Brisbane, located on Australia’s east coast, is a truly spectacular city. The meandering Brisbane River is the centerpiece around which the city’s character is built. Boardwalks teeming with restaurant, gardens, water features and even a man-made beach hug the river’s waterline; high-rise apartments and office buildings provide the backdrop.
With a metropolitan population of over two million, Brisbane is Australia’s third-largest city and a hub for business in the country’s northeast. In January 2011, the city came to a standstill when torrential rains caused the Brisbane River to burst its banks and flood much of the CBD and surrounding suburbs.
Here in the U.S., the almost-unthinkable scenario of flooding in large metropolitan areas such as New York City and Washington D.C. became a distinct possibility in August 2011 when Hurricane Irene moved up the east coast. We were fortunate that this scenario did not play out, although many areas experienced severe flooding and high winds.
On a recent trip to Melbourne, Australia to visit family I decided to stop over in Brisbane to get a better feel for what the city went through — and how it recovered from — the floods. Bryn Orr and Alem Saric, Emergency Management Consultants at Trimevac, spoke with me about the level of preparedness prior to the floods, recovery efforts, lessons learned and the shark that was spotted on a suburban street.
Continuity Insights: What was the level of preparedness prior to the floods? Were businesses ready for this?
Alem Saric: A lot of the buildings in the CBD are in close proximity to the Brisbane River. Some of the buildings did have structural integration with flood gates on the car park levels to deal with smaller scale floods. But the floods that occurred in January 2011 were enormous — 8 meters (26 feet) was the peak in some areas — and no one expected it to be so high.
Businesses and tenants were not really prepared. We were sent into the Brisbane CBD a few days after the floods to assist clients. We found that a lot of the buildings had fire control systems installed in the car park levels. These systems were subsequently moved to the upper floors in a lot of the buildings.
Bryn Orr: From a risk management standpoint, a lot of businesses were focused on other areas. The last major flood in Brisbane was 1973. A lot of the buildings were constructed after that, possibly with a mindset that it would not happened again for a very long time.
CI: How did the incident unfold? How much notice did companies have?
BO: There was widespread flooding in other areas due to us having the wettest December on record. I was stuck in the town of Gympie for a week, where the State Emergency Service (SES) was sending food over the swollen Gympie River using boats and helicopters.
On January 10, Towoomba was hit by a so-called inland tsunami that caused a whole lot of destruction and a number of deaths.
AS: The estimated average five-day rainfall from 9am on Friday January 7th to 9am on Wednesday January 12th over the Brisbane river catchment was 322 mm (over a foot).
BO: At about 10 am on January 11th it became evident we would have some flooding in the CBD and inner-city suburbs. Within an hour or two the authorities asked for voluntary evacuations from the Brisbane CBD buildings. Soon after lunch the evacuations became mandatory.
CI: What was the extent of the damage to infrastructure? Did businesses lose power, phone and internet connectivity? If so, for how long?
AS: By around midday on the 11th, about 70 percent of power and telecommunications were lost.
BO: A lot of the roads in and out of Brisbane were cut. People couldn’t get in from the north for about five days.
CI: And what was the extent of the damage to the surrounding suburbs?
BO: Residents in 2100 Brisbane streets were advised to evacuate. By the time the river peaked on the 14th of January, roughly 20,000 homes were inundated with water.
AS: I’ve never seen anything like it. On the second day of the floods I was helping with the recovery and the incident was mind blowing.
BO: We have a style of house called a Queenslander, which is a house on poles raised about 12 feet, and many of them were flooded up to the roof line.
AS: Even with preventative actions and plans I don’t think this kind of property damage could be prevented.
BO: Maybe it could have been avoided with forward-looking town planning, which has come up as a contentious political issue following the floods.
CI: What business continuity/disaster recovery techniques were used by businesses to keep operations up and running?
AS: Some of the major corporations have dedicated crisis management centers. One banking institution has an unoccupied 15-story building on higher ground that is unoccupied in readiness for situations like this flood. The location acts as a crisis management center, call center for customer enquiries and temporary workplace.
