Survivors tell NSW flood inquiry of failures in warnings, predictions and emergency response

Mary Sims used her phone to record farewell messages to her family as floodwaters rose around her home in Chowan Creek, near Murwillumbah, northern New South Wales. 

“I thought, if anything happens to me nobody knows we are here,” Ms Sims said.

“We had no communications and I thought at least any rescuers would be able to find my phone and share it.”

Ms Sims was one of scores of people from the Tweed and Byron shires who gathered in the flood-prone village of Tumbulgum on Wednesday to share their stories at the NSW Flood Inquiry.

The meeting came after a public forum on Tuesday night in the city of Lismore.

Ms Sims was critical of the emergency response to the twin flood events of February and March, particularly for people living in rural areas of the northern rivers region.

“We need a proper emergency response plan that can deal with any kind of emergency that happens … I don’t see it so far but we need to think about planning for the future,” she said.

people at a public meeting
Today’s meeting in the Tweed Valley heard about a need for better preparedness and a big picture view of hydrology in the catchment.(ABC North Coast: Hannah Ross)

Her sentiments were echoed by Tumbulgum resident Lachlan Donaldson, whose family was evacuated by volunteers after floodwaters had entered the top storey of their home.

He told the inquiry of the inaccuracies of the flood height predictions and how inadequate the warning system was for people living in the village.

“It was scary for me because I don’t swim, I sink, so I was thinking of ways to get out onto the roof,” Mr Donaldson said.

Man stands in front of a chalk-drawn sign
Lachlan Donaldson says nothing will come from the inquiry unless authorities listen to the people.(ABC North Coast: Bruce MacKenzie)

After major flooding of the Tweed River inundated Tumbulgum in 2017, residents worked together to become a model for community resilience.

Tumbulgum Community Association president Jenny Kidd said they worked with the SES and Red Cross to establish a flood plan that hinged on good local communication and trust.

“Communities do more when you know your neighbours,” she said.

“You trust the people that may be able to help you because we become isolated, so that immediately means we have to look within ourselves for the resources.”

Nevertheless, Ms Kidd said the February flood affected more people and created greater challenges, particularly as power and communications failed.

Flooded houses on the canal system in the south of Pottsville on the Northern Rivers.
Flooded houses on the canal system south of Pottsville.(ABC News: Chris Kimball)

Speakers also raised concerns about increased flooding in the Tweed catchment caused by blocked drains, silted rivers and infrastructure including the rail corridor, the M1 motorway and in-fill for housing developments.

Inquiry co-leads Mary O’Kane and Mick Fuller are urging people affected by this year’s floods in all parts of New South Wales to make submissions.

Mr Fuller said he was dogged in his desire to deliver recommendations that would help to protect life and property during future flood events.

“We’re a big state, we’re eight million people, we’re multiple emergency services, we’re a big public service. We should be able to protect life and property better than what we did,” Mr Fuller said.

The NSW Flood Inquiry will report to the state government on issues including land use, planning and management by June 30, and on other matters by September 30. 

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