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Surviving Australia’s disaster season

A guide for each of Australia's most common acts of nature.

Updated

Fact checked

A recent finder.com.au survey revealed that nearly 15% of Australians (2.7 million) are unprepared for natural disasters. Mother nature can wreak havoc on your home through storms, cyclones, floods, bushfires and droughts. No Australian state is immune, and with disaster season right around the corner, it's a good idea to prepare yourself and any loved ones.

Types of disasters for which you should always be prepared

There are five categories of natural disasters common to Australia. Most of them can hit anywhere across the country, but your likelihood of experiencing any one of them depends on your particular geography.

Here are the natural disasters common to Australia and who are most commonly affected:

  • Storms.Can affect anyone in Australia, regardless of geography. Residents in wooded areas may the additional concern of falling trees.
  • Cyclones. Affects Queensland the most, but can also affect the Northern Territory and Western Australia.
  • Floods.Affects people in low-lying areas near a body of water. Cyclones increase the chance of flooding in Queensland.
  • Bushfire. Affects anyone in wooded areas and surrounding communities.
  • Droughts. Can technically affect anyone in Australia. Droughts are most concerning to dryer regions, farming communities and areas that rely on surface water.

Disaster season checklist

Keeping yourself and your family safe from physical harm is priority number one, followed by securing your property and valuables in a way that minimises damage.

According to the finder.com.au survey, only 23% have an evacuation plan in place, only 24% have an emergency kit on hand and only 27% own a fire extinguisher.

Here are some general precautions that will help keep everyone safe under any circumstances:

  • Compile a disaster-preparedness kit. Include first-aid supplies, a torch, batteries, candles, matches, water, non-perishable food, medicine, extra clothes, blankets, a radio, a fire extinguisher and spare cash. Keep one in the home and one in the car.
  • Plan your exit. Determine in advance how you will get everyone together (including pets) and what you will need to take with you if you must leave home quickly. Assign different responsibilities to different family members and run drills so no one gets confused when things get real. Designate meeting places near your home, in your town, and somewhere out of town in case you are separated at any point before or after the evacuation.
  • Know the various routes out of town. The unpredictable nature of disasters means a route that is safe one day may not be safe the next. Familiarise yourself with every possible route out of town, so you're not caught off-guard by road closures.
  • Identify how you'll receive warnings. If the power goes out, television warnings become useless. Make sure you have backups: a battery powered radio, a police scanner and emergency notification apps on your phone.
  • Create a laminated contact list. Include all important numbers including local and out-of-town family members, the local police and fire departments, schools and workplaces. Make a few of these and chuck them in your disaster-preparedness kit.
  • Secure your valuables at home. Purchase a fire and waterproof safe or lockbox to store all important documents like passports, birth certificates, deeds, titles, and identification documents.
  • Secure large outdoor items. If disaster is imminent and there is still time, secure your outdoor items to prevent them from turning into projectiles that could hurt someone or damage your home.

A damaged home after a large tree fell on it during a tornado. The tree has been remove.

Storms

A storm is generally defined as "an atmospheric disturbance that can be accompanied by lightning, hail, snow or dust." There are many types of disturbances that fall under the category of "storm." These include, but are not limited to:

  • Cyclones
  • Thunderstorms
  • Hail storms
  • Wind storms
  • Dust storms
  • Blizzards
  • Sandstorms
  • Ice storms

What damage can a storm cause?

It is obvious how a storm like a cyclone can cause immense damage, but even your average thunderstorm can have devastating effects on your home and property. For example, heavy winds could send the nearest tree branch careening into the side of your house, breaking windows or worse. Other ways storms can cause damage include:

  • Direct damage to buildings and contents
  • Escape of rainwater from pipes, drains and gutters
  • Surface runoff rainwater from surrounding areas
  • Flooding
  • Erosion
  • Landslides and other land movements

How can I protect myself from storm damage?

Storms affect every Australian state, so no matter where you are in Australia, it pays to protect yourself from the effects of storms. Some ways you can do this include:

  • Clear your gutters. Blocked gutters can cause water to build up, overflow and inundate your home.
  • Trim the trees. Make sure to clear the branches that are in close proximity to your home.
  • Secure loose items. Heavy winds could send loose items like deck chairs through the nearest window.
  • Check your insurance. Insurance providers do not always cover every type of storm damage. For example, most policies cover damage from water runoff, but exclude flood damage.

