REAL AUSTRALIA

Voice of Real Australia: Heavy weather regularly knocks out this flood warning system

Voice of Real Australia is a regular newsletter from ACM, which has journalists in every state and territory.Today's newsletter was written by ACM national agriculture reporter Chris McLennan.

One of the last pictures taken by the early warning camera before it went on the blink, just as it was needed most. Picture: Katherine Town Council.

One of the last pictures taken by the early warning camera before it went on the blink, just as it was needed most. Picture: Katherine Town Council.

Long-time residents of Katherine in outback Northern Territory have an understandable fear of flooding.

Most of them have never fully recovered from the floods of 1998 which basically wiped three quarters of the town from the map.

This town of about 10,000 folk is still dangerously perched on the banks of the Katherine River.

It is a typical Top End river which is sedate looking for much of the year until the monsoons arrive in the wet season.

During the '98 flood enough water flowed underneath the town's bridge every 12 hours to fill Sydney Harbor.

The Katherine rises very fast.

The town's hospital is still worryingly located on the river banks although money has been found to move the stations headquarters for police, fire and ambulance to higher ground.

There are long term plans to move the core of the town away from the river to Katherine East but it is 24 years now since those devastating floods.

Everyone recognises another flood will surely come.

Money was set aside to prepare Katherine for that reality but there is little to show for it.

Some small levee banks are planned but they won't do much in a 1998 scenario, the engineers readily admit that.

One matter which occupied officialdom after 1998 was the issue of warning.

That flooding was caused by torrential rain from the remains of Cyclone Les in the headwaters of the Katherine, Roper, Adelaide, Mary, Wildman and South Alligator rivers as the system moved slowly west.

Residents said the knew about Cyclone Les but not its likely impact until less than a day before disaster struck.

Katherine had sirens installed early on as a warning system but in this age of 24/7 media, the sirens were removed.

In their place came a camera which was installed on the road bridge leading off the Sturt Highway into the town from Darwin in 2017.

The river camera was installed in February 2017. Author picture.

The river camera was installed in February 2017. Author picture.

This camera is pointed at the adjacent century-old and disused steel railway bridge.

On one of the mighty bridge supports is a gauge, a series of numbers showing the river height in metres.

Lighting was installed for night-time viewing.

Getting those numbers to stick given the tremendous power of the water season flow has been a constant problem.

But the bigger problem has been getting the camera to work when it is most needed.

Heavy rain or lightning seems to knock it out - a problem for any flood warning system you might agree.

This "river cam" updates its view every 30 seconds, with a free link from the Katherine Town Council website.

In the case of looming emergency, residents keep a close eye on the river level and usually when it reaches 16 or 17 metres they know there could be trouble coming.

The river peaked at 20.4 metres on January 27 in 1998.

The Bureau of Meteorology has a regular river update on its website as well although this is harder to find.

People drive across the bridge to have a look at the height and post their risky snaps on local social media pages.

Look closely as the Katherine River reaches 15 metres and you will see the sightseers on the railway bridge, an amazing local experience.

Look closely as the Katherine River reaches 15 metres and you will see the sightseers on the railway bridge, an amazing local experience.

You can even walk out on the railway bridge and look down on the river - amazing to experience in high flows.

Another Les-type cyclone crossed from the Gulf of Carpentaria and headed straight for Katherine a few weeks ago.

Tiffany was downgraded to a tropical low by the time it had travelled across the Arnhem escarpments to impact the town.

Tiffany caused what has been called "moderate" damage in the region but the feared flooding in Katherine did not happen.

There was heavy rain in Katherine before the system arrived, yep, the camera went on the blink.

The exact reason it was installed at great cost in the first place as an early warning system was lost.

Perhaps there needed to be a second camera for redundancy, lives are at stake.

Katherine survived Tiffany mostly intact, the next time it might not be so lucky.

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