Case study: East Coast Lows and the Newcastle-Central Coast Pasha Bulker Storm


Danielle C. Verdon-Kidd and Anthony S. Kiem, Environmental and Climate Change Research Group, University of Newcastle; Garry Willgoose, School of Engineering, University of Newcastle and Philip Haines, BMT WBM Pty Ltd, Broadmeadow.

Summary of the project

The June 2007 storm (the Pasha Bulker storm) was one of the most significant meteorological events in Australia’s history. It was the 4th largest general insurance loss (inflation adjusted) since systematic insurance records were started in 1968. The storm consisted of three distinct impacts (1) flash flooding in the urban area of Newcastle (and as far south as the Central Coast, impacting 800,000 people) on the night of 8 June (about 1 in 100 year return period) (2) more general flooding on the Hunter River 3 days later (about 1 in 40 return period, impacting about 100,000 people) and (3) high winds and wave heights on the night of 8 June (the worst in the Newcastle-Sydney region since the “Sygna” storm in 1974, also an east coast low). While the media focus was on the grounded “Pasha Bulker” and the Hunter floods, most insurance losses resulted from the 8 June flash flooding, as did the 5 fatalities. The Hunter floods were successfully managed by the extensive flood mitigation measures installed along the Hunter. Significant economic losses and social disruption occurred as a knock-on effects of the loss of critical infrastructure (300,000 people without mains electricity for 4 days, some for up to a month; the coal export chain halted for two weeks, etc). Of note is that the worst flooding impact was in the Newcastle CBD, which is undergoing active urban revitalisation with Federal and State Government financial support, and it is thus a possible case study of adoption of adaptation measures as part of urban redevelopment (though this aspect is outside the scope of this project)


The objective is to provide a whole-of-government (Federal, state and local), business and community perspective on the:
  • context and impact of the Pasha Bulker storm,
  • adaptation measures being put in place as a result of the knowledge gained from the experience from within and immediately after the storm (e.g. emergency services and social support provision), and
  • adaptation measures being put in place following subsequent reflection on ways of better preparing for such storms (e.g. urban planning guidelines, electricity infrastructure)



The Climatological Context

The Pasha Bulker storm was a result of an East Coast Low (ECL). ECL are the cause of most major flood events in Autumn and Winter on the East Australian Coastal strip from the Sunshine Coast in the north to the Victorian border in the south. The context for the June 2007 ECL and the resulting storm will be provided. How big was it historically? Where and when have similar ECL occurred before, and how frequently? What are the “typical” impacts associated with ECLs (and was the June 2007 ECL “typical”?). This will allow us to assess if the high insurance loss was because of its location rather than its intensity. What is the likely trend of ECL intensity and frequency with climate change? Where possible we will feed off and engage with the ESCI (Eastern Seaboard Climate Initiative) project funded by the NSW Government and Bureau of Meteorology.

The Impact

The impact study will focus on some key stand-alone impacts, and impacts that resulted from interactions between the infrastructure of key government and private enterprise providers.
  1. The flood impact: WBM consultants have studied the urban flash flooding, particularly in the three CBDs severely impacted (central Newcastle, Wallsend and Cardiff). We will integrate this work with the experience of emergency services and Hunter Water (the manager of the urban stormwater system)
  2. The electricity infrastructure: There were extensive knock-on impacts on water and emergency services provision in the aftermath (up to 6 months in some cases) of the event. How did infrastructure design contribute to this failure and how can these knock-on impacts be minimised?
  3. Emergency services (SES): The SES found themselves entirely unprepared for the urban flash flooding response as a result of changes in Army garaging of equipment, and an apparent concentration on the Hunter Flood Protection System. Internet base warning systems failed completely (no house electricity), leading to a reliance on ABC Local Radio.
  4. Social and insurance response: In the aftermath there was disquiet about the rapidity and adequacy of this response. What were the community needs, and how and why did government and non-government services fail?
  5. The coal chain: The coal export chain was shutdown for 2 weeks with a noticeable impact on Australian trade figures for the June quarter. Was this a result of the design and/or management of rail and port infrastructure or was it unavoidable?
  6. The flooding on the water-front of Lake Macquarie: How did planning rules contribute to residential flood damage and what was the relative role of seiche, tide and runoff in the impact?

 The Adaptation Response

The study of the adaptation response will focus on three aspects.
  1. The success of the Maitland Hunter River Flood Protection system, which is the biggest in Australia, in minimising losses as a result of the Hunter River flooding. What lessons can be learnt about the community engagement, development and maintenance of this critical infrastructure established over the last 50 years.
  2. The apparent failure of the protection measures for urban flash flooding, and the institutional and political impediments to addressing what has been a long recognised problem. Has the storm changed perceptions of flood and wind damage risk? Has it changed management of key hard and soft infrastructure?
  3. What lessons can be learnt that are applicable to other urban areas impacted by ECL. What lessons have been assimilated in the future plans for redevelopment of inner-city Newcastle?


This project will pull together existing government and stakeholder analyses (internal reports, conference papers, etc) about the impacts of the storm in their area of responsibility. There is an extensive set of pre-existing analyses (our Centre ran a workshop 4 months after the event and preliminary analyses were presented from hard and soft infrastructure holders and service providers, and together with preliminary investigations for this proposal, so we are confident in this) and we will draw largely on this. In cases where we identify gaps and/or deficiencies in these reports we will conduct face-to-face interviews and elicit feedback. We believe there is no need to have stakeholder workshops as part of the eliciting of data because there have been a number already for this very purpose. There may be some benefit on a workshop towards the end of the project to get final feedback on the synthesised report, particularly with respect to the interactions between stakeholders and service providers. We will decide on whether we will run this workshop towards the end of the project when we are in a better position to judge the benefit to be gained.