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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Kate Burke

Confusing messaging hampers our ability to prepare for rising flood waters

A tractor navigates a flooded road east of Echuca.
A tractor navigates a flooded road east of Echuca. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Echuca is on edge. Our near neighbours, at Rochester, are bracing for a second peak.

We were awake as the rain pelted our roof at 4am on Saturday morning. We are tired, emotional and fragile. Processing information and making decisions is getting harder as the anticipation and preparation takes a mental and physical toll.

The authorities urge us to be proactive. Now, more than ever, their information needs to be clear, concise and consistent. The more tired and anxious we become, the more critical accessible, accurate information becomes.

Despite the best intentions of Emergency Victoria, the flood information flow is confusing and inconsistent. Government agencies and apps must be on message – the same bloody message.

The problem is conflicting information. The messaging at the live updates and community meetings does not always equal that of the Victorian Emergency App or the Bureau of Meteorology.

We are unsure and frustrated. Which number is the peak? Which agency knows best? Why does the Vic emergency app – the supposed sacred source of truth – not reflect the information provided by local authorities?

This week, thousands have helped prepare for the onslaught of more flood water along the Campaspe-Goulburn and Murray systems and, at the same time, are cleaning up from the first Campaspe flood.

The decision to sandbag a property, shift animals or ultimately leave their residence hinges on the expected peak and the lie of the land. Hearing different levels of expected river peaks has hindered good decision-making, created confusion and added to anxiety.

We have also had to make these decisions while helping the wider community. With public resources stretched, people have contributed their own expertise and common sense, as well as learned new skills to fill the void.

I found myself directing traffic last Sunday as we fought to contain the Campaspe River. On Sunday I’ll be directing information traffic, specifically river heights and expected timing of those peak heights.

I’ve had a bit of practice at directing information traffic. That’s my day job. I make a living by helping people gain insight and apply foresight in complex situations. I even wrote a book about it. I help people recognise and manage the nuance of complexity so they make good choices under pressure.

Whether drought or flood, the process is the same: gather credible data, observe what’s happening on the ground, derive the best and worst case scenario, and formulate Plan A and Plan B.

Echuca resident Kate Burke
Echuca resident Kate Burke: ‘Emergency management fundamentals require one message delivered from one source.’ Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Finding the most credible data is proving difficult.

But I know that behind the scenes, the hydrologists and river keepers are doing their best. They have to manage a complex natural system combined with human factors. It’s got the highest degree of difficulty you can imagine.

It’s not easy to predict the movement of a slow moving riverine flood where three rivers collide, all within an unstable and unpredictable weather system.

Add to that numerous irrigation drain delivery channels, all contributing to the direction and velocity of a large volume of water travelling hundreds of kilometres. Then there’s the different real-time management of the river system upstream from us.

The authorities need to communicate their interpretation of what may happen and what is happening to thousands of landholders and residents in the Echuca-Moama region. Yet every household and property is different. This sort of nuance limits the power of the hydrology supermodels (of the digital kind, not the fashion kind).

But there is no room for nuance in the emergency messaging. And it’s hard to hear nuance when emotions and adrenaline are as high as the water level.

This is the complexity conundrum.

Emergency management fundamentals require one message delivered from one source, but that is not happening when it comes to expected river peaks and the timing of those peaks, thanks to complexity and nuance.

Technology has hijacked the need for one message from one source in good time. For example, we have access to apps and different social media platforms, so the assumption is the messaging is right. But the imperative of updating all these different platforms means the best practice of one clear message is not happening.

Each household needs to prepare for their own circumstances, but for starters they need the authorities to be on the same page and delivering the same message.

It’s reasonable for the community to expect that authorities deliver the same message, particularly given all the reviews of emergency management after bushfires, floods and the pandemic in the past two years alone.

I have utmost faith in the catchment management authorities’ models and local knowledge of the systems. I have less faith in the practical reality of delivering a consistent message. And that scares me, as confused messaging could cost lives.

  • Kate Burke is an agricultural strategist who lives on the river at Echuca

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