New warning systems are developed in response to Australia's recent floods

Karl Sprogis, his wife Jill and their son spent the night monitoring flood height data from Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology.

New warning systems are developed in response to Australia's recent floods

Karl Sprogis, his wife Jill and their son spent the night monitoring flood height data from Australia’s Bureau of Meteorology.

Their home town of Lismore was submerged in flood waters that swept through southern Queensland and northern New South Wales during February and March. According to the Insurance Council of Australia, those floods were the most expensive in Australia's history.

At the weekend, Sydney was hit by torrential rain. Many were asked to leave their homes, and roads were closed by the floodwaters.

The Sprogis family home, perched high on a hill, was secure in February. However, the couple were concerned about their downtown physiotherapy practice. Although it was on the second floor, that wasn't enough.

They could see that the office would be inundated from the water-height charts, but it was too late for them to save any. The authorities had already issued an evacuation notice.

"We could have put up things higher at that point, had we known," Mr Sprogis said, having been at his practice the night prior.

"I even left my laptop on the desk thinking that water has never entered here before, so it won’t enter."

His practice was submerged to 1.8m, with all files, records, and equipment damaged or lost by the next day.

Candy Lawrence, a children's author and illustrator of children's books, watched in Gibberagee in New South Wales as 2000 copies of her books were submerged in the torrential rain.

Ms Lawrence was attentive to flood warnings from the government and had been gathering supplies. She anticipated that roads nearby would be closed, as is often the case when there are flooding events.

She was, however, not prepared for water to flood her home and those of her neighbors, who had to climb onto their roofs to escape the rising floodwaters.

She says that she feels like the world is ending and doesn't want to educate children.

Ms Lawrence and Mr Sprogis would have preferred more warning, just like thousands of others who were caught up in the disaster. Why wasn't there an easier system that could notify them immediately if their property was in danger?

Juliette Murphy is a water resource engineer who specializes in flooding and hydrology. She asked the question after witnessing her friend's Brisbane house flood in 2011. After moving to Calgary, Canada in 2013, the question was again raised. She witnessed another devastating flood in 2013.

Ms Murphy was aware that hydrology forecasts for the Brisbane and Calgary floods had predicted where rivers would reach certain bridges. But it wasn't enough.

She says, "If you're not a hydraulic engineer [who can] translate that flood height into an effect to properties - your personal item, your car – it can be very difficult."

Ms Murphy also noted that static flood maps, including those that show one-in-100 year floods, are expensive and can take days or even weeks to create. These maps are more suitable for development planning and infrastructure design applications than for emergency management and planning.

Ms Murphy says, "I was thinking that there must be more."

She started dedicating her evenings to finding a solution and eventually co-founded FloodMapp along with Ryan Prosser, a web developer.

FloodMapp was created in 2018 after a substantial research and development investment.

FloodMapp's technology forecasts water levels quickly to map floods in advance.

It does this by inputting huge amounts of historical data, including rainfall and ground saturation levels. Then it uses artificial intelligence to accurately predict how water will behave.

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Software also makes use of information about river systems and land features to determine how floods will impact different areas. It claims that its models run 100,000 times faster then traditional methods.

The models can be refreshed hourly with real-time rainfall forecasts and river sensor data.

This technology is not accessible to the general public. Instead, it is being integrated into government services in Australia and the US to better understand floods, before, during, and after they occur.

The University of Melbourne's Department of Infrastructure Engineering is taking a similar approach to emergency planning. They believe speed is the key to success.

Flood modeller and researcher Dr Wenyan Wu is now looking for ways to quickly simulate flood levels using machine learning techniques. This is done without sacrificing accuracy or costing the earth, Dr Wu states.

It is important to have accurate, real-time data available that can be used to interpret property-specific information. However, it is equally crucial to be able to communicate meaningful data to the general public.

Dr Wu states, "If the collective understanding [of flood risk] does not improve, then you won't actually improve the situation."

The concept of a flood every 100 years is often misunderstood. It means that a flood event can occur in one hundred years, rather than one major flood in every 100 years.

Companies such as the Australian-based Early Warning Network, (EWN), can help. EWN sends opt in SMS (text messages), email and landline alerts to residents and business owners who live in high-risk areas. This is usually done through insurers, councils, and other government agencies.

Flood alerts are based primarily on data collected by Australia's Bureau of Meteorology.

Michael Bath, EWN's operations manager, explains that EWN has a 24-hour team of human severe storm forecasters. They all have a deep understanding of the threats because they were storm chasers. This team uses custom-made software to assess warnings and eliminate duplicates.

This allows people to receive accurate and relevant information.

"If you have ever received automated weather warnings from weather agencies, [you will know] that they can be repetitive," states Mr Bath. "If you send it automatically to residents, they get annoyed and tune out."

Dr Wu, Mr Bath and Ms Murphy agree that governments must adopt these technologies and systems. They also need to make planning decisions regarding future development on floodplains, as well as whether buy-back programs are appropriate in high-risk regions.

However, it is often not feasible to move entire communities or remodel large properties using flood-resistant materials in the near future. This is because these measures require substantial funding and political will.

Ms Murphy says, "We need something right now because we live on floodplains." "We must all work together to create a safer future."

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