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Where, why and how are Australians dying in floods?

Fatalities from floods are a major cause of natural hazard deaths around the globe. Here in Australia, floods are ranked second only to heatwaves in terms of the total number of natural hazard fatalities since 1900. Recent cases over the last two years, such as June 2016 in New South Wales and Tasmania, along with the aftermath of Severe Tropical Cyclone Debbie in northern NSW in April this year, highlight the significant dangers of floodwaters and as the research suggests, many of the flood deaths are avoidable.

To gain a greater understanding of human behaviour and why people choose to enter floodwaters, the CRC research project Analysis of human fatalities and building losses from natural disasters has measured the impacts of floods. The research looks at the toll on human life, injuries and building damage while analysing trends over time.

This study is one of the first to explore the trends and characteristics associated with flood fatalities in such detail. Focusing on the Australian context the research considered the socio-demographics, circumstances, capacities, knowledge and motivations of those who died in floods. Spatial and temporal trends within the data and the relationship between the fatalities and known characteristics of the hazard were also analysed.

The New South Wales State Emergency Service (NSW SES) have drawn on the research to back their latest flood safety campaign.

The campaign features a series of videos of real life stories, with people recounting their experiences of trying to drive through floodwater, what happened to them, the consequences of their actions, and why no one should ever drive through floodwaters.

Who is most at risk when it comes to floods?

Between 1900 and 2015 there were 1,859 flood fatalities in Australia. An analysis of the social and environmental circumstances that led to each of these fatalities was undertaken by the CRC research team, led by Dr Katharine Haynes (Risk Frontiers, Macquarie University). The project identified significant trends among the fatalities in relation to gender, age, activity, location and reason.

The research revealed that the majority of fatalities are male (79.3%) and that children and young adults, aged 29 or under, were most at risk. The analysis of flood severity against numbers killed per event indicates that the majority of fatalities occurred in minor or moderate floods where one or two people died. There is also evidence to suggest that most people who died after entering floodwaters were travelling home.

“The highest proportions of men and women are dying while they are attempting to cross a bridge or flooded road and where the information is available we can see that most of these people are trying to make their way home,” explained Dr Haynes.

Since 1960 the highest numbers of fatalities have occurred in Queensland and New South Wales, with the toll from these states accounting for 74.5% of all fatalities during this period. Death rates per capita also highlight the increased level of risk in the Northern Territory, where fatalities per capita since 1960 has been five times as great as NSW and more than three times as great as Queensland.

Andrew Richards, State Manager of Community Engagement at NSW SES, is one of the lead end-users for the CRC project and said it was vital that the SES safety campaign was backed by research.

“The campaign shows important facts about the most at-risk groups, such as children and young adult passengers in cars, as well as 4WD’ers. Both CRC research and some additional commissioned research were vital here as it showed us where we needed to focus our safety efforts as a result of recent and historical events.”

Fatalities associated with 4WD vehicles have increased steeply over the last two decades. Almost seventy-five per cent of all 4WD flood deaths have occurred since 2000. The vast majority of those driving a motorised vehicle were men at 84.4%, while the gender breakdown of passengers shows that 52.5% were men and 46.1% were female. This implies that most flood-related vehicle fatalities involve male drivers, with passengers roughly equally distributed between the genders.

“The research showed us that fatalities involving a 4WD have dramatically increased in the last 15 years – people can often think that a 4WD is capable of traversing flooded rivers and the 4WD advertisements often reinforce this, but the reality is far from that. We really want to reach this group of people in the hope that the next time they come across a flooded road, they will make the safest decision,” Mr Richards said.

Research shows that the most common way people are killed during a flood is when they attempt to cross a bridge or flooded road.

Getting the message – if it’s flooded, forget it!

The research suggested that not only were many flood deaths avoidable, a majority of victims were capable of independent action and aware of the flood. Despite knowing the risks many people are still making the decision to enter floodwaters. However, 45% of fatalities in a vehicle died during twilight or darkness when visibility would have been poor. It is likely that they were unaware of the extent of the danger. This suggests the need for structural measures including barricades and road design in addition to improved risk communication and education.

The NSW SES campaign includes accounts from a mother who entered floodwaters at the pressure of the passengers, a 4WD enthusiast and his experience crossing creeks and rivers, a young male who was trying to impress his passengers, an SES member and his experiences rescuing people from floodwater and a farmer who nearly drowned after entering floodwater to rescue cattle.

Mr Richards said the NSW SES is hoping that by using real stories and experiences they will be able to target these groups engaging in risky behaviour.

“We are trying to increase public safety, to educate people to make the safe choice,” he said.

“We think that the best way to achieve this is by highlighting true stories about what has happened to people when they have tried to drive through floodwaters, their close calls, and their remorse about making some of those risky decisions in the first place,” he said.

As well as inspiring the NSW SES campaign, this research will assist emergency services across Australia in ensuring their messages are effectively targeted, as well as influencing policy, practice, engagement initiatives and resource allocation across the sector.

In the future the research team are planning to evaluate the messaging and terminology used with different socio-demographic groups, as well as education programs and signage used during floods. By understanding the decision-making processes of those who do drive through floodwaters emergency services will be better equipped to prevent flood fatalities.

For more information, go to bnhcrc.com.au

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Freya Jones is Communications Assistant for AFAC.

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