loughnan, at the Maranoa Regional Council, he writes:
“As you would be aware, Suncorp recently commenced repairing and rebuilding another 300 homes in your Council’s region following the January floods. It’s disappointing that some of these homes have been flooded three times in as many years.”
These, he said were “avoidable claims costs if more attention was given to disaster mitigation.”
The ban, covering all Suncorp’s brands — Suncorp Insurance itself, along with AAMI, GIO and three other providers — will remain, he wrote, “until Council can provide us and the community with a clear commitment, timeframe and construction plan for a flood levee that protects the town and its constituents from major flood events in the future.”
Council, he wrote, now has a “six-month window of opportunity to provide the assurances required to lift the embargo before ... the next [summer] storm season.”
Up in Emerald, the Mayor of the Central Highlands Regional Council, Peter Maguire, got a similar letter the same day.
Of the 500 homes flooded in that region in January’s record 18-metre flood, Milliner wrote, “It is disappointing that some … have been flooded three times within four years.”
For the Emerald ban to be lifted, he wrote, the Council must commit to a new drainage system and changes to planning and building standards.
That suggests he wants to see a ban on new housing estates on flood plains, which might be planned to cater to booming mining populations. And perhaps a rethink about whether it was such a good idea to stop building those weatherproof old Queenslanders out of timber and tin, in favour of the modern, European-style homes made of plasterboard on concrete slabs.
Suncorp offered the council $20,000 towards the cost of work in these areas. Fixing the problem will be a lot more expensive than that. After more than 100 years of inertia on the issue, it seems Queensland at least might well get its act together by Christmas.
Enter the cartographers
To be a cartographer in Queensland over the past few months is to have been in high demand.
As we reported in Part One of our story, last year at least two-thirds of the entire state of Queensland — well over one million square kilometres — had never been mapped for flood. Without those maps, figuring out exactly where to build levees, where to allow new housing estates to be built, even what building materials should be used in certain areas, was guesswork. The need for these maps was therefore urgent.
By rights, such a job should have taken at least a decade and cost about $100 million. But in the seven months from June 2011, 35 cartographers, most with 30-odd years of experience, have used every ounce of ingenuity they can muster to cobble together flood maps for vulnerable parts of the state.
So far, they have produced 8,875 pages of maps, the largest mapping exercise in Australia in a generation. They have assessed about 99.3 per cent (forgive the decimal point, these are precise people) of Queensland for floodplains and worked out that 26.6 per cent of the state is vulnerable to flood.
Just how they have done that would make for a thrilling Friday night’s viewing on the National Geographic channel.
They started by scanning satellite pictures and tapping into US National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) digital images of the topography of the earth, gathered by the Space Shuttle Endeavour during an 11-day mission in February 2000.
Information was sourced about where streams come together and gather strength. While some cartographers were hard at work pondering what Queensland might have looked like prior to European settlement and wide-scale land clearing (they used the year 1750 as a baseline), others unearthed quirky information about things like alluvial soil deposits (soil left behind by waterflows), which give clues as to what happens in an area when it floods.
Having identified the most vulnerable areas, light planes armed with a radar system known as a LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) will be sent out to bounce laser pulses off the ground, in order to produce models of the terrain. Such models can be accurate to within about 25 cm.
The entire Queensland coastline from Coolangatta to Cooktown, and more than 90 inland towns and communities, covering more than 90 per cent of the state’s population, has already been mapped using LiDAR information and very high-resolution aerial photography.
This summer, when the skies are clear again, the Queenslanders will send out another squadron to map a further 68 inland Queensland towns.
The man overseeing this charting frenzy is Brendan Nelson, the general manager of land use planning for the Queensland Reconstruction Authority. The authority began its intended two-year existence last February, as the state was mopping up seven natural disasters, floods and cyclones that devastated communities from the northwest border with the Northern Territory through to the capital city Brisbane in the south east.
The flood maps, he admits, “are not conventional [maps], but are fit for purpose”.
At a cost of less than $10,000 for each catchment, they represent a high-quality, low-cost planning solution for cash-strapped councils that have never bothered with flood mapping.
The latest flooding in outback Queensland, early this year, provided instant proof of how accurate those maps are.
Figure 3 shows a map of Roma during those floods. The blue shading is the area that was actually inundated. The yellow area was the cartographer’s best guess about which areas would be vulnerable to a big flood. There wasn’t a square centimetre of flooded land in Roma outside the yellow flood-mapped area.
More detailed mapping is now underway.
The enhanced maps will indicate not only where flood waters will go in a 1-in-100-year flood but how deep the waters might be in different areas. That’s critical information because it means local planners can consider not only whether an area will flood, but the likely consequences of flooding. For instance, in 2011 one metre of flooding above floorboard level caused $40,000 in damage, on average, in Australia; but two metres of water caused $70,000 damage.
“The land-use planning response to these two situations should be very different and, for this reason, it is vitally important that we … consider the consequence of any given flood event when determining [where to build],” says Nelson, who was recently named Australia’s “Planner of the Year”.
These maps should break the log-jam which has paralysed decision-making on how we should best regulate to avoid flood disasters in future. There is now no excuse for inaction, certainly not in Queensland.
“It’s time to rip the Band-Aid off and start to consider the consequence of flood risk in our towns and cities,” says Nelson. “In some cases, a change in land use may be necessary and we should make that decision now so we aren’t deferring it to our grandchildren.”
Nelson is talking about moving critical businesses out of flood zones and relocating houses out of harm’s way. He cites St George, in the south west of Queensland, as an example of the tough decisions that need to be made by communities living all along Australia’s coastline and in its 246 flood basins.