About storm damage insurance

Darwin, Australia, is often the target of powerful cyclones. Cyclone Marcus in March 2018  destroyed thousands of tree and caused US $75 million in damage. Image: Supplied

Cyclones

A cyclone is a specific type of storm that affects mostly the northern tropical parts of Australia. Cyclones are characterised by their destructive winds that can reach speeds of up to 280 km/h. Queensland generally bears the brunt of cyclone damage, but the Northern Territory and parts of Western Australia can also succumb to their extreme force.

What damage can a cyclone cause?

The damage caused by a cyclone is generally the same as what you would see with a rainstorm or thunderstorm, but on steroids. Flying debris carried by the high winds creates an x-factor, and is partially why personal injury and death becomes much more than just a passing concern.

How can I protect myself from a cyclone?

Again, you would protect yourself in much the same way you would during a typical storm, but paying special attention to keeping yourself safe from injury. Some steps include:

  • Have a plan: Before the storm arrives, plan how you, your family and your pets will stay safe. Move to the strongest part of your home, such as the cellar or an internal hallway and stay away from windows.
  • Prepare a storm kit: Include first-aid supplies, a torch, batteries, candles, matches, water, non-perishable food, blankets and a radio.
  • Secure large items: Secure your boat and bring your vehicles under cover.
  • Reduce risk of fire: Unplug electrical items and be prepared to switch off mains power if needed.
  • Check your insurance: Since a cyclone is a type of storm, you will be covered for damage if your home insurance covers storms. Again, you may not be covered for flooding, depending on your plan. This becomes more contentious during a cyclone because of the increased risk of flood and because the fine line between rainwater runoff and flooding becomes more difficult to discern. Make sure to read your policy's PDS and that you understand the definitions as stated.

About cover for cyclones

Rear view of girl with greyhound dog walking on road after cyclone, Guanaba, Queensland, Australia Image: Supplied

Floods

A flood occurs when a large body of water, such as a lake or a river, overflows beyond its limits. This differs from inundation caused by rainwater runoff, although sometimes the two can happen in tandem and the source of the inundation can become murky. Naturally, flooding occurs after a storm or heavy rainfall, exacerbating the damage.

Floods affect every Australian state, although Queensland is especially susceptible due to the heavy downpour from cyclones.

What damage can a flood cause?

According to the Office of the Queensland Chief Scientist, floods are the most expensive type of natural disaster, estimated to cost $377 million per year. They can cause extensive damage to homes, property and persons including, but not limited to:

  • Structural damage to the home
  • Ruined carpet, furniture, appliances, electronics and other household items
  • Ruined cars
  • Uprooted patios, walkways and gardens
  • Drowning
  • Electrocution
  • Infection

How can I protect myself from a flood?

Preparing for a flood has many similarities to preparing for a storm. However, floods increase the risk of needing to evacuate the home should the water rise high enough. Here are some tips to help you prepare for a flood:

  • Have an evacuation plan. Pay attention to the local news to identify where your local flood relief shelter will be. Get there early, especially if you live near roads that are likely to flood. Make sure to pack medications, clothes, toiletries and other essential items in advance.
  • Buy or make sandbags. Place these around openings where water is likely to enter the home, such as external doors and air vents. You can put these into your toilet bowl and on top of drains to prevent sewage from escaping.
  • Respect the flood water. Do not attempt to drive or walk through flood water. It takes less water than you think to carry you or your car away. Do not swim through flood water, or you could become infected or electrocuted.
  • Check your insurance. Insurers are finicky when it comes to floods, and often will not cover you under their definition of storm damage. If you live in a flood zone, it is very important that you clearly understand what your policy covers and how your insurer defines floods.

About cover for floods

Two women looking at house burned by bushfire.

Bushfires

Bushfires are an unfortunate reality of living in Australia. The country is hot and dry, and its native vegetation has adapted to rely on bushfire for reproduction. This nasty combination means Australians have to be prepared to flee their homes at a moment's notice.

What damage can a bushfire cause?

