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The Australian Great Flood of 1954: Estimating the Cost of a Similar Event in 2011

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  • 1 Risk Frontiers, Macquarie University, Sydney, Australia
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Abstract

As in many other parts of the globe, migration to the coast and rapid regional development in Australia is resulting in large concentrations of population and insured assets. One of the most rapidly growing regions is southeastern Queensland and northern New South Wales, an area prone to flooding. This study reexamines the Great Flood of 1954 and develops a deterministic methodology to estimate the likely cost if a similar event had occurred in 2011. This cost is estimated using council flood maps, census information, historical observations, and Risk Frontiers' proprietary flood vulnerability functions. The 1954 flood arose from heavy rainfall caused by the passage of a tropical cyclone that made landfall on 20 February near the Queensland–New South Wales border, before heading south. Responsible for some of the largest floods on record for many northern New South Wales' river catchments, it occurred prior to the availability of reliable insurance statistics and the recent escalation in property values. The lower-bound estimate of the insurance loss using current exposure and assuming 100% insurance penetration for residential buildings and contents is AU$3.5 billion, a cost that would make it the third-highest ranked insured loss due to an extreme weather event since 1967. The corresponding normalized economic loss is AU$7.6 billion but the uncertainty about this figure is high. The magnitude of these losses reflects the accumulation of exposure on the floodplains. Risk-informed land-use planning practices and improved building regulations hold the key to reducing future losses.

Corresponding author address: Kevin M. Roche, Risk Frontiers, Macquarie University, NSW, 2109, Australia. E-mail: kevin.roche@mq.edu.au

Abstract

As in many other parts of the globe, migration to the coast and rapid regional development in Australia is resulting in large concentrations of population and insured assets. One of the most rapidly growing regions is southeastern Queensland and northern New South Wales, an area prone to flooding. This study reexamines the Great Flood of 1954 and develops a deterministic methodology to estimate the likely cost if a similar event had occurred in 2011. This cost is estimated using council flood maps, census information, historical observations, and Risk Frontiers' proprietary flood vulnerability functions. The 1954 flood arose from heavy rainfall caused by the passage of a tropical cyclone that made landfall on 20 February near the Queensland–New South Wales border, before heading south. Responsible for some of the largest floods on record for many northern New South Wales' river catchments, it occurred prior to the availability of reliable insurance statistics and the recent escalation in property values. The lower-bound estimate of the insurance loss using current exposure and assuming 100% insurance penetration for residential buildings and contents is AU$3.5 billion, a cost that would make it the third-highest ranked insured loss due to an extreme weather event since 1967. The corresponding normalized economic loss is AU$7.6 billion but the uncertainty about this figure is high. The magnitude of these losses reflects the accumulation of exposure on the floodplains. Risk-informed land-use planning practices and improved building regulations hold the key to reducing future losses.

Corresponding author address: Kevin M. Roche, Risk Frontiers, Macquarie University, NSW, 2109, Australia. E-mail: kevin.roche@mq.edu.au
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