NSW Premier promises to ‘rebuild and retrain’ communities for a safer future.
In the corporate world the month of August is known as “reporting season”, the time when companies announce the results of their previous financial year’s trading. August 2022 has earned a special claim to the title through the release of several high-level government reports on diverse matters.
One, reported elsewhere in this magazine, was the report of the Royal Commission into Defence and Veteran Suicide.
Another, of particular interest to residents of the Northern Rivers, is the report of the NSW Parliament’s Legislative Council (LegCo) Select Committee on The Response to Major Flooding Across New South Wales In 2022.
The third is the much awaited Independent Flood Inquiry 2022 led by NSW Chief Scientist and engineer Mary O'Kane and former police commissioner Mick Fuller, a considerably more weighty document than its 200-page predecessor and one that bears the authority of the NSW Government.
Released on 17 August, this was the flood report everyone was waiting for, the one likely to have the most impact on the way future floods might be prepared for and handled, and what might happen to flood damaged Lismore and surrounds.
The Perrottet government, still reeling from the Barilaro scandal, had resisted pressure for an early release but on 17 August it launched the document and accepted six recommendations in full and the other 22 in principle.
The third report, which intersected with the LegCo inquiry in an unexpected way, is titled Leading for Change - Independent Review of Bullying, Sexual Harassment and Sexual Misconduct in NSW Parliamentary Workplaces 2022, short-handed as the 'Broderick report', after its author. It can be read in its disturbing entirety here
Both flood reports focus mostly on the North Coast but also take in the flooding that hammered Western Sydney.
The LegCo report’s introduction noted, ‘Major flooding in NSW in February-March 2022 was a catastrophic disaster, causing widespread devastation and damage – particularly in the Northern Rivers and Hawkesbury regions. Tragically, lives were lost, thousands of homes were damaged or destroyed, and significant local infrastructure was damaged.’
The Committee of MPs’ terms of reference included the effectiveness of preparations for such events by government and the responses to the crises; the performance of Resilience NSW, the NSW SES and other relevant agencies; inter-governmental and private sector/community coordination; public communications; the implementation of recommendations from inquiries into previous natural disasters; and the overall effectiveness of the flood response.
Its Chair, long-serving Labor MLC Walt Secord, said the committee found Resilience NSW and the NSW SES had ‘failed to provide leadership and effective coordination in the community’s greatest time of need’ and the State Government had ‘failed to implement a streamlined grants process… [which] meant that applicants were repeatedly interviewed, and had to re-live their experiences, leading to further frustration and trauma as part of the support process.’
At the time he released the report Mr Secord’s shadow ministries included the North Coast, but not for long. In the wake of the Broderick report, he would step aside from the shadow ministry after being described in one submission as a “vicious manipulative bully who particularly targeted junior staff and young women”.
“At various times he used his position, his size, his voice and his presence to pressure, berate, intimidate and humiliate staff to get his own way,” the submission read.
Floodplains are assets… productive as sporting and recreational activities, garden plots and community gardens…
Yet the flood report survives its Chair, with ‘failed’ being a common criticism amongst its 21 findings, although ‘let down’ also gets a good run.
These sentiments are echoed in the 37 recommendations, key to which are a revamp of emergency agencies, better flood modelling, improved public communications, overhauling the grants process and, of local relevance, the reimbursing of Xavier Catholic College and other community groups and organisations that operated evacuation centres.
Well down the list but in words that captured media attention is Recommendation 26, urging the NSW Government to ‘consider investing in supporting relocations, land swaps and providing fair and adequate compensation for landowners who wish to relocate from severely flood-impacted areas.’
Around 11,000 homes are believed to have been damaged in the Northern Rivers in the February-March floods, and more than 4000 are deemed uninhabitable, mostly in Lismore. The Lismore City Local Flood Plan notes that only 60 per cent of houses in the flood-prone areas are raised above the one-in-100-year flood level, which was over-topped by more than two metres in the 2022 event.
Next came the big reveal of the ‘Fuller-O’Kane report’, brought forward from 30 September 2022 according to its authors, because, ‘The need for urgent action has come into even sharper focus in light of the further flood events experienced across eastern NSW earlier this month.’
On the day of its release the media was reporting predictions of an exceptionally wet La Nina spring and summer on the Australian east coast. Should this occur it seems unlikely that many of the Inquiry’s 28 recommendations will have been implemented.
These recommendations, arising from key findings, are ‘intended to provide practical, proactive and sustained mechanisms to ensure readiness for and resilience to flood (and by extension, other disasters)’.
They include –
- Climate and weather research
- Appointment of a full time State Emergency Management Operations Coordinator