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Damage from Asian Tsunami 2004.

Planning for catastrophic disasters

The hallmarks of catastrophic disasters are death and destruction, large scale disruption of communities and businesses, the displacement of populations and public anxiety. Often they occur with little to no warning, overwhelming the capacity of institutions and the community to cope. Emergency leaders are posed with overwhelming issues, with complexity and uncertainty on a scale they likely have never experienced nor imagined. The event becomes subject to significant national and international media scrutiny, and inevitably, political involvement.

Catastrophic events are cascading in nature, escalating in their impacts as interconnected essential services fail yielding yet further impacts and making the recovery more complex and prolonged. Events may not respect borders or boundaries resulting in unclear accountabilities amongst responding agencies, and conflicting strategies and public messaging as different jurisdictions respond.

The recovery of communities may take many years, with many of the impacted population choosing to re-locate to other areas permanently. Economic losses can be severe as industry is disrupted, businesses close down and yet further demands for capital injections from Government to support recovery costs.

When managed poorly, a loss of public trust in officials may emerge with resulting political challenges. Official commissions of enquiry are held, which provide opportunities for improving systems, reducing risks and enhancing plans to better manage future events. Often, however, such learnings are forgotten as memory of the disaster fades only for many of the same issues to emerge as problems in the next event. The performance of leaders will be judged through the expectations of others with the obvious advantage of hindsight.

Australian catastrophic disaster risk

Luckily Australia has not historically suffered from large catastrophic events as experienced overseas such as the European 2003 Heatwave, the Asian 2004 Tsunami, the Christchurch 2010-2011 earthquake sequence and the Nepalese 2015 Earthquake. This luck may reflect a lower frequency of large earthquakes and low population densities, coupled with investments in disaster mitigation and warning systems. Australia has, however, experienced disasters that have clearly overwhelmed the ability of institutions to effectively respond: the Victorian Black Saturday Bushfires (2009) and the Queensland and Victorian floods (2011) offer recent examples. The 1974 destruction of Darwin by Cyclone Tracy was also a defining moment in Australia’s emergency management history.

It is inevitable that more catastrophic disasters will occur. Significant grey risks are being created by increased urban development in at-risk areas. Our understanding of disaster risks tells us that events greater than those previously recorded are possible. This knowledge may be flawed or our imaginations may fail us: how many, for example, predicted the events of September 11 or how the Tõhoku earthquake and tsunami would unfold?

In the remainder of this article we consider some key aspects of planning for catastrophic disasters in the context of Australia.

Planning for catastrophe

Catastrophic disasters are different from every day disasters. Response strategies that routinely work in smaller events will be quickly overwhelmed and ineffective. The role of emergency management agencies becomes focused on providing leadership, facilitation, subject matter expertise, public information and warnings, and specialist resources. In the United States a government-centric approach has been recognised as being insufficient to meet the challenges posed by large disasters. Government is only one part of the overall team; and that arrangements must leverage all of the resources available. Responsibilities for community safety must be shared.

While emergency planning in Australian has traditionally been inwardly focused on the roles, responsibilities and strategies of emergency services and Government Departments, here too there is an emerging theme of community-based planning that aims to link locally- based response initiatives with wider Government-led emergency plans. No single agency is capable of responding to such high impact events alone and a whole-of-Government response in partnership with the community will be the only answer.

Damage from Christchurch Earthquake 2011.

Damage from Christchurch Earthquake 2011.

Ultimately, the ability to withstand and recover quickly from a catastrophic disaster comes back to the resilience of the impacted community and it is important that emergency management leaders tap into and exploit capability within the community, including local knowledge. These capabilities may not, however, be well-organised prior to the event occurring and this makes it difficult for emergent groups to be recognised in advance within disaster plans. Emergency management agencies should, however, proactively support the emergence of such groups, and have arrangements in place to work with them.

Catastrophic disaster risk assessments need to be based upon realistic assumptions; for example how long will the community be isolated? What is the expected number of casualties and damaged buildings? What might be the extent of infrastructure disruption and how long will it be down?

Scenario modelling approaches should be utilised: scenario planning combines sophisticated modelling techniques together with imagination and experience drawn from other large events both here and overseas. Risk Frontiers, with funding from the Australian Bushfire and Natural Hazards Cooperative Research Centre, is currently completing a series of disaster scenarios of national significance in Australia to assist emergency managers conceptualise and imagine catastrophic disaster risks. Some of these scenarios were published in the January edition of the Asia Pacific Fire Magazine.

Plans must be based upon an understanding about how a disaster event may unfold, in other words a dynamic view of the event is needed rather than just a static snapshot of the maximum consequences that may occur. For example, a catastrophic flood in Sydney may begin with a series of smaller flood and storm events that saturate catchments, fill water storages and steadily fatigue emergency resources, before the truly large flood occurs.

Plans must also be dynamic and able to adapt to unforeseen circumstances, complex variability and uncertainty. They also need to define the accountabilities of stakeholders.

A small number of specific disaster plans already exist for catastrophic scenarios such as for severe flooding in Hawkesbury Nepean Valley in Western Sydney. These plans consider consequences across wider regional areas spanning multiple Local Government Areas and assist to place the overall risks in sharper focus.

Testing of capabilities utilising realistic disaster scenarios will help identify gaps and improve the knowledge of institutions as to the limitations of their capabilities. Planners must consider wider jurisdictional and national capabilities. In some instances public-private partnership arrangements may supplement capabilities. Corporations through their corporate social responsibility programs can enhance community resilience and responses to disasters, such as the efforts of Wal-Mart after the impact of Hurricane Katrina in the United States. Other examples include Facebook establishing a safety check application for people to report that they are safe following a disaster, and Airbnb launching an initiative to coordinate emergency accommodation and relief in disaster affected areas.

International support arrangements have not been well recognised within jurisdictional planning for emergencies in Australia but may be essential after catastrophic events. How such resources link in with overall jurisdictional based arrangements requires better definition.

Building an effective surge capacity also requires a national focus on interoperability. Although progress has been made in this area, these efforts need to extend nationally to ensure seamless operations, and effective inter-jurisdictional deployments by utilising common systems, intelligence, equipment, processes and management structures.

Measures should be considered to regularly evaluate, measure and publically report on disaster preparedness and capability to provide transparency of the readiness of public institutions to respond to catastrophic disasters. Such reporting is now common in the United States but Western Australia is the only State in Australia to do this.


A catastrophic disaster in Australia is inevitable at some point. This might comprise a significant earthquake in a major metropolitan area, contemporaneous flooding across multiple catchments, a season of especially large bushfires across many states that exhaust the capacity of emergency services, or a tropical cyclone with wind speeds well in excess of the construction design standards. It must be accepted that in such an event emergency management agencies will be overwhelmed and no single agency alone will be able to cope with the demands expected of it. That being the case emergency management agencies will need to recognise their limitations and perform collectively in concert with the community. Emergency managers need to build strong bonds and trust with the community and private organisations, so that a whole-of-community approach can be employed. Importantly such response efforts should be accompanied by more investment in disaster mitigation including risk-informed land use planning to prevent amplifying existing catastrophic disaster risks.

For more information, go to www.riskfrontiers.com

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Andrew is the Director Government Business and Enterprise Risk Management at Risk Frontiers, an independent Research Centre set up as a R&D company at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He works with Risk Frontiers clients to deliver pragmatic solutions to enhance disaster resilience.