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‘There is no business as usual. This is still a crisis’: Stories and solutions at inquiry from those who survived the floods

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Lismore flood inquiry
The Lismore Flood Inquiry was held at a theatre at SCU on Tuesday, May 5.
Photo: Susanna Freymark

Four minutes. That was the time people had to tell their story at the flood inquiry in Lismore on May 3.

It was clear from the emotion in people’s voices that telling their story wasn’t easy.

Lismore mayor Steve Krieg spoke before the ‘listening’ began.

“This is a disaster we are living through like no other,” he said.

“This inquiry is one step in repairing and moving forward. This is not a public execution … we need to respect the process.”

And people did respect the process. For two hours, people used their four minutes on the microphone to tell the auditorium audience and the convenors who sat on stage what the flood meant to them.

About 500 people were at the Lismore Flood Inquiry, and the figures of the convenors, Professor Mary O’Kane, an engineer and scientist, and former NSW police commissioner Mick Fuller looked diminutive on the stage at the Southern Cross University theatre.

They were there, Prof O’Kane said, not to provide answers, but to listen.

The independent inquiry will report back to the Premier on factors contributing to the floods including the role of weather, climate change and human activity.

If the inquiry turns at to simply be a talkfest, it will be devastating for the people who have endured this disaster. If action fails to happen, and preparedness for floods is not improved it will all be for naught.

Here’s what some people had to say on the night.

Saving guitars

A man who lived in Little Keen St moved his 14 guitars upstairs in his house to save them from rising floodwaters.

“There was no indication this flood would be worse or even as bad as 2017,” he said.

At 2.30am on February 28, he was in ankle deep water on the first floor.

He got into a kayak and saved seven guitars. Then he went back to get the others.

“On the way I picked up a guy standing on a wheelie bin.”

If he had been given more information about the flood heights, he could have got his all his guitars out, instead he was diverted saving people.

This lack of warning on how high the flood would reach was a common theme.

Alone out at Bungawalbin

Another man said he was one of the first helicopter rescues at Bungawalbin.

With his son and an elderly lady, he was rescued,

“A few days later, I went back to rescue my dog,” he said.

Five weeks later and he is still helping to deliver food, medicine and generators.

“During that whole process we were alone. We had no assistance. It was just the public.”

“We were self-funded.

“Why was there no help from anyone?”

Mobile phone warning beep

A woman who has lived in Lismore for 30 years described what the flood was like for her neighbourhood.

“It’s like we’re in a glass and it was being filled from the top. Our whole street was in that glass.”

She vividly remembers the screams from neighbours as floodwaters rose.

She wanted to see a mobile warning system like the one they created in New Zealand after the earthquakes. The evacuation alert is sent to mobiles and it doesn’t stop beeping until you answer. Given the worst of the floods hit at 2.30am, this kind of warning system would have helped.

Where is the flood mitigation?

A businessman spoke about his dermatology business and how he lost everything.

“The flood went to the roof of my practice,” he said.

The town is a ghost town, he said.

In ’54, ’74, ’89, 2017 – every time there is a flood, there is an inquiry.

“Each time I am disappointed as there is no actual flood mitigation of a serious nature done.”

Lismore is like a bath where two taps are turned on, he said referring to the rivers that meet and flood in Lismore.

Educate volunteers

One woman wanted volunteers who came to help in the clean-up to be better educated.

“My son’s prosthetic legs were thrown out,” she said.

Freezers and fridges were thrown out, yet hers still worked despite being flooded.

Flood is in our bodies

Byron Councillor Mark Swivel said the “crisis is on our bodies; the flood is in our bodies.”

“There is no business as usual. This is still a crisis,” he said.

Anyone going into the CBD of Lismore, to Woodburn, Coraki or Broadwater can see evidence of the crisis.

Mr Swivel suggested better regional planning as each area in the Northern Rivers had their own “flood nuance”.

He suggested small evacuation centres rather than one large centre.

“So, people can get to them,” he said.

Flood hatches and ladders

There were practical solutions suggested such as flood hatches in all flood-prone homes as part of the building code.

An elderly woman at Bungawalbin was rescued using fairy lights as a rope.

“All homes should have ladders,” was the suggestion.

Preserving life most important

Tony from Woodburn reminded the inquiry that not everyone had the means of typing a submission.

He was adamant that we had to “wake up”.

“It’s about preservation of life and we need a whole of river approach,” he said.

He wanted to see work done on Tuckombil canal and access to the Evans River to mitigate flooding.

A cupboard for my undies

One young woman was upset about the help received.

In the 2000 and 2017 flood we got whitegoods, she said.

“Where is the Red Cross and Lifeline money going?”

People were donating food and clothing.

“It would be nice to have a cupboard to put your undies in.

“It would be nice to have a fridge to put food in.”

Final word

Former mayor Simon Clough was the last speaker on the night.

“I love this community … this is a real threat. Everything has changed and we have to be serious about everything we do,” he said.

“Every decision must be made in relation to climate change.”

The main issues were:

  • Poor communication about the height of the flood
  • Lack of warning
  • Delays on triple zero calls
  • Lack of serious flood mitigation strategies
  • Climate change impacts
  • Impact on wildlife

Here’s some of the solutions people offered:

  • CB radio networks to overcome the loss of communications
  • Mobile phone evacuation warning system that beeps until you check message
  • Dredging rivers
  • Diverting rivers
  • Investigation into the impact the Pacific Highway had on floodwaters
  • Raising the highway on pylons
  • Paint a white line around the potholes so drivers can see them at night
  • Educate volunteers on what should and shouldn’t be thrown out when cleaning out houses
  • Smaller evac centres and more of them
  • Flood drills
  • Better triple zero service
  • Better access to SES
  • flood hatches in the roofs of houses
  • flood insurance to be subsidised by government
  • backup generators
  • lifesaving towers
  • rein in B&Bs to open up housing
  • relocating Lismore
  • using local knowledge to warn of floods
  • relocating homes
  • rezoning rural land to residential

Residents are encouraged to make a submission by May 20. Here’s how to do that:

Online

Go here.

In person

Go to any Service NSW centre including mobile centres.

By post

Send a submission to:

NSW Independent Flood Inquiry
GPO Box 5341
Sydney NSW 2001

This article appeared on indyNR.com on 4 May 2022.

Related story: Starting the discussion: How to build back better

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