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SES respond to rising anger over floods

The evacuation order for Lismore is given by the SES.
The evacuation order for Lismore is given by the SES. Marc Stapelberg

EMERGENCY services have responded to mounting anger and speculation over the handling of evacuations during the March 31 flood.

Residents said they had limited warning to clear their homes or businesses to prepare for the torrent of water that would destroy millions of dollars in goods.

SES Richmond/Tweed deputy regional controller Wayne Pettit said the situation was a "lose lose” for the service.

"At the moment there is a lot of negative feeling around the timeframes we gave people to evacuate,” Mr Pettit said.

"If we turned that around and the levee didn't overtop, we'd be copping it because we issued an evacuation order and it didn't overtop and people packed up for no reason.”

Piles of ruined goods and rubbish fill back streets of Lismore's CBD.
Piles of ruined goods and rubbish fill back streets of Lismore's CBD. Claudia Jambor

Were Lismore city evacuations called too early?

Discontent about the timing of the evacuations has simmered within the community for nearly two months since the natural disaster devastated the regional city.

For Harris Cycles owner Darryl Pursey, the 30 minutes between the SES major flood warning and evacuation order was called "way too early”.

"They'd only just told us it was going to be a major flood at 4pm then at 4.30pm they'd called a flood evacuation order, which is an absolute joke,” Mr Pursey said.

"We got evacuated at 8.30pm (on Thursday, March 30) but the water didn't come into the shop until midday the next day, that's 18 hours after we got evacuated.”

Lismore Embroidery and Apparel owner Matthew Cutting was one of many retailers who lost stock in the flood.

Mr Cutting said he didn't question the SES order.

"The SES were saying 'You need to evacuate the city, it's going to go over the levee you need to get out', so we obeyed and got out,” Mr Cutting said.

"There was a sense of panic at the time; we didn't know where the levee was, we couldn't see it.”

The recent floods in the Lismore CBD
The recent floods in the Lismore CBD

Why wasn't there more time to prepare?

Long-time resident Alex Coronakes knew the region would be hard hit the moment ex-tropical Cyclone Debbie hit North Queensland.

But Mr Coronakes didn't realise how massive the flood would be until about midday Thursday when he was driving into Lismore from Brisbane.

At the tailend of clearing out his store, Mr Coronakes told the SES to "f... off”.

"There's no urgency, the water didn't come over the levee until 4 o'clock the next morning and here they are between 6-8pm Thursday night telling people we need to get out,” he said.

"With all the technology they've got ... why couldn't they work out, we've got eight hours, start packing?”

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Why were people caught out in the floods?

While modern weather predictions have evolved, Mr Pettit cited a series of unknowns particularly around the strength and ability of the levee, which had never been overtopped since it was built in 2005.

He quashed rumours the Richmond/Tweed SES were overruled by out-of-area units and said: "Decisions around Lismore were made locally, they weren't made in Wollongong,”

In hindsight, Mr Pettit said the SES could have issued evacuation warnings along with flood watch announcements on Wednesday, March 29 to speed up flood preparations.

But Mr Pettit saidfew in the community acted on the alert and urged residents to learn "how flooding affects them and their business”.

People could be seen in the Lismore CBD in kyaks.
People could be seen in the Lismore CBD in kyaks. Marc Stapelberg

Local knowledge missing from this flood, business owners say

Community feedback from the SES flood forums highlighted the need for more localised weather monitoring, Mr Pettit said.

Lismore Timezone owner Graeme Hoskins said that decades ago, farmers upstream would report their gauge levels to help inform emergency service decisions during floods.

It's an old tactic Mr Pettit said the service was looking to "blend the technology with some more manual systems where we are gettinglive data about what's happening in the catchment upstream using flood spotters”.

As the SES and other emergency services continue their reviews, Mr Pettit stressed "nothing is off the table”.

The local emergency services operations controller, Commander Superintendant Greg Martin agreed and said a debrief with the heads of emergency services involved occurred on Monday, May 9.

Commander Supt Martin said another debrief with more relevant agencies is planned in the coming weeks.

Topics:  emergency services flood 2017 lismore lismore flood northern rivers emergency northern rivers flood richmond/tweed ses


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