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A Recipe for a Disaster?

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What did we learn from the March SEQ flood event and the K’gari cleanup?

K’gari’s flood flotsam (Photo: Brisbane Times)


  • One World Heritage site (with internationally significant natural values)
  • Multiple tenures (and competing values)
  • Multiple landholders
  • Multiple stakeholders

Optional: one or more internal or external disasters (bushfire, flood, cyclone, oil spill)


Combine ingredients, bake for a suitable time, and watch what happens!

Sadly, with these ingredients, the results will at best be a well-intentioned, uncoordinated effort that will result in misplaced resources, frustration, and less favourable outcomes.

The bushfires highlighted the best (and worst) of K’gari’s disaster preparation and effort and demonstrated that a well-organised community could enhance the efforts of Queensland Fire and Emergency Services. Key learning from the bushfires was that preparation and planning could enhance resilience on the ground.

The recent flood event in NSW and South East Queensland has once again demonstrated that K’gari landholders and stakeholders need to collaborate more to enhance our disaster management.

So, what was good and what was less so?

Engaged community and stakeholders willing to help (some were even offering incentives like accommodation and food to volunteer participants). Queensland Parks and Wildlife Service (QPWS) immediately focused on moving pontoons and vessels to above HW in partnership with Maritime Safety Queensland (MSQ). The BAC’s Butchulla Land and Sea Rangers, tourism and community groups, focused on general marine debris. The Queensland Government made additional funding available to groups that undertake marine debris clean-up activities to undertake additional activities.There was no apparent immediate/coordinated assessment and prioritisation. This could have been undertaken by drone or vehicle to highlight where the initial effort should be focussed and by whom.
Communication – people talked to each other, and on-the-ground communication between partners occurred. Some groups reached out to the broader community via social media to increase awareness of the event and the need for more assistance.No clear overall leadership – participants would have benefitted from more direction and coordination, such as allocating target locations/zones, a daily briefing (even if via Facebook) to highlight safety issues, and monitoring and disposal points.  Who should be in charge and why?
The tourism industry came on board – visitors were handed a bag and encouraged to participate, with support also provided for transport, accommodation and transfers.Deployment was largely ad hoc (see leadership above) with issues relating to skip locations/disposal etc.
Salvaging materials – K’gari (Fraser Island) Adventures reported that ~50% of materials recovered could be recycled or repurposed (e.g., ZeroCo), and there were some beneficial beachcombing and salvaging of materials. Some articles were even able to be tracked to their original owners and returned.   There are ongoing issues with the loss and recovery of pontoons and vessels, which Maritime Safety Queensland manages. This is a recurring issue from previous flood events. While MSQ attempts to identify owners and negotiate with insurers, damaged vessels continue to break up, shedding harmful materials like polystyrene into the marine environment. In March 2014, there were revisions to the Prescribed Tidal Works code, including a requirement for pontoon restraints, that new pontoons be identifiable and certification of new structures. Who is enforcing this to reduce future impacts? Why are we still allowing the use of polystyrene for pontoons which are contiguous with the marine environment?
Collaboration – people offered to help and get the job done – putting their own lives on hold to assist with the clean-up.  Overall, the cleanup response was a fantastic achievement.More hands-on-deck are needed.  Despite several volunteer groups and multiple tourism providers operating on K’gari, the island needs a larger pool of volunteers with more volunteer opportunities and fewer barriers for people to participate. To achieve this, we need at a minimum: more partnerships – access to funds for paid, skilled volunteer coordinators (that can operate in a remote World Heritage area); and options for accommodation and transport (4WD are needed for the island).
Some groups undertook monitoring of materials from the clean-up, e.g., Butchulla Land and Sea Rangers (using the Australian Marine Debris Initiative method) and K’gari (Fraser Island) Adventures. But this may have been abandoned given the scale of the event.Without coordinated monitoring, evaluation and reporting, will we ever know the actual impacts of the disaster?  What parameters do we need to monitor and for how long (depending on the size and scale of the disaster)? What happens to the data? Reporting back to advisory groups – like the newly formed K’gari World Heritage Advisory Committee should enable us to apply continuous improvement to management and advise on options such as source reduction to reduce the scale of disasters in the future.
Positives and negatives as everyone mobilised to clean up K’gari after the March 2022 SEQ Flood Event

With climate change predictions suggesting that we can expect less rainfall but more intense rainfall events in South East Queensland, there will be more flood events in the future.

Collaborative planning, preparation (for example, reducing potential marine debris at the source), leadership, and response will certainly reduce future impacts on the K’gari World Heritage Area.

So, what are we going to bake next time?

Article submitted by Sue Sargent

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