Climate catastrophe: mapping nation’s disaster hotspots

Tracey Ferrier |

Residents in Lismore, NSW, are still dealing with the trauma of losing their possessions in floods.
Residents in Lismore, NSW, are still dealing with the trauma of losing their possessions in floods.

Australia’s disaster hotspots have been put on the map with a report also showing how climate-driven catastrophes are pushing people from their homes.

Former emergency services leaders from across the country say their latest report shows communities urgently need help to prepare for more of the same in the future.

Data sourced from various government agencies shows extreme weather caused 240,828 displacements across the country in the 14 years to 2022/23.

A map showing disaster hotspots around Australia.
The map showing Australia’s worst disaster hotspots, from bushfires to floods and storms. (Supplied Emergency Leaders for Climate Action/AAP PHOTOS)

But the true figure is almost certainly much higher given the lack of comprehensive records.

Their report also identifies the nation’s disaster hotspots, with each one suffering dozens of hits in less than two decades; from devastating bushfires to floods and storms.

Fire-prone parts of Victoria are stand-outs, with Baw Baw suffering 47 disasters bad enough to prompt requests for federal assistance. The Yarra Ranges were not far behind with 42, and East Gippsland 39.

But similar hotspots have been mapped in every other part of the country.

In the last five years alone, the federal government provided disaster funding 226 times, with 80 per cent of council areas affected nationwide.

They are sobering statistics and ones former NSW fire chief Greg Mullins said must spark a rethink about how to best prepare communities for the inevitable – more of the same as long as the climate continues to warm.

“The science is really clear, the experience is really clear,” said Mr Mullins, who founded Emergency Leaders for Climate Action.

We’re getting more climate-fuelled disasters. We keep breaking records with bushfires, floods, the number of homes destroyed.”

Fire surrounds a fire truck.
Bushfires continue to ravage the country each summer, further testing residents’ resilience. (HANDOUT/DEPARTMENT OF FIRE AND EMERGENCY SERVICES WA)

He said the most important thing Australia could do to reduce disaster-related risks was urgently cut emissions and reject “false” climate change solutions such as Peter Dutton’s nuclear power plan.

But, at the same time, the nation must also invest billions to help communities and households withstand what is to come until global emissions start to fall.

“Early intervention saves money, saves lives, saves homes,” Mr Mullins said.

The report makes a string of recommendations to help communities cope better when disaster strikes.

They include better understanding which communities and regions face the greatest threats and vulnerabilities and helping them build strong networks of local responders.

“Resilience is being able to take a hit and bounce back and you can’t impose that from Canberra, or Macquarie Street, or Brisbane. It’s local solutions but it needs money,” Mr Mullins said.

Rebecca McNaught knows better than most why local solutions are essential when disaster strikes.

The experience of living through the catastrophic floods that hit NSW’s Northern Rivers region in 2022 will never leave her and the scars are still evident in her community of Ocean Shores, and neighbouring Lismore.

The floods were so extraordinary that, in many cases, the community had to rescue itself because no-one else could get there in time.

A car sits in floodwaters.
Lismore is still recovering from floods that devastated homes across NSW’s Northern Rivers. (JASON O’BRIEN/AAP PHOTOS)

“At present we spend 97 per cent of disaster-related funding on response and recovery and only three per cent on preparedness and resilience-building,” said Ms McNaught, a research fellow at the University Centre for Rural Health in Lismore.

Response and recovery were vital, but she said there was a desperate need to shift to a preventative mindset.

And if there’s one good thing that has come from those floods, it is that Northern Rivers communities are not waiting on others and are cracking on with the job themselves.

Ms McNaught is part of a local organisation called Plan C that is all about building up community resilience.

Recently Plan C trained up 270 people under a community carers and responders program.

It says something that 70 per cent of them had been affected by floods, and 30 per cent by bushfires.

“People learned about emergency management structures … food security, energy security, water security,” Ms McNaught said.

“And it really moved people from a place of trauma and fear about the future, to one of hope and action. And I think that’s really powerful.”