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NSW SES admits handling of 2017 Lismore flood 'didn't go according to plan'

By Leah White, Bronwyn Herbert and Bruce MacKenzie, Friday December 4, 2020 - 14:29 EDT

The State Emergency Service has admitted "things didn't go according to plan" in the 2017 flood that devastated Lismore and Murwillumbah on the NSW North Coast.



The Lismore Citizens Flood Review Group, which was formed shortly after the flood, said it was the first time the SES had admitted to mismanagement since the disaster.

At midday on March 30, 2018, a moderate flood warning was in place for Lismore, with river levels not forecast to breach the city's levee.

Four hours later, the SES issued an immediate evacuation order for North and South Lismore and the CBD in the wake of a major flood forecast.

The flood peaked at 11.59 metres in Lismore on March 31, overtopping the levee and inundating the CBD.

It affected 68 per cent of businesses resulting in an estimated damage bill of just under $40 million.



Authorities came under criticism for lack of a timely warning that would have given businesses and residents more time to prepare and move valuable items and stock out of harm's way.

Review group coordinator Beth Trevan said with , the group sought assurances from SES leadership that there would not be a repeat of the communication and flood management issues identified after the 2017 disaster.

"We've always been driving forward on the key issues of early warning, local knowledge and getting the evacuation order right, so that everyone's got plenty of time to pack up and plenty of time to do the very best they can to save all of their homes ... and businesses," she said.

Ms Trevan said the group's research into the flood response found local information and knowledge was "virtually left out" of the decision-making process.

"In our research, what we found was ... there was no accountability for what happened by SES at the state level," she said.

"Because the general public has no idea about the salaried officers or how the bureaucracy works ... [the local volunteers] were the ones that copped the blame for the terrible outcome of the flood."



'It's not about waiting'

Ms Trevan said the group wrote to the SES Commissioner and the Emergency Services Minister explaining it was "extremely concerned" that key issues had not been resolved.

SES Deputy Commissioner Daniel Austin visited Lismore twice in recent weeks and met with local SES volunteers and members of the flood review group.

Mr Austin said a lot of work had gone into addressing the concerns raised in the wake of the flood, which was triggered in the aftermath of Cyclone Debbie.

"I think history tells you that there were things that didn't go according to plan in 2017," he said.

"Certainly one of the key things that's been raised with me over time is that there was felt to be an exclusion of local knowledge in some of the decision-making process.

"There's been a heap of work done by both volunteers and staff in the Northern Rivers area to make sure that we've captured that local knowledge."



'2017 was not managed well'

Ms Trevan said the visit was the first time anyone in the organisation had conceded the disaster was poorly handled.

"He acknowledged for the very first time that the 2017 flood was not managed well," she said.

"He has absolutely assured us that early warnings can be given to the public by the local SES unit, and that's a massive move, because they know as soon as the main flood rains start, they get their messages and have the records and know exactly when to start letting the community know."

Mr Austin said warning systems had been reviewed but those living in flood-prone areas had a role to play as well.

"It's not about waiting for a warning," he said.

"It's about being aware of your surroundings, being vigilant of what's coming, and knowing what your triggers are and what your plans are."


- ABC

© ABC 2020

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