Bushfires can cause extensive damage to property and to life. Homes can be completely or partially destroyed by fire, charring and smoke. Smoke inhalation and burning can lead to severe injury or death.

How can I protect myself from a bushfire?

If your home is in the path of a bushfire, the most important thing to do is to leave as soon as possible, if not earlier. Other than that, many of the preventative measures are things you need to do well in advance of a threat to keep you and your home safe.

  • Have an evacuation plan in place. Pay attention to local news to understand the likely path of the fire. That way you can determine the safest route out.
  • Create a fire safety kit: Make sure to pack first aid materials, medications, clothes, toiletries and other essential items. Have it ready to go well in advance, so you can grab it at a moment's notice.
  • Maintain your home and property: Remove undergrowth and overhanging trees, store flammable materials safely and fireproof your home by keeping gutters free of leaves and sealing gaps in your home's exterior where embers could lodge.
  • Equipment maintenance: If you live in a semi-rural area, you should have fire-fighting equipment on hand and in good working order.
  • Check your insurance: Bushfires are classified as natural disasters under most policies, so make sure you read your PDS closely to see if you are covered.

About cover for bushfires

Drought

Drought

The Australian Bureau of Meteorology defines drought as a period of three months or more in which rainfall lies below the 10th percentile of historical rainfall for the region in question. Every state in Australia, particularly areas that rely on farming, are susceptible to drought and its effects.

What damage can a drought cause?

A drought's effects are not as acutely tangible as they are with other natural disasters, because the build-up takes longer and droughts don't cause as much property damage per se (unless you are a farmer or have a garden). However, there are many negative effects a drought could have on your quality of life:

  • Water conservation requirements mean you might not be able to water your lawn or garden.
  • Worse conditions could mean that you have to ration water for essential activities like bathing and drinking.
  • Devastation of a region's crops could lead to higher prices for meat and produce.
  • Lack of water for sanitation purposes could lead to an outbreak of disease.
  • Dry conditions could lead to bushfires.
  • Lack of electric to hydroelectric dams could affect the electricity supply.

How can I protect myself from a drought?

  • Understand where your water comes from. By knowing whether your water comes from groundwater or surface water will let you know how susceptible you will be if there is a drought.
  • Conserve water. Fix leaky faucets, turn off the water while you are brushing your teeth and install water-saving devices or low-flow technologies in your faucets, shower heads and toilets.
  • Do some xeriscaping. Xeriscaping is a form of landscaping that reduces the need for supplemental water. It makes use of efficient irrigation and native flora to help you conserve water.
  • Work with your community. Individuals who work together to conserve water will be less likely to over-consume for selfish reasons.

What will your home insurance cover?

Priority number three is home insurance, which will cover you when a sudden and unforeseeable event (like an act of nature) damages your property.

Not all plans cover all acts of nature, so you should read your PDS to understand what your policy covers and what it does not. Generally, you are eligible to claim if your home is damaged by an act of nature and if that act of nature is listed in your policy.

Acts of nature commonly covered include:

  • Fire
  • Storms
  • Impact from objects like falling trees
  • Floods (usually at an extra cost)
  • Earthquakes and tsunamis (usually at an extra cost)

What will your home insurance not cover you for?

Home insurance will not cover you for acts of nature that are avoidable or that were preventable. These are situations you should have noticed when purchasing the house, or could have prevented had you noticed them during their early stages.

Acts of nature usually not covered include:

  • Termite damage
  • Tree-root damage
  • Shifting soil
  • Natural events you have not opted to include, like floods and earthquakes
  • Actions of the sea, including storm surges (except if it's a tsunami caused by earthquake and you've chosen that cover)

Watch out for underinsurance - A lesson out of Queensland

If you want to understand the consequences of underinsurance, look no further than Queensland. Despite experiencing 25% of all flood cases in Australia, Queensland is the most unprepared state – with 17% of the population unprepared for natural disaster according to finder.com.au.

The Sunshine State often experiences highly-destructive cyclones that confound insurance claims. According to finder.com.au, damage from cyclones between 2011-2016 resulted in more than $1.4 billion worth of uninsured losses.

Cyclones are wrapped up in highly-complex weather patterns and not all of the ensuing weather events (like storm surges and floods) are covered by all policies. Losses can be minimised if people protect themselves against underinsurance.

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