Anyone wanting to share information and ideas about recent climate catastrophes on the Northern Rivers with those in charge of NSW has until 20 May to make official comment.
The state government was quick to promise an inquiry into the record-breaking weather events of February and has this week invited the public to make submissions.
The government says all related stories and photos are welcome, so long as permission to share is granted by original creators.
Deputy Premier Paul Toole set up the inquiry, which is to be led by Professor Mary O’Kane and Michael Fuller.
Professor O’Kane used to be the state’s chief scientist and is perhaps best known for her work overseeing a report into dwindling koala populations nearly six years ago.
Mr Fuller used to be the head of the state’s police force.
The pair are tasked with examining and reporting on the causes of, preparedness for, response to and recovery from what the NSW government has called ‘the 2022 catastrophic flood event’.
Both have been on the Northern Rivers this week, today visiting Wardell and the Fire and Rescue base in Wollongbar.
Ballina MP determined to get ‘real answers’ on flood rescues and recovery
The inquiry’s terms of reference don’t restrict focus to the initial flooding in late February, suggesting more recent flooding and landslides, such as that seen in Byron Bay’s town centre last week, could be included.
‘There have been terrible gaps and missteps in the rescue and recovery supports for our community,’ Greens Member for Ballina Tamara Smith posted on social media on Monday.
The state member represents Ballina and Byron Shires as part of her lower house seat and says she’ll make sure the community gets ‘real answers’.
Speaking to The Echo on Tuesday, Ms Smith said it was reassuring to see the premier out and about the region along with Professor O’Kane and Mr Fuller, especially when compared to the prime minister’s public responses.
‘The premier isn’t shirking from the mistakes and that the financial assistance packages needed to be brought out quicker,’ Ms Smith said.
The Greens member also acknowledged announcements from the state education minister, Sarah Mitchell, who was today promising $500 for flood-affected students and $1000 for flood-affected teachers to replace lost resources.
Ms Mitchell had also promised a ‘build back better’ plan for Upper Main Arm Public School, Ms Smith said.
The Ballina MP was on her way to a meeting with the school’s P&C association along with federal Greens candidate Mandy Nolan.
Cyclonic winds in Ballina and kayaking over sewage in Byron
Ms Smith was in parliament last week when her electorate was inundated with heavy rain and flash flooding.
Landslides in both shires ruined infrastructure repairs started after February’s disasters and Ballina Mayor Sharon Cadwallader described ‘cyclonic winds’ to the south of the electorate.
The Byron-Ballina Gateway Airport was effectively closed for days, as were most main roads in the Ballina Shire.
Evacuation orders were issued for Wardell and Cabbage Tree Island within 24 hours of an evacuation centre at the Lennox Head Cultural Centre being due to close.
To the north of the electorate, The Greens’ federal candidate for the seat of Richmond, Mandy Nolan, said she’d met residents in Byron Bay who had to kayak in and out of their properties thanks to sewer outlets flooding.
One resident had been electrocuted owing to damaged infrastructure, Ms Nolan told Bay FM’s Community Newsroom on Friday.
SES admits mistakes
Meanwhile, Ms Smith said she’d attended a briefing in Sydney with other members of state parliament and emergency authorities.
‘The SES acknowledged that they got it wrong,’ Ms Smith told Bay FM, referring to an evacuation order for the Lismore central business district that was withdrawn and then reinstated in pre-dawn hours.
Ms Smith said she’d asked why evacuation orders hadn’t been issued for Byron.
Evacuation orders were issued for Mullumbimby further inland and shops could be seen last Monday with sandbags outside their front doors.
But as the rain fell, Mullumbimby was spared the worst while Byron Bay was temporarily cut-off from road access to the outside world and featured at least two lakes in town, one in Jonson Street and the other in Marvel Street.
Very few businesses in Byron’s town centre had sandbags.
‘What it has laid bare to me is that we don’t really know what is the threshold to call for an evacuation,’ Ms Smith said.
Bureau of Meteorology questioned
Like so many Northern Rivers residents voicing concerns in social media groups, the Greens member also had questions regarding the Bureau of Meteorology,
‘Why are they so hesitant to declare East Coast Lows?’ she asked, ‘and to actually say, you know what, you should get out?’
‘You can underestimate a weather event,’ Ms Smith said, ‘but the precautionary principle says you should err on the side of caution and what I’m seeing is that the information that the Bureau of Meteorology is giving SES is the opposite of that’.
Ms Smith echoed Ballina Mayor Sharon Cadwallader’s theory, which was that authorities didn’t want to cause unnecessary panic by issuing evacuation orders based on uncertain forecasts.
But while Councillor Cadwallader told Bay FM she understood even getting to an evacuation centre could be impossible when roads were flooded, Ms Smith said she didn’t understand the official hesitations.
‘We’ve just gone through life threatening events,’ Ms Smith said, ‘is anyone going to be outraged to have been evacuated if they didn’t absolutely need to be? I don’t think so. But maybe I’m wrong on that’.
Causes, planning, responses, recovery… go!
The NSW government’s inquiry is to look at:
- the causes of and factors contributing to the frequency, intensity, timing and location of floods;
- preparation and planning by agencies and the community for floods in NSW;
- responses to floods, particularly measures to protect life, property and the environment;
- the transition from incident response to recovery;
- recovery, including housing, clean-up, financial support, community engagement and longer-term community rebuilding.
The government says the inquiry will also consider and, ‘if thought fit’, make recommendations on a range of matters, including:
- the safety of emergency services and community first responders;
- current and future land use planning and management and building standards in flood prone locations across NSW;
- appropriate action to adapt to future flood risks to communities and ecosystems;
- coordination and collaboration between all levels of government.
Professor O’Kane and Mr Fuller are to report to the premier on ‘causation, land use planning and management and related matters’ by 30 June, government information online says, and on all other matters by 30 September.