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Horrific, but not the worst we've suffered

  • John Huxley
  • February 11, 2009

THE size and sense of loss are, of course, immeasurable, incomprehensible. But, inevitably, as police talk grimly of more than 300 deaths and insurance companies warn of losses topping $2 billion, the question will be asked: are these fires the worst natural disaster in Australia's history?

It is far and away the biggest bushfire tragedy. According to the federal agency Emergency Management Australia, which has collated figures for disasters dating to the 17th century, 642 people had died in bushfires before last weekend.

About half the deaths had been in Victoria, which experienced big fires in 1933, 1962 and in February 1983, "Ash Wednesday", when deaths, including those across the border in South Australia, numbered 75.

Beyond that, the sad task of ranking disasters becomes a matter of definition. Of the 300,880 deaths attributed to disaster on the Emergency Management Australia list, more than two-thirds relate to an event outside territorial waters, the Indian Ocean tsunami.

A further 14,000 were associated with protracted, Australia-wide epidemics: influenza, in 1918, which hit NSW hardest, killing 12,000, polio in 1946 (1000) and bubonic plague in 1900 (550).

The biggest single-event disaster - excluding again the wartime sinking of HMAS Sydney in November, 1941, with the loss of 645 lives - is believed to have been the shipwreck of the migrant ship Cataraqui, carrying 415 passengers and crew.

It struck a reef on the west coast of King Island, off north-western Tasmania, during a heavy squall on the morning of August 4, 1845.

There may, too, have been greater natural disasters - though, because distant, their details and numbers are sketchy, especially when "hidden killers" such as heatwave, which accounted for 147 lives in 1920 alone, are concerned.

Emergency Management Australia records that over a six-day period about 400 people perished during Cyclone Mahina and an associated 14.6 metre storm surge on Bathurst Bay in far North Queensland in March, 1899. A report by the agency says: "At least 307 crew members died from a pearling fleet of over 100 vessels plus other craft (with 152 sunk or wrecked, some found kilometres inland)."

Fish were found 15 metres above sea level, it says.

However, it seems unlikely that so many people died so quickly in a natural disaster in Australia before this week's tragic bushfires in Victoria.

One meteorologist, talking of a recent overseas natural disaster, said rising numbers of deaths and damage were in part explained by today's greater concentration of people and property.

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