Recovering from the Queensland floods

Recovering from the Queensland floods: An AUD12 billion megaproject 

Between November 2010 and April 2011, the Australian state of Queensland was hit by a series of severe cyclones and floods that tore through more than 70 towns and affected upwards of 200,000 people, turning three quarters of the state into a disaster zone. More than AUD1 billion of immediate damage was caused, leading to at least AUD30 billion in economic loss.

Just 18 months later, the state has largely bounced back. Infrastructure is quickly being replaced and upgraded, mines – a major source of income for the state – are back in operation and towns and cities are getting back on their feet.

The authority to rebuild

In large part, this rapid return to normalcy is due to the work of the Queensland Reconstruction Authority (QRA). Created in the aftermath of the disaster by the State government, the Authority’s mission is to reconnect, rebuild and improve Queensland communities and its economy.

According to Graeme Newton, CEO of the QRA, one of the first orders of business was to come up with a way to channel reconstruction funds to projects. “Most of the assets that were damaged were local government assets and so we quickly needed to find a way to ensure that the state and federal funding flowed smoothly to the local authorities while ensuring that we maintained good governance at the top,” noted Mr. Newton. “If you think of this as a megaproject – which it undoubtedly is – you can start to apply a project model that sees the local councils as delivery agents and head contractors, and then simply focus on providing them with the capabilities and resources to run their own programs at the local level.”

Recognizing the valuable role that the QRA could play in enhancing reconstruction efforts and ensuring that the local authorities achieved value for their money, the Authority has focused on eliminating some of the complexity and duplication that would have slowed progress. “By virtue of us being a centralized agency, we worked to ensure we had a multi-disciplinary capacity that we could leverage to bring together disparate parties and government departments in order to encourage a real step-change in the way we approached our reconstruction,” added Mr. Newton.

A focus on both reconstruction and resilience

The Authority also took on the role of providing resources and best practices to help their local, state and federal partners focus on enhancing resilience as a core component of reconstruction. “We have a team of specialist engineers on staff who work with local councils to evaluate their reconstruction plans to see if there are opportunities to leverage new technologies that can reduce the impact of these events in the future,” noted Mr. Newton. “The idea is that everything we build is essentially fit for purpose. We’re not replacing wooden bridges with more wood; we are looking at what materials and construction approaches can be used to ensure that this bridge provides value for money and withstands another flood.”

Where opportunities exist to centralize activities aimed at reducing the overall cost of reconstruction and resilience planning, the Authority has stepped in. For example, while a fair number of the larger towns in Queensland had conducted their own floodplain mapping initiatives in the past, there was no comprehensive state-wide map to help identify vulnerable communities. “By mapping the floodplain across the entire state, we have effectively provided a platform from which local authorities can make decisions and develop designs and controls which can reduce the risk of damage in the future. Moreover, because we are doing it in a broad base, it is actually costing a lot less than it would have had these mapping exercises been done on an isolated basis,” noted Mr. Newton. “Ultimately, we are improving resilience and achieving greater value for money at the same time.”

Learning from experience

Looking back on the past 18 months, Mr. Newton credits the state’s approach to reconstruction for the rapid gains now being made. “Having a centralized authority that is not buried somewhere in a line agency, but rather cuts across agency lines, has allowed us to bring together the right players and get people’s attention in a way that would not have been possible otherwise,” he noted. “We have also enjoyed a very strong endorsement from senior government officials at all levels which has helped us cut through many of the challenges that we faced.” Collaboration with local government has been an essential factor in the shared successes of reconstruction.

Most importantly, is the need to conduct all activities in an open, accountable and responsible manner. “Right from day one, we had a very open approach to the governance side of things that has allowed us to gain the confidence of the players involved and population at large. We communicate with all of our stakeholders on a regular basis and ensure that all of our plans and activities are conducted transparently so that there is a clear line of sight on where the money is being spent and how. It’s made a massive difference in our ability to get people on board with what we are doing.”

By Paul Low, KPMG in Australia

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