St George is weighing up what to do about the 40 to 50 homes most vulnerable to flood. They’ve gone under three times in the past two years, most recently in record-breaking 13.95-metre floodwaters.
“Do you build a levee to protect them?” asks Nelson. “Or is it more cost effective to … relocate homes? Or perhaps a combination of the two? Council is in the early days of working this out. But in the end, a levee only affords so much protection and the community needs to determine what exposure they are prepared to accept, how vulnerable they are and how much they could tolerate future flooding events.”
These are precisely the questions the insurers want answered. The NRMA’s head of direct insurance, Andy Cornish, calls it approaching the issue with “eyes wide open” and says individual householders must be involved in the debate.
“Do house owners do enough to protect themselves against flood risk?” Cornish asks, rhetorically. “They try their level best to do so. But there have been instances, which are pretty obvious, where Queenslanders are built on stilts and then people [build in] that area — which is under the main living area — with garages and other living areas. That increases the risk of damage when something does occur.”
That’s a touchy subject in southeast Queensland, where the inquiry into the floods has been side tracked by a “Wivenhoe whodunnit”. Distracted by the question of whether some Wivenhoe Dam engineers mismanaged the release of water during the floods and so exacerbated the flooding, there has been little public acknowledgement that in fact, there was simply too much water and not enough mitigation—by the authorities, or the homeowners.
Of course, this is not the first time people have looked for scapegoats in the aftermath of of natural disasters rather than tackling the complex policy questions they pose.
During the Victorian bushfire inquiry, for example, much attention was given to the question of whether the police chief Christine Nixon should have gone out to dinner at a critical moment in the disaster — as if that had any significant impact on how the event unfolded.
But it’s not just that the public are easily distracted.
Former New South Wales Planning and Environment Minister Frank Sartor says it is often vulnerable householders themselves who want to shut down debate, fiercely objecting to efforts to make information about flood risk more readily available.
“Local residents want you to lie about it if they’re in a flood zone.” he says plainly. “They don’t want you to tell the truth about it … because it would lower their property values. But the future buyers don’t want you to lie about it. They want you to tell the truth.”
Between 2005 and 2011, as planning minister and later as minister for climate change and the environment, Sartor legislated to deal with coastal erosion from storms, king tides and potentially climate change. He also increased transparency about flood risk for properties throughout New South Wales. Queensland Floods Inquiry recommended something similar, suggesting that contracts of sale for properties be subject to flood evaluation in the same way they’re currently subject to pest inspection.
This brought Sartor, previously a long-serving Lord Mayor of Sydney, into conflict with community groups, and local councils and mayors – one of whom he remembers as an “old cretin”, another as “mad greenie”.
“There’s a big battle between transparency, and the fact that it will end up affecting property values,” he says. “It’s a very difficult political issue. It’s about people’s property values. It’s about self interest.”
He believes the Federal Government should intervene to set national guidelines about what flood-risk information local councils should make public. That, he says, would “Take the heat off local councils and state governments, give them some political protection…about telling the truth…because [they are the ones that] get beaten up by the locals.”
But if individuals are unwilling to have a frank conversation about flood risk, councils are wary too.
Since the floods of 2011, Brisbane City Council has introduced a temporary planning instrument that requires new development to be more flood proof. The Global Mail wanted to ask Council why those measures had not been in force earlier. We were also keen to understand why Council has a program to buy back the most flood-prone properties. Did they, we wanted to ask, feel responsible for allowing them to be built in the first place?
The Brisbane City Council would not be interviewed for this story.
The Federal Government is also dodging flood planning. In the 2012-13 budget it allocated just $26 million a year for the next four years to mitigation — no increase on what it had been spending in the drought years.
The Insurance Council of Australia (ICA) has condemned this seemingly head-in-the-sand failure to address the problem.
The ICA is advocating that the Federal Government take responsibility for those Australians living and working in flood-prone areas — like Lex Matthews of Roma who find themselves trapped by this policy impasse, unable to sell flood-prone homes but struggling to stay on as the cost of flood insurance spikes.
Insurance for such people should be subsidised, says the ICA, with payment made directly to property owners as an interim measure, to assist with affordability; while government finally gets on with the job of building levees and other mitigation infrastructure.
According to Karl Sullivan, the ICA’s general manager for risk, having to make those payouts would keep the Government focused on the problem, serving “as a price signal…about the urgency of mitigation which is a government responsibility.
State governments have themselves had to be bailed out, using $1.8 billion in funds to be extracted from the take-home pay of Australians as a flood levy of anywhere between $1 and $5 per week.
Sullivan says that’s not on. “At a government level, state and local governments should have appropriate risk-management practices, such as insurance arrangements, to financially protect their assets and infrastructure, rather than relying upon ongoing taxpayer-funded bailouts.”
In the end, while the insurance industry is pushing hard to get governments to act before the disastrous summer of 2010/11 is forgotten, Frank Sartor says insurers themselves will be the agents of change. As the public and the politicians start to calibrate the effect of the enormous premium increases for those in flood zones, the nation will be forced to face up to who is at risk and what we are prepared to do about it.
“Good old market forces and self interest will come to the fore because the insurance companies will sort it out for you,” says Sartor.
“They’ve got to measure risk so they’ve got to act in the best interests of everyone and tell the truth [about the risk]. They won’t give a shit about the climate-change debate one way or the other. They’ll just work out what they think the risk is, they’ll get actuaries on board, and they’ll make their own judgment. And once they start charging premiums [to reflect that risk] state and Federal Government [positions] almost become irrelevant.”
The market is speaking.