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July 6, 2022

Flood disaster highlights govt failures

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Independent flood inquiry chairs, former police commissioner Michael Fuller and Professor Mary O’Kane, held a public meeting on Monday in Mullum. Photo Jeff ‘High Flood Mark’ Dawson

Residents, community group representatives and a few councillors packed out the Mullum Ex-Services Club on Monday to provide personal stories, ask questions and offer solutions to the devastating floods that hit the Shire’s north on Feburary 28.

It was one of the community meetings being chaired by the Independent Flood Inquiry, which is led by Professor Mary O’Kane and former Police Commissioner, Michael Fuller. Both attended the forum.

Common themes that emerged during the forum included the lack of a disaster plan by Council, the lack of drainage maintanence, the exorbitant cost of flood insurance and the bureau of meteorology (BoM) not providing accurate information in the lead-up to the flood.

Failings within the initial emergency response by all levels of government and emergency services were also highlighted, which resulted in a community-led response to the disaster for up to five days after Feburary 28.

The NSW government website for flood grants was also criticised as being inadequate, and there was a call to dredge creeks and reopen intermittently closed and open lakes or lagoons (ICOLLs).

The meeting heard of residents still living in mouldy homes and others still cut off by landslips in the valleys behind Mullumbimby, three months after.

Byron Bay fire brigade Captain, John Riley, said that Council lacked a disaster plan, something which is standard with other councils across the nation. Such a plan, he said, would trigger emergency services into action.

Another failing, highlighted by another emergency responder, was that emergency service communications are reliant on Telstra.

When a North Coast Telstra tower was knocked out of action from the floods, the entire region was without a Telstra service for at least a week, hampering rescue efforts.

One SES member, who said they were still traumatised by the experience, acknowledged the response was inadequate but said, ‘we tried our best’.

Community-led response

One of the team leaders with the initial community-led responders, Ella Rose Goninan, said that for four to five days after the flood, hundreds of spontaneous volunteers stood up in the absence of emergency services and continued to do so for weeks after. 

Prior to the flood, Ella told the gathering, from her long-term work with HHUG, Renew Fest, and previously with Resilient Byron, she had relevant contacts in her phone so she could help straight away. 

She described those first days of life saving rescues, door-knocking residents, organising hundreds of clean-up teams, receiving and distributing thousands of donated goods, sending medical, food and emergency supplies to isolated valleys, and establishing communications owing to no Telstra connection.

Ella also said that the community group were forced to move from the Civic Hall by Resilience NSW and Council with only 24 hours’ notice.

This was despite her group still operating full time, while little government support was offered.

Ms Goninan acknowledged robust exchanges throughout that period, and said despite trying to find a solution, she felt she was, ‘Now under attack’. 

‘There was little leadership or support throughout. On three separate occasions I requested mediation from the Mayor [Michael Lyon] and Council’s then recovery officer, as we were needing help with the understandable stakeholder challenges that were happening inside such extreme circumstances. These requests were not met’.Sasha Mainsbridge, founder of Mullum Cares, expressed a similar experience with a lack of councillor response or interest after she approached them wanting to get the word out on how to treat mould and rebuild for future floods.

Ms Mainsbridge added that SES members should be paid, which was met by applause.

She said, ‘What do we value if we don’t pay these people? The evacuation warning wasn’t adequate. What has been done? I’ve reached out to councillors regarding rebuilding after floods. I’ve heard nothing back’.

Francesca Esposito, representing the North Byron District Activation Community Flood Response group, told the panel that the system is broken, both in terms of insurance and the government response.

‘People are falling through the cracks’, she said, ‘and the criteria for grants is too strict. You need five forms of ID to get the grants. This doesn’t acknowledge that most people lost everything. I lost everything’.

She added she had no confidence in the system and asked whether the State government is investing in clearing drains.

An elderly Mullumbimby resident from Ann Street said that this was this was her third flood. She said that 13 years ago, Council regularly cleaned out the drains; however, when she asked recently why they aren’t being maintained, she was told by Council staff they couldn’t clean some drains owing to them being on private property. It was later established at the meeting that it was Crown land.

Mullum resident, Len Bates, said that insurance claims will only pay for the house to be restored to pre-flood condition.

He said, ‘We need to raise houses, yet there’s only one local house-raising company, which is located in Kingscliff’.

Tenancy rights were also discussed, with one resident saying tenancy agreements become void after a natural disaster, which ‘displaced families who are vulnerable’.

There was a general feeling throughout the meeting that Council needs more funding from State and federal governments.

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