1954-like flood would cost $3.6b and rival Brisbane's 1974

"FIFTEEN Dead, Crippling Property Losses" screamed the front page of The Northern Star on February 25, 1954.

In the pages and days that followed, we chronicled the devastating human and financial impact of the most disastrous floods ever experienced on the Far North Coast after a "cyclonic storm" and "twirling floodwaters" trapped hundreds and "inflicted damage beyond any figure that veterans had realised possible".

Many lives, homes, roads, livestock and fishing fleets - and even Byron Bay jetty - were lost, with the damage bill in the millions.

University researchers studying the impact of natural disasters warn the same type of weather event would devastate the Northern Rivers financially and could cost the local economy $3.6 billion.

The loss "would rank third on the list of insured losses since 1967".

It would also be greater than the Brisbane flood of 1974 and the 2010/11 Queensland floods.

The high losses today are mostly the result of the growth in the number and value of dwellings here since 1954.

For a report prepared by Dr Kevin Roche, natural hazards economist and business development manager of Risk Frontiers at the Faculty of Science, Macquarie University, those historic Northern Star archives plus Census figures and other historical data were studied in depth to see how well prepared we are now for such a disaster.

"Our research is used by the insurance industry and governments to understand the risks we face through natural disasters," Dr Roche said.

"We estimated the 1954 floods would have cost the region $19 million in damages at the time, but today the effect would be an insurable loss of $3.6 billion, with an estimated total economic loss of possibly $7.6 billion."

The increasing costs of natural disasters are something the insurance industry and governments are trying to understand, Dr Roche said.

"The increased costs are being attributed not to climate change, but to changes in population, demographics and wealth," he said.

"For example in the Tweed/Byron area there has been a tenfold growth in the value of properties over this period."

Dr Roche's research leads to questions of how well prepared we are now if, or when, a disaster of that scale hits the North Coast again.

"It does look like we are reluctant to learn from the past.

"It's been a long time since we had a disaster on that scale; people have forgotten, and many new people have moved here since.

"But these events have happened before, and they will happen again."

Dr Roche said the region needs to reduce its "vulnerability risk" by not overdeveloping on flood-prone land while also increasing our capabilities to respond and recover from natural disasters.

"We cannot control these weather events, but we do have control over what we do and where we live," he said.

"We need to take advantage of the new information and technology available to us and learn from the past."

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