I had no sooner finished writing about floods in Warwick when it started raining again. I’d written the lead article for our local U3A newsletter last week, recounting the times since 2000 the Condamine River had closed the main bridge into town.
The answer (so far) is four – October 2010, January 2011, January 2013 and May 2022, when the river rose above 6.5m. Closing the bridge effectively cleaves the town in two,as alternative routes will also be under water if this happens. This time, the closure was for only 24 hours; but in 2013, the highway was cut for days, as the river peaked at 7.21m.
The O(tto) O(ttosen) Madsen Bridge is not just the link across the Condamine River, it is a national monument. The 58-year-old bridge is a vital link between Brisbane and Sydney, carrying traffic across the bridge from the Cunningham to New England highways.
Spanning 100m across the Condamine River, the O.O. Madsen Bridge was opened in 1964. It is dedicated to Otto Madsen, who was State MLA for Warwick from 1947–1963 and served as a Minister in the Nicklin Government between 1957 and 1963. If you have ever taken the inland highway to or from New South Wales, you’ll have driven across it.
On May 13 this year, after an early call from a friend, we did a dash to the supermarket and got safely home again before the bridge closed. Twenty-four hours later (the rain having stopped) the river level dropped and the bridge re-opened.
It might seem churlish to complain about the minor inconvenience, given that so many parts of urban and rural Australia have been smashed multiple times by floods. The damage bill this year for South East Queensland and NSW alone is $4.38 billion.
In February this year, floods visited the Sunshine Coast, Lockyer Valley, Toowoomba, Gympie and Maryborough, to name a few regions. In late February, the northern NSW town of Lismore was badly flooded. Lismore copped it again a few weeks later. In some parts of town, the flood levels were so high houses and shops vanished beneath the waters.
This week, a major rain event revisited Sydney, the Blue Mountains and the Hawkesbury and Hunter regions of New South Wales. This is only three months after unprecedented rains inundated many NSW cities and towns. Apart from the drama, the danger, and loss of property, those affected by floods are almost always traumatised. Being forced to live through flood events twice within six months is more than anyone should have to bear.
Those of us who live on high and dry properties might blithely say “Oh well, you did have insurance, didn’t you?”
That’s a thorny question and one worth trying to shed some light on.
The latest data from the Insurance Council of Australia on the 2022 South East Queensland and Northern NSW floods tells a story.
Data from June shows that of the 225,000 claims made, 68,000 have been settled, leaving 157,000 claims still outstanding,
Three to six months after flood events in SEQ and NSW, 70% of those who made claims are still waiting. To be fair to insurers, a claims assessor must physically visit the property to which the claim applies. The assessor then makes a recommendation and the claims department makes a decision. It all takes time.
Typically, those badly affected by natural disasters like bush fires and floods turn to State and Federal government for help.
New South Wales Premier Dominic Perrottet said in March this year the floods then affecting NSW were a “one-in-one-thousand-year event”. But that’s not what science, or the insurance industry, suggests, according to University of Melbourne academic Antonia Settle. The Conversation says that Australian home owners and businesses are facing escalating insurance costs in areas prone to fires, cyclones and floods.
The trend is being driven by the frequency and severity of extreme weather events as the global climate continues to change.
Premiums have risen sharply over a decade, as insurers count the cost of insurance claims and factor in future risks. Rising insurance premiums are creating a crisis of under-insurance in Australia, Settle says.
Under-insurance has been a problem for untold thousands whose houses were wrecked by floods. In some cases, insurers have no option but to offer a cash payment rather than re-instate what has been damaged or destroyed. (The level of insurance the policyholder has chosen will not cover the cost of a repair or rebuild).
Settle writes that the two main ways to reduce insurance premiums are to limit global warming (not something Australia can achieve on its own) or reduce the damage caused by extreme events.
This means constructing more disaster-resistant buildings, or not rebuilding in high-risk areas (Ed: obviously, do not build houses (or railways) on flood plains).
The (Morrison) Federal government put most of its eggs in a different basket. Its plan was to subsidise insurance premiums in northern Australia, in response to an Australian Competition and Consumer Commission investigation in 2020.
The ACCC’s final report into insurance affordability found the average cost of home and contents insurance in cyclone-prone northern Australia was almost double the rest of Australia. The rate of non-insurance was almost double – 20% compared with 11%.
Former PM Scott Morrison copped harsh criticism for this policy, as he did for his tardy response to the Lismore floods and before that, not funding urgent requests for more fire-fighting aircraft during the Black Summer bush fires.
Our globe-trotting Prime Minister Anthony Albanese, keen to mend fences, confirmed he would visit flood-affected towns along the Hawkesbury River when he touched down yesterday from a hectic schedule of visits to Europe. This is such a contrast to his predecessor’s weak and belated responses to bush fires and floods.
Meanwhile on the Southern Downs, more rare winter rain is causing the saturated ground to send run-off into the catchment. Relatively few properties in Warwick are prone to flooding, but the damage in low-lying areas is clearly evident. As a farmer who lives on the banks of the Condamine explained, he has seen six floods in the past 18 months, although only one forced the closure of the O. O. Madsen Bridge.
If you walk along the riverbank today, you will see visible signs of flood damage to fences, posts, park benches, trees, light poles and any infrastructure that happened to be in the way of rushing flood waters (the dog park, which has now been completely dismantled, as an acknowledgement of defeat after being knocked over four times). Most damage has been caused to fences, which simply collapse under the weight of water and debris.
BlazeAid, a volunteer organisation initially set up as a response to the aftermath of bush fires, has set up a base camp at Warwick Showgrounds. The base camp in Warwick was established last month to carry out the organisation’s most valued work – rebuilding fences destroyed by fires or floods.
Warwick coordinator Brad Young is very pleased with the response to the camp.“BlazeAid volunteers have come from all over, including WA, Vic, NSW, ACT and QLD,” he said, adding, “We have currently 38 properties on the books, with an estimated 100 kilometres of fencing to repair, rebuild and clean.”
BlazeAid was formed in 2009 after the Black Saturday bush fires in Victoria. Founders Kevin and Rhonda Butler created the charity as a way for retired farmers, tradespeople and others to volunteer on properties affected by natural disaster. BlazeAid has to date completed more than 15,000 kilometres of fencing around Australia, all built by volunteers and funded by donations.
It’s never too late to volunteer.
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