CI: Do you have any stories that you want to share about recovery efforts?
AS: Some tenants were so unprepared they left computers on and personal belongings in the buildings when they initially evacuated, thinking they would return in a couple of hours when the water recedes.
One of our clients is in the biggest building in the CBD. Four days after the floods it still had no power, lifts or fire systems so it was a huge risk for occupants to be there at any time, but because occupants evacuated so quickly many left behind important documents and laptops. So we escorted groups back to their floors to gather their belongings.
Some companies did not end up returning for a week or two due to essential services being cut.
BO: In relation to business continuity and planning, a lot of people found themselves with insurance coverage that didn’t cover flooding as a result of rising rivers. Although the policies did cover flooding they did not cover “rising rivers.”
The Queensland Chamber of Commerce and Industry reported that businesses lost an average of $800,000, with the medium-to-large businesses suffering more than the small ones partially because of the Government subsidies for businesses with less than 25 employees to help with their recovery. $8 billion was the total losses due to damage in the Brisbane CBD.
CI: So, what worked and what didn’t? What were the lessons learned?
BO: It was an interesting test for Brisbane. About four years ago the Brisbane CBD Emergency Plan was launched. This was the first time it was tested and some parts of it seemed to work quite well.
For example, we had evacuation sites set up as part of the emergency plan. Unfortunately, two of them were on the other side of the river where the land is lower, so they were not tenable for a flood-type emergency.
The main lesson I would take out of this incident relates to the fact that businesses hadn’t planned for flooding, in particular. Even if they added flooding to their plan there would still be a lot of potential emergencies that are not being effectively planned for. There is an attitude that businesses will do what they have to do to gain legislative compliance.
AS: From my point of view I think there is room to clarify insurance and flood terminology so that people are clear on what is covered and what isn’t.
CI: How has the incident changed Brisbane businesses’ approach to business continuity and disaster recovery? Would you say that businesses are now more proactive in planning for disruptive incidents?
BO: We’ve definitely had an upswing in requests for flood training and procedures.
Businesses have always had planning in place for what they perceive to be their major risks. The mindset is probably broadening to encompass different types of emergencies, beyond those that are required legislatively.
CI: What else did you learn from the experience?
BO: During a flood there are a whole lot of unobvious problems that you only think about post-incident. We often think about infrastructure being cut off, the need for search and rescue, etc. But there are also things like sewage ending up in flood waters so there is potential for contagious disease and widespread epidemics.
The other thing is people tend to move to high ground during flooding — but so do the animals. In Australia we have deadly snakes, rats, cockroaches and spiders. So you have to think about what you will do if you walk into your office and you see a two meter (6.5 foot) brown snake sitting there as the welcoming party. Are things like that factored into your disaster plans?
AS: There was a six-foot bull shark spotted about 30 km inland in an area near Ipswich. It’s common to see bull sharks in the Brisbane River and after the flooding one was spotted in floodwaters on a suburban street near a McDonalds.
BO: In Rockhampton, about five hours drive from Brisbane, salt water crocodiles were seen swimming around the flood waters.
AS: From my personal experience, it was unbelievable to see the number of volunteers taking part immediately after the flood, helping their neighbors to clean up the mud that had washed up. It was something I was very proud to see and experience.
Australia is so isolated from everything. This incident makes us realize that we have to rely on our own resources and people — I was very proud to be a part of that.
Walking along the Brisbane River it is hard to believe that the area was engulfed with water just over a year ago. I searched hard for water lines and flood damage but none were to be seen.
What I did notice were signs of a city that takes preparedness seriously, namely an “Emergency Security Point” located near one of the city’s busiest train stations. Although I could not find any information about how the checkpoint is used, I assume the speaker mounted inside the checkpoint marker is used to broadcast information and instructions to the public during an event or crisis.
Described as a turning point for business continuity in Australia, the Brisbane floods offer yet another example of a catastrophic event that catches businesses and communities off guard and under prepared (think Fukushima and Katrina). Despite what Tim Finn says in one of Split Enz’ biggest hits, history does repeat and we should learn from our mistakes.