There are valuable lessons to be learnt about data capture and managing waste during natural disasters such as Cyclone Debbie, explains Andrew Brown, Principal Engineer at CQG Consulting.
On 28 March, 2017, a severe tropical cyclone crossed the coast in the Whitsunday area, northeast Queensland.
Dubbed Cyclone Debbie, the slow-moving weather struck the region of Mackay, with strong winds and torrential rain causing significant damage to homes, infrastructure and agriculture. As Debbie tore through northern Queensland, councils began to alert their communities of the impending danger through radio, websites and social media.
Cyclone Debbie crossed the coast as a Category 4 cyclone, considered the second most severe tropical storm, according to the Bureau of Meteorology. As a result of the devastating incident, more than 30 local government authorities were provided natural disaster relief and recovery arrangements. The events which unfolded were documented in the report The Cyclone Debbie Review: Lessons for delivering value and confidence through trust and empowerment.
The most vulnerable areas north of Mackay were urged to evacuate by the district disaster coordinator, as Queensland Fire and Emergency Services, police, local groups and councils worked hard to reduce the damage inflicted. Rockhampton experienced slow-onset flooding and on 31 March, local groups prepared for the town’s third major flood in six years. Evacuation centres were also established in Rockhampton and Yeppoon, and a range of other areas.
The subsequent devastation across northern Queensland as of May 2017 data saw 944 properties assessed as uninhabitable, 2360 properties damaged, more than 58,000 insurance claims, power disruptions to 65,000 premises and damage to coal exports and crops. Most significantly, there were 14 deaths.
The report concluded that five major themes emerged from the tragedy: planning, public information and engagement, information management, evacuation and capability.
Andrew Brown, Principal Engineer at CQG Consulting, was tasked with coordinating the waste clean-up with local government, working with Mackay Regional Council (MRC) and Rockhampton Regional Council (RRC). The clean-up in the Mackay municipality ran from 29 March to 29 April and involved up to 3500 cubic metres of waste being collected per day, primarily green waste. Andrew explains that during tropical cyclones green waste is usually the most common waste stream, along with commercial and industrial, construction and demolition and food waste. The Mackay region clean-up saw 43,400 cubic metres of green waste collected – equivalent to 17 Olympic pools.
MRC, with assistance from CQG Consulting, mobilised more than 90 locals to collect the green waste spread across homes and neighborhoods. Contractors were engaged to collect and transport the green waste on for processing – now used in gardens across Mackay as compost.
Andrew says it wouldn’t have been possible to collect quickly without an accurate reporting system. In the wake of the cyclone, software provider Mandalay Technologies were engaged by MRC to establish its waste tracking software. He says accurate information is critical to project management which helps inform what collection and recycling resources need to be deployed. For example, waste volumes tend to taper off later in the clean-up, as was the case in Mackay, so resourcing is important early on.
He says that the most critical types of data required include waste volumes, vehicle types and tonnages. That’s in addition to spatial information, which records what areas have been cleaned up and the resources that have been applied to specific locations, broken down by street.
“What we did at Mackay hasn’t been done before. We provided daily waste data to MRC and Mandalay who established numerous databases, including for temporary sites,” Andrew says.
He says data is critical to managing logistics, including whether the waste has gone to a landfill, recycler or transfer station.
“Each of those sites provided data to us as we needed to understand what waste was going into facilities and what was going out of those sites,” he says.
Andrew says some of the challenges of capturing data included transposing and reconciling manual collection systems onto a database. Unfortunately, there was no real-time data for some of the waste facilities, with MRC contractors of varying skills and training manually recording the information onto paper. The lack of onsite digital recording meant the process of recording the information was onerous, and Andrew says he and Mandalay have discussed the need for waste collection tracking systems to be deployed across all facilities during times of emergency.
Fortunately, Andrew had learnt from his experiences working on the clean-up for Severe Tropical Cyclone Marcia in 2015, which was recorded using manual systems on an Excel spreadsheet. As a result, he saw the value of using the Mandalay database to build a record of waste generation.
In collaboration with the councils, Andrew and the CQG team tracked the progress of the clean-up on visual maps posted on the project office wall. This provided an immediate display of progress for the team and enabled rapid decisions to be made.
Data capture was also used to rectify access problems to Mackay’s Hogan’s Pocket Landfill. As the cyclone made its way across the nearby Eton Range, Peak Downs Highway, it caused a rock slide and damaged the road. The damage cut off access to the region’s only landfill, and MRC had to establish a temporary landfill at one of the existing waste transfer stations.
