Communication breakdown was the number one issue during TC Debbie and in the aaftermath.
Communication breakdown was the number one issue during TC Debbie and in the aaftermath. Wesley Monts

How Cyclone Debbie exposed the breakdown areas

A BREAKDOWN in communication was the single biggest issue during Tropical Cyclone Debbie, and in the hours after it crossed the Queensland coast on March 28.

That was a key outcome of the 2017 Local Government Disaster Management Conference that was held over three days in Mackay early May.

The Local Government Association of Queensland conference brought representatives from 40 local councils and emergency response groups from across the state, to discuss emergency responses and ways of improving processes.

Guests included the Bureau Of Meteorology, Australian Red Cross, the Queensland Police Service, Queensland Fire and Emergency Services, and the Inspector-General Emergency Management Iain Mackenzie.

On Friday Mackay Regional Council Mayor Greg Williamson said communication was an issue that needed immediate attention and, he said, every option was on the table.

Some of the things being considered were flag-signalling in isolated communities, providing single-transister radios to residents to broadcast alerts on the AM frequency or even early-warning sirens.

"Every option is on the table," Cr Williamson said.

"Do we have flags?

"We can generally get a helicopter in the air soon after a disaster."

He said the biggest communication problem was that most people were solely reliant on their mobile phones.

"When you are several hours without power the batteries can go dead... or there is a loss of signal," Cr Williamson said.

There was no way of communicating with people who only had mobile phones.

Eton residents were at the centre of the communication breakdown.

Many didn't receive the self-evacuation alerts that were sent out when the Kinchant Dam reached 120% and breached the spillway. Dozens of people were caught in a flash flood and escaped only minutes before their homes were inundated.

Eton Hotel owner Daniel Cook said none of the 60 or so people who sought refuge Wednesday received a notification to self-evacuate until it was too late.

"On Wednesday night someone upstairs got a bit of a signal and saw the self-evacuate warning on a Facebook page about 6.30pm. That's all that we got," Mr Cook said.

"By that time it was over."

Four swift water rescue members were also at the hotel on the day of the evacuation order.

"We still had a landline and they were using that because even they had lost signal on their radios," he said.

Reaching those people affected wasn't the only problem; with mixed messages also causing serious issues. Cr Williamson explained most of the emergency services communication systems don't talk to each other.

And that is because each emergency service unit uses a different system.

"That's why the emergency centre (at the Mackay Regional Council building) is so vital... where we have the different groups talking to each other," he said.

It is why the Local Disaster Management Committee is the authority in an emergency situation.

"What we learned from the conference is that every area reacted differently, because they had different emergency situations," the mayor said.

Cr Williamson said Rockhampton opened its evacuation centres three days before the emergency because it was dealing with a major flood event.

"Imagine if we opened the evacuation centre there at Milton St prior to the cyclone, and it collapsed, killing 30 people. I would be facing a colonial inquest," he said.

Evacuation centres are to assist people with recovery after a cyclone. Cyclone shelters are designed to withstand Category 5 cyclones and above.

Mackay has one category 5 cyclone shelter at Northern Beaches State High School.

So do we need more cyclone shelters?

"Absolutely," Cr Williamson said.

"But cyclone shelters are expensive. If (they weren't) then we would have them everywhere already, instead of one that was built only six years ago."

"We have had severe cyclones for 100 years."

He said the council would consider if existing buildings could be refurbished and brought up to standard for a Category 5 cyclone, or if they had to be purpose built, in which case, it would have to look at available funding.

But Cr Williamson warned this was a issue for most north Queensland councils.

East Mackay resident Natalie Spindler was at her home on March 27 when the weather started to deteriorate and she was looking for a safe place to evacuate.


Isaac Mayor Anne Baker, Whitsunday Mayor Andrew Wilcox and Mackay Mayor Greg Williamson at the Local Goverment and Disiater Management Conference 2017
Isaac Mayor Anne Baker, Whitsunday Mayor Andrew Wilcox and Mackay Mayor Greg Williamson at the Local Goverment and Disiater Management Conference 2017

By the time the order came, it was too late.

"It (the cyclone) was coming all day (Monday)," she said. "Considering how big the cyclone was, even if it was tracking towards Bowen or just south of Bowen, we were going to get some of it either way," she said.

"Could it have been possible to call for an evacuation the day before?"

Ultimately low lying areas were told to self-evacuate and seek refuge with friends and family after the Bureau of Meteorology forecast a significant storm surge was expected.

But Ms Spindler said that came too late. "It was getting impossible," she said. "And I had nowhere to evacuate too. There has to be a lot of other people that are in the same position as I was."

Midge Point resident Navio Zeglio said the evacuation of 400 residents from his town went smoothly.

There is also currently an investigation into the events near Kinchant Dam. The findings will be delivered in June.

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