SES and police emergency crews move through the centre of Lismore looking for people in need of evacuation.
SES and police emergency crews move through the centre of Lismore looking for people in need of evacuation. Marc Stapelberg

SES bureaucracy doomed Lismore, say citizens

THE authors of a "citizens' review" of the March flood say the NSW SES bureaucracy have failed to take responsibility for their mistakes during the disaster and make common sense changes to emergency procedures.

The review was authored by five Lismore locals with years of flood experience, including former SES division controller Keith Alcock and former Lismore mayor and CBD business owner Ros Irwin.

Its comprehensive dissection of the SES response argued the service put too much weight on flood predictions from the Bureau of Meteorology, and ignored crucial information from the volunteer-run Lismore City Unit.

As a result, the major flood warning for Lismore was issued several hours late, and then in "panic mode" the SES issued an evacuation order several hours too early.

To make matters worse, the volunteers in the Lismore City Unit copped the brunt of the community's post-flood anger - even though their experience was effectively ignored during the actual emergency.

"People well known in the SES have been spat on, they've had derogatory comments in the pub, and 20 people resigned over the issue because they themselves were disgusted," said Beth Trevan, co-author of the review.

Mrs Trevan said the SES bureaucracy's response to the citizens' review was infuriating.

"They have not recognised the key points that are imperative to the successful management of a flood," she said.

Mrs Trevan said the SES relied too much on the Bureau of Meteorology data which wasn't as timely or accurate as "on the ground" information.

The BoM only relied on 11 rain gauges in the upper Lismore catchment - six in Leycester Creek, and five in Wilsons Creek - and their information was only reported every four hours.

In contrast, the local SES unit had multiple contacts across the catchment and were constantly receiving updated information during the emergency.

"There were people up in Nimbin and down in the valley saying at 10am (on March 30) pack up your things, we are already at 1974 levels," Mrs Trevan said.

"The Lismore City Unit could have given the population 14 hours notice between the time they knew there was a going to be a flood like 1974 through to the point they knew the city needed to be evacuated.

"Instead, the SES gave the population no warning at all until the BoM said it would be a major flood and 28 minutes later they panicked and ordered the flood evacuation.

"It was a complete and utter shambles.

"They just do not know or understand the vagaries or intricacies of the catchment. It's only local knowledge collected over 50 years which can predict and give the population the information they need when they need it."

Commissioner responds

SES Commissioner Mark Smethurst has responded to criticisms about the bungle, telling The Northern Star that important changes had been made in the wake of the disaster.

A new arrival to the SES, Mr Smethurst started his role just five weeks before the flood.

He said he didn't agree that the Lismore City Unit had better information than the Regional headquarters, because locals were working in both areas and were in "regular contact".

"The information they were working on was exactly the same information," he said.

"Earlier in that day we were expecting rainfall in the vicinity of 400mm, as it turned it out it was 900mm. So by the time we got the advice from the Bureau, that information triggered all three areas (South, CBD, and North) of Lismore to be evacuated.

"This was received after 4pm ... we've got to make a decision on whether we hold off on providing those evacuation orders or get people out when it's still light.

"Our principle responsibility is to protect life."

Mr Smethurst said while the flood was "clearly a tragedy for the region" there was also "a degree of apathy" on the part of some who relied on a "false sense of security" from the Lismore levee, which had never been topped.

He said the Lismore City Unit and Regional Headquarters had run several flood preparation workshops in the lead up to the disaster which had "very poor attendance".

One designed for businesses had just five or six attendees.

"We did 498 flood rescues throughout the region ... the vast majority of those flood rescues were in the Lismore area," he said.

"We had anything from medical evacuations to people being isolated because they didn't heed the warnings.

"The way we will prevent this in the future is by the community working hand in hand (with us) ... because we can't solve all the issues in an event, the community needs to be aware."

Changing of evacuation orders

One crucial change the SES has made is to its evacuation orders, which will now only be issued after a conference call between the Lismore Unit Controller, the Regional Incident Controller, the SES state headquarters, plus the Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner.

Previously, evacuation orders were the domain of the regional headquarters, which had independent control. It's understood that the person who issued the evacuation order in the March flood was not familiar with the local catchment and failed to heed the advice from those who were.

Evacuation orders have also been adjusted to include new details such as the time of overtopping of the levee and the last safe moment people can be in the urban area.

"So when we need to call an evacuation order we know that everything has been considered, we're doing it at the right times and the right details have been put into the orders," Mr Smethurst said.

Was it really an "unprecedented" flood?

Mr Smethurst has described the flood as "unprecedented" because of it was the first major flood to breach the levee since it was built in 2005.

He also said the town had doubled in population since earlier historical floods.

In fact, comparisons show the level and location of rainfall were very similar to 1974 and the speed of the river rising was within millimetres of the hourly rate of other major floods.

But Mr Smethurst insisted the SES had a "much better point of reference" now the levee had been topped for the first time.

Who's responsible?

The authors of the citizens' review believe the SES management need to apologise to volunteers and admit their responsibility for what has been described as a bureaucratic bungle.

They fear that the disaster could happen all over again if there are not serious changes to the way dynamic emergencies are managed.

"The first thing that should happen is the senior people should sit down with the Lismore SES people with 50 years experience and ask them 'what do you think we should do?'," Mrs Trevan said.

"To get any change, the community has definitely going to have to rise up and demand it. We are not prepared to give up as a group until there is change.

"It was a fiasco, an absolute fiasco."

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