Lismore Flood, April 1, 2017: Chris evacuating.
Lismore Flood, April 1, 2017: Chris evacuating. Karin von Behrens

Lets talk about the f word

WADING through the post-flood interviews, reports, and reports on the reports, one thing became painfully clear - the natural disaster of the flood was paralleled by a bureaucratic disaster, almost equal in size to the flood itself.

There was a confluence of unfortunate, mostly unavoidable, circumstances which included a loss of local flood knowledge, staff changes in senior government roles, time lags in vital communications and multi-level government and emergency structures all acting independently rather than using a cohesive cross-organisational emergency plan.

The use of technology was on the one hand lagging in some departments, with fax machines still in use, while on the other hand it was used to great effect by the Lismore Helping Hands to garner support and help for those in need.

The Facebook group Lismore Helping Hands morphed into an army of spontaneous volunteers based at the South Lismore train station, and the recovery effort was nothing short of mind-blowing, with the community spirit rising through the flood to reclaim the city.

In terms of evacuations there were two extremes - those who had experienced floods before and knew exactly what was going on and those who had no idea, even after having read the alerts.

Had the alerts said the whole town was likely to be swallowed by a lake of sewage and debris which would be deeper than some people are tall, that there may be a short-lived set of rapids down Keen Street which could sweep you away, the outcome may have been slightly different. The event, however, would still have happened.

Attempting to blame any individual or organisation is unfair. It would be akin to blaming the rain for falling.

The March 2017 flood was a different flood to any previously experienced and the waterways were already full, the ground soaked from the previous weeks of rain.

The high volume of rain in such a short time frame took everybody by surprise.

The storm system hit with devastating impact on Thursday, March 30, with the levee overtopping early Friday morning.

As I phoned around the various organisations optimistically looking for a list of all the improvements and changes that had occurred over the past year, I could almost hear the flurry of paperwork and panic on the other end as people realised the first anniversary of the event was dawning and they would be held accountable by the community.

All with the exception of the authors of the Lismore Citizens' Review who were virtually waiting for the call, wondering where to begin and what they could say, desperate not to destroy all their progress and the solid atmosphere of co-operation that had formed over the year.

They delivered a polite succinct document with the message that no one was to blame. The sentiment was - can we just move forward and create a better system?

Thus any past issues discussed here are either because they do not appear to have been adequately addressed yet, or are simply to re-assure people that they have.

If at the time of the next flood, however, we are still relying on a system in which there is anything less than seamless information flow, using up-to-date technology, between the three levels of the SES (state, regional and local), the different levels of the BoM, police, local councils, the Office of Emergency Management Australia and the various fire and rescue services, we may still have as many issues as last year.

The event has given most of those organisations cause to review their systems and many improvements have been made.

There is, however, one important plan missing. There is still no local emergency recovery plan in New South Wales.

This is the gap that Lismore Helping Hands filled and even they copped criticism. Despite this some of them are still volunteering to improve things one year on.

Thankfully, after all this, what has remained after the flood is a very strong community and people's sense of humour.