What would you do? Two asset managers discuss natural disaster responses and resilience
We asked asset managers at two NSW councils: “How have natural disaster events affected infrastructure in your council area to date and what actions might you take to increase resilience in the future?” Here is how they would approach the task of ‘building back better’ …
James Thompson, Cadet Engineer, Eurobodalla Shire Council
“During the recent bushfires, 80 percent of our local government area was burnt. There were 18 bridges damaged, 12 of which were completely destroyed, as well as significant damage to our communications and power infrastructure. We had been in drought for several years before the fires hit, making water supply also an issue.
“Immediately after the fires, the council made a significant effort to build side-tracks for the damaged bridges in preparation for the autumn rainy season. Sadly, the three significant flood events we had in quick succession damaged a lot of these side-tracks, requiring council to rebuild them … one on multiple occasions.
“During the fires themselves and the flooding that came after, council’s main priority was to keep the community safe. However, since those events, council has been proactively increasing the resilience of our critical infrastructure.
“The first issue we looked at was repairing and rebuilding our timber bridges. Rather than replacing like for like, our director lobbied government to provide additional funding to replace the damaged bridges with more resilient composite structures, ensuring remote communities aren’t completely cut off in future fire events. Council is also working towards replacing undamaged timber bridges with composite structures.
“There has also been some planning for the construction of a dedicated emergency operations facility, where the various stakeholders who respond to natural disasters can come together. During the fires, it was identified that the makeshift facility in our local RSL was really inadequate, and given the increases in more frequent extreme weather events and natural disasters that are bound to occur, it is imperative that emergency management personnel can quickly and effectively respond to new disasters as they arise.
“Communications and power infrastructure isn’t managed directly by the council, and subsequently we have been having discussions with Essential Energy and telecommunications providers about improving the resilience of these structures, utilising underground power where feasible and ensuring sufficient clear zones. Council has also been liaising with multiple businesses that offer a critical service to ensure that if the power supply is damaged during natural disasters, back-up generators can be used.
“Council proactively cleared vegetation around the communication tower located on Mount Wandera right before the fires hit. This proved vital in mitigating the severity of the damage, allowing damaged electronics to be replaced without the need to reconstruct the tower itself, which would have been a very time-intensive process.
“The fires were devastating. Every single person in our council area got impacted in some way. I personally haven’t come across anyone that’s not inclined to want to improve the resilience of our existing and new infrastructure. That’s part of the reason we’re building a new dam in the lower section of our shire, to improve the resilience of our water-supply network. Another key component of improving resilience is to know and understand the assets in our network. This allows council to accurately identify how best to apply finite funding to improve the resilience of our infrastructure overall, thus creating the best outcome for the community.”
Megan Finnie, Manager of Asset Strategy, Planning & Performance, Northern Beaches Council
“The heavy rainfall in Sydney in March was a test for many councils. Like many other areas across the state, we have places within our Local Government Area that are prone to flooding and coastal erosion. We do as much as possible to prepare those areas ahead of forecast rains: standing up an incident management team; preparing to mechanically open lagoons when they hit trigger levels; clearing drains and culverts; and standing up crews to help with road closures, fallen trees, and other emergencies.
“However, we all need to be focusing long term, too. Experts are saying that storms like the one in March could become more frequent. That’s going to put increasing pressure on our infrastructure and services and why we need to build resilience for now and the future.
“For our roads that are prone to flooding, for example, a potential solution could be to raise them to keep them in operation 24/7. However, this is a very expensive option and, in some cases, would have significant environmental impacts.
“Or we could keep them at the same elevation but rebuild them using climate-resilient materials. This option would not avoid closures during high-rainfall events but would help get them back online more quickly afterwards.
“The question for the community, then, is, do you need to use this road come rain, hail or shine? And, if so, are you, as a ratepayer, prepared to pay for that, both financially and through the potential damage to the environment? Or can you do without the road a number of times during the year, aware that those times may be increasing? This is the conversation we need to have with our community now, so they understand the challenges ahead.
“Our council is very much focused on the future. We’re developing a Resilience Strategy that will identify a range of actions and priorities to enable our community – and the infrastructure and services they rely upon – to withstand and adapt to the impacts of natural disasters.
“We’ve been trialing a modeling tool that is helping us identify areas that are vulnerable to flooding, sea-level rise, and soil contraction due to extreme heat. Using the tool, we can make better decisions when the time comes to renew our assets. If we need to replace a building, should we rebuild it in the same spot? Or will that spot be underwater in 50 years’ time? These are the questions we are now asking to ensure the investment we are making in our infrastructure is able to be enjoyed by future generations.
“We’re also working with IPWEA to produce reference documents that can be used by our council and by asset managers at other councils in NSW and beyond. We have worked with IPWEA to develop Practice Note 12.1 that looks at climate-change impacts on the lives of infrastructure. And we’re now working on a document that looks at climate-resilient materials for infrastructure assets.
“Our community here on the Northern Beaches is really engaged in issues that are important to them. And ‘building back better' is a top priority for everyone.”