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Interview: Reconstructing Queensland after the floods

Interview with Graeme Newton, Chief Executive Officer, Queensland Reconstruction Authority

From December until April north eastern Australia suffered at the hands of the worst flooding and the largest cyclone in more than 100 years. More than 200,000 people were affected across the length and breadth of Queensland. The floods washed away roads and railways, destroyed crops and brought Queensland’s $20 billion coking coal export industry to a near halt, proving to be Australia’s most expensive natural disaster. In February 2011, the Queensland Reconstruction Authority was established and was tasked with oversight and coordination of the reconstruction and recovery effort.

Following President Zoellick’s offer of assistance, the governments of Queensland and Australia requested for Bank support for the reconstruction process. The undertaking takes place in several phases and is based on the concept of a knowledge exchange where the Bank contributes global good practice and at the same time learns from Australia’s experience in recovery, reconstruction and risk mitigation. In the first phase of March 2011, the team focused on the overall reconstruction approaches and strategies. In the second phase of May 2011, Bank staff will support the roll out of courses for councils on developing their local reconstruction plans. The outcomes of the cooperation will be issued in a publication and presented at the Bank and in Queensland. A Memorandum of Understanding for a longer-term partnership will also be signed between the Authority and the World Bank.

What are the main lessons learnt from the devastating floods and cyclone in Queensland?
Graeme Newton: Situational awareness is key. It is critical to engage with emergency services and local authorities in order to gain early, accurate, and complete data about the impact of the disaster as it is unfolding. The disaster management framework must include adequate capacity for the collection of initial and ongoing information grabs and data collection, at every level. Keeping perspective is similarly important. In Queensland, the flood and cyclone disasters impacted every local area of the State, but to varying levels. It is important to recognize that communities will respond to and will recover from disasters in different ways. In the reconstruction phase, by striving to strike a balance between what is essential and what is comfortably achievable, we are making good progress in getting the State’s communities back on their feet and making them more resilient for the future.
What is the long-term vision for Queensland and what are the top three priorities for the Queensland Reconstruction Authority?
The long term vision, put simply is to reconnect, rebuild and improve Queensland communities and its economy. The main priorities are centered on ‘people first’ and are:

  1. maintain the self-confidence of Queensland;
  2. build a resilient Queensland and support resilient Queenslanders; and
  3. enhance preparedness and disaster mitigation.

What concrete steps does the Queensland Reconstruction Authority take to build a more resilient Queensland?
The Authority undertakes reconstruction work under the priorities detailed in the: 1) State Plan (Operation Queenslander), which outlines the Queensland reconstruction road map and is centered on six key lines of reconstruction: Human and Social, Economic Environment, Building Recovery, Roads and Transport, and Community Liaison and Communication; 2) Implementation Plan – the ‘how’ of the State Plan; 3) Local plans (localized plans building up through the Lines of Recovery to build a better State; as well as 4) combines the efforts and assistance of federal, state, local, corporate, not-for-profit and international partners.

Over the past months, what has been the biggest concern?
The main concern has been in keeping people as the main priority and getting system in place to ensure reconstruction happens as quickly as possible.

What are you most proud of in your work at the Queensland Reconstruction Authority?
In only a short timeframe, we have moved from zero to enact the establishment of the Authority, and swiftly procure and distribute over $400 million in funding to areas of need across the state. Though there is still an immense amount of work to be done, Queensland is well on the road to recovery.

What recommendations would you make to governments planning reconstruction of large areas after a major flood event?
First of all, act promptly. Keep people as well informed as is possible, using traditional and non-traditional media. While the central media will cover the overall story if it is a large area keeping local media is critical as well. Secondly, ensure the support of the political leaders and the community, while maintaining independence. Thirdly, be prepared to push limits and boundaries to achieve what needs to be achieved. All of the community, especially those directly impacted must have confidence that those responsible are looking out for all and that none are forgotten.