‘Not an overnight solution’: Calls to relocate those living in flood or fire prone areas

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Dozens of roads are expected to remain closed for days across East Gippsland after heavy rain pummelled the region and threatened to leave one small coastal town isolated.

A landslide that blocked road access to Mallacoota, in the state’s far east, was cleared on Friday but the State Emergency Service warned the hamlet at Bemm River was likely to be cut off with the river expected to flood the road into the town.

The SES confirmed it had received more than 900 requests for assistance across Victoria in the two days to 1pm on Friday, as rain and wind swept across the state this week.

Resident Dale Winward said the Mallacoota flooding was the worst he had seen.Credit: Dale Winward

The Strzelecki Ranges locality of Balook, south of Traralgon, received 167 millimetres of rain – the highest rainfall total in Victoria over the 24 hours to 9am Friday.

The flooding across East Gippsland comes after Natural Hazards Research Australia and insurance company Suncorp recently released a report calling for “assisted relocations” to protect communities in locations prone to disasters, including floods and fires.

Natural Hazards Research Australia chief executive Andrew Gissing said assisted relocations should be considered among the responses to more frequent emergencies due to climate change.

“We don’t want to see communities in the future living in a constant state of recovery,” he said. “Building back somewhere better is probably something that needs to be considered further.”

The report said assisted relocations were about helping people and communities move from high natural hazard risk areas to places with lower risks. It calls for the creation of a national map of natural hazard risks to “inform a conversation” about areas dangerously exposed to disasters.

Gissing said assisted relocations might apply to individual houses or select properties in communities that have been repeatedly hit by floods or fires. He said plans for assisted relocations needed to be carried out with local communities alongside all levels of government.

“This is not an overnight solution. Assisted relocations will be planned out over time.”

Waterlogged Mallacoota was cut off by a landslide.Credit: Dale Winward

Although the report specifically mentions flood-prone locations, including Grantham in Queensland and Milperra in New South Wales, Gissing said the report applied to all communities at risk of repeated disasters nationally.

East Gippsland Shire deputy mayor Jane Greacen said almost 30 local roads were closed on Friday, and it could be days before they all reopen.

She said after the Black Summer fires in 2019-20 some people had decided to relocate after losing their houses. The council was now applying the bushfire overlay more stringently, Greacen said.

“There are some places now where we will not be allowing people to build, whereas in the past we would have,” she said.

Greacen said many people in East Gippsland were still recovering from the Black Summer fires, which destroyed more than 120 houses in Mallacoota alone.

While assisted relocations for flooding had not been under consideration in East Gippsland, Greacen said there was concern many people lived in heavily wooded locations in forests that were vulnerable to repeated fires.

Suncorp Group consumer insurance chief executive Lisa Harrison said extreme weather events were becoming increasingly common, pushing up global insurance costs. She said for too long people had been allowed to build in disaster prone areas with a disproportionate focus on responding to emergencies rather than trying to mitigate against them.

SES volunteers surveying flooding on Friday in Gippsland. Credit: Facebook

“We need to reduce the risk, so we can reduce the cost of natural disasters both financially and importantly, socially,” Harrison said.

Suncorp wants governments to consider more assisted relocations, among other changes, to protect communities at risk of natural disasters.

Mallacoota resident Dale Winward said the flooding on Friday was the worst he could remember in the 53 years he had lived in the coastal town. “It’s the biggest flood I’ve seen here,” he said.

Winward said floodwater had covered the only road into the town, not far from the landslide that had already closed the road. Other low-lying roads, he said, were also flooded.

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