“Using Mandalay’s waste tracking systems, MRC was able to accurately capture how much waste went into temporary facilities and was transferred to Hogan’s Pocket once the road was cleared,” Andrew says.
“The data helped inform decisions such as transport requirements, in addition to how much landfill top cover was needed to reduce contamination from the waste.
“MRC was able to account for the extra expenditure and resources required and not be faced with surprises down the track.”
A NEW ERA
The forward-thinking response by MRC, RRC and the CQG team comes as greater accountability is placed on emergency services and local, state and federal governments to inform the public of their response. As noted in the Cyclone Debbie Review, previous natural disaster reviews, inquiries and research highlight the importance of managing and sharing information to support effective management.
Andrew says there is a much more rigid management structure at local government, with increased transparency as the public becomes aware of the challenges of recycling, including the risk of contamination.
“Council staff need to provide data to their elected councillors who are asking questions such as: how will you organise the clean up? What has been collected so far? How many complaints have there been?”
In the Rockhampton region, the clean-up ran from 13 April to 3 May. Up to 2012 low-lying properties were inundated with flood waters.
As a result, approximately 265.3 tonnes of hard waste were collected, along with 22 tonnes of scrap metal and 4.7 tonnes of asbestos-containing material. RRC engaged local contractors to deal with flood-damaged waste (hard waste) at its Lakes Creek Road Landfill.
Andrew says historic flood peak maps and geographic information systems were used to determine the affected areas, coordinate contractors and estimate expected waste volumes.
To keep tabs on the overall picture, the clean-up team set up a project office and held daily tool box and team meetings, kerbside inspections, data collation, collection scheduling, checked contractor invoices and took more than 1000 photos, including drone aerial imagery.
THE ROLE OF COUNCILS
When it comes to the preparedness of local government in post-natural disaster management, Kumar Kannan, Senior Implementation Consultant at Mandalay Technologies, says data quality varies from council to council. He says many councils are reactive, rather than proactive. Data can only be fed into a database if it is readily available post-disaster, he adds. If it isn’t ready prior to clean-up it could take at least a week to be established, which only delays the clean-up process.
“Many councils are not ready to capture the data or don’t have it set up at the time of disaster. This can impact on government funding, as you need to be able to provide information such as waste volumes and tonnages to receive additional resourcing,” Kumar explains.
He says best practice involves having data ready to be accessed as the disaster unfolds of where waste is going within a cloud database.
“Capturing data by suburb through real-time dashboards allows you to go beyond tonnages and see just how bad the situation is in a particular suburb,” he says.
“The consequences of not deploying your resources correctly can cost you more money down the track, not to mention the impact on residents health, homes and the environment.”
According to the Cyclone Debbie Review, the Disaster Management Act (2003) covers information sharing through all levels of government. The report concedes that many data sets and information systems are not being utilised fully. The review argues the State Disaster Coordination Centre Event Management System (EMS) was for the first time used by the government for situational reporting and noticeably improved it. It notes that coordinating reports from others is difficult. Individual requirements changed often, reports were large and local groups were constantly asked for information. There were also issues of visibility of information as local situation reports were not visible in EMS. The report leaves agencies to ponder how they can make the best decisions if they’re not aware of the information or resources of each entity. However, it argues the Debbie experience showed strong interoperability between groups, agencies and systems. While it recognises the barriers of a common system across agencies, it highlights the importance of continuing to expand in this area.
Kumar says greater collaboration is needed between companies such as Mandalay Technologies, local government, state government and emergency services to ensure data is better captured into the future.
“I think there should be state government standards for data management during natural disasters,” he says.
A Queensland Government spokesperson told Waste Management Review that the government accepted 17 of the recommendations made in the Cyclone Debbie Review Action Plan, which was tabled in parliament in October. They noted a whole-of-government action plan was developed by an Interdepartmental Committee to address recommendations and findings in the report. The spokesperson said the review arrived at 18 recommendations, incorporating themes such as the need to provide timely and contextualised information, consistent and understandable public messaging and the continued need for addressing information sharing in disasters and how systems worked together. The action plan supports the recommendation for a Local Government Association of Queensland (LGAQ) representative to be included on the Crisis Communications Network to ensure consistent messaging across levels of government. It highlights that LGAQ is already an optional member of the Crisis Communications Network. It says their involvement is “based on crisis and need.”