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An open letter to Victorians: stay out of floodwater

Published 28/01/2016

By Stefan Delatovic, Manager of Emergency Management Communications

The severe storm that struck Geelong last night provides a timely reminder to every Victorian – stay out of floodwater.

Victoria State Emergency Service (VICSES) volunteers responded to over 520 requests overnight after a severe thunderstorm dumped rain over Geelong, causing flash flooding that damaged infrastructure and felled trees.

Amongst these calls for help were 15 people rescued from floodwater, including seven people who were trapped in cars.
(Calls also included 205 for flooding, 182 for building damage and 57 for trees blown down. Volunteers from around Victoria flooded in to help their Geelong peers to clear these incidents overnight. We’re indebted to their service.)

This dramatic storm has been characterised as a ‘once in a century event’, but it’s important to say that this is a measure of magnitude, as in ‘a storm this severe has a one-in-100 chance of occurring in any given year’. It doesn't mean another storm like this isn't expected for another 50 years. More rain is forecast for today, another storm like this could pop up anywhere in Victoria with little warning.

Bureau of Meteorology data shows us that thunderstorm activity peaks during the summer period. It’s natural that, during this time, Victorians are focussed on the threat of bushfires and heatwave, and they should be. This summer has seen a lot of fire activity and the tragedy it brings. Victorians, however, can’t allow that to distract them from the threat of storm and flood. This summer has already seen landslips, tornadoes and destructive winds. One life has been lost this summer due to natural hazards: a Seymour man killed by flash flooding.

That’s why we warn people about storms, and why you may receive a storm warning that doesn’t amount to anything: they’re dangerous because they’re unpredictable, and Geelong’s experience yesterday shows how quickly they can strike. There are easy preparations to be made, but you can’t wait for the rain to start.

If you only do one thing, make it an easy one: commit to never entering floodwater. Floodwater moves quickly, picking up dirt and debris as it goes. Television news coverage of Geelong’s storms shows vehicles being swept away. Imagine if you were in them and how scary that would be. Our volunteers will try to save you if you’re trapped in a vehicle being tossed around by floods at obvious risks to themselves, but don’t put their lives in danger by entering it willingly.

TV coverage of last night’s storm included footage of people driving through floodwater, with many neglecting to warn of the severe risk.. Of chief concern to emergency managers is footage of a man surfing on floodwater which often cropped up as a light-hearted end to bulletins, characterised as a bit of fun. Obviously the man in question was having fun, and it’s not the media’s job to do anything more than accurately depict what is occurring, but flood stories including images of “locals enjoying the water” are common, and they normalise this activity.

Floodwater can include fast-moving sheets of corrugated iron, or a concealed storm drain creating an inescapable current. If you cut yourself, you’re prone to infection because the water is filthy. Current images of the receding floodwater in Geelong demonstrate how damaged roads can become. If you can’t see the road, you can’t guarantee that it's safe.

The media shouldn’t stop broadcasting images of people playing in floodwater, or driving through it, but we all need a reminder of how dangerous it is.

Floods, storms and fires are unpredictable and they will inflict tragedy upon us. Let’s not give them any help.