2017 Lismore Flood
2017 Lismore Flood Marc Stapelberg

Residents highlighted 'major issues' in flood response

FOLLOWING the March 2017 flood in Lismore roughly 12 reviews of the event and the emergency services were initiated. These reviews were all undertaken by government departments or government-funded agencies, thus prompting a group of locals who had been independently conducting their own research, to join forces to compile the Lismore Citizens' Review of the March 2017 Flood.

It was compiled and published in August and highlighted some major issues.

"The Lismore City SES Flood Intelligence team was receiving updated information from their contacts throughout the district and from their past data were already modelling what was likely to occur,” the report said.

Unfortunately, as volunteers, despite their decades of experience with floods, by law they are not allowed to make public predictions.

This issue has been mitigated as local flood modelling algorithms are now being incorporated into the BoM's flood modelling data.

The report also stated that the Lismore City Council set up an emergency call centre at the council chambers, and the Lismore City SES and the Regional SES were all making major decisions at three different sites. "Three operations rooms were acting in isolation.”

After the floods Lismore received a new region controller for the State Emergency Services Richmond Tweed, Mark Somers. Mr Somers said he has made "strong representation” that the Incident Control Centre and the Emergency Operations Centre should be co-located as per state arrangements in the Emergency Operations Policy document.

The report also highlighted that the sudden announcement that Rocky Creek Dam was on Amber Alert and was "holding for now” was alarming for residents of Keerrong Valley floor and other nearby areas.

Residents reported that there had been no prior education as to what an Amber Alert meant to those below the dam and there was no contact number to find out what was happening.

It is evident that prior education and clearer information for downstream and North and South Lismore residents as to safety from the dam and likely danger is required from Rous Water.

A spokesperson for Rous Water said they were working on producing clearer information for those downstream, but also said Rous Water's role in warning residents is limited to advising the SES and only a select group of houses needed to be notified.

"Thirty three downstream properties need to be contacted.”

One year later, many of the issues brought to light by the report have been addressed and the authors of the Lismore Citizen's Review are quick to revoke any perception of blame directed towards the SES and the BOM. They are particularly adamant that any anger directed towards the Local SES crew by some members of the community is not only undeserved but damaging to the local Unit and future flood rescue efforts.

The focus of the Citizen's Review group has now moved to pushing for a solution in the form of a common integrated emergency management system, to address what they describe as a "serious information gap”.

"Acts of Parliament require emergencies to be managed by state and nationally based government bureaucracies. Up until about 2010, Lismore floods were managed by long term local and regional staff incorporating local information,” they said in a media statement.

"Since 2010 staff movement has resulted in the loss of flood memory in responsible government agencies as well as within resident and business communities. This has created a serious information gap between the emergency agencies and the local community with regard to local information and early warning requirements.

"The impact of these changes resulted in the tens of millions of dollars in avoidable losses suffered in the March 2017 flood.”

The Lismore City Council said the emergency response and immediate flood clean-up cost to council was around $3.3 million. How much of those costs were avoidable is undetermined.

"Our road repairs are in the vicinity of $30 million,” said a council spokesperson.

"We can't estimate with any accuracy what losses there are to the community unfortunately.”

The co-ordinator of the Lismore Citizens Review group, Beth Trevan, said direct approaches by Thomas George MP and Kevin Hogan MP to the NSW SES Commissioner, the National Director of Bureau of Meteorology and the Lismore City Council on behalf of the Citizens Review Group have led to considerable progress in the past six months.

The main focus of their discussions have been the insistence that current local information be included in BoM and SES intelligence during a developing flood situation and that clearly worded hourly BoM Flood Warnings and SES Flood Bulletins need to be broadcast through radio, TV and every relevant associated social media platform, as soon as it is recognised that a flood is likely.

NSW State Manager of the Bureau of Meteorology, Ann Farrell, said the meeting with members of the Lismore Citizens Review was particularly valuable for the BoM.

"It allowed us to address some factual errors in the report but most importantly, it gave us insight into how our warnings are understood by the community, and what we can do to reduce any potential for misinterpretation,” she said.

The Citizens Review statement said during the course of their information gathering over a nine month period it had become evident that "the current problems are caused by delay and fragmentation of important local information from and between key bureaucracies and agencies during an emergency.”

"This major issue will not be resolved until there is a common fully integrated emergency management system in NSW that incorporates all detailed relevant information on one site and is available to the public” said Mrs Trevan.

This could translate into a website which would be accessible to all in a similar vein to the VIC Emergency website, emergency.vic.gov.au. Various emergency services could access the back end of the website, while the public could be kept informed via the front end.

"The system is an all hazard approach to the coordination, direction and control of disasters independent of their type, origin, size, and complexity. Information from BoM, SES, Fire Service, RFS, Police, Ambulance etc. and the community is collated at a single Incident Control centre. This enables both the community and all involved agencies to gain the required real-time information from one site as an emergency situation is developing.”

"We believe this will resolve the key issues that impacted greatly on the Richmond catchment community during the March 2017 flood and be invaluable in any emergency event in the future.” she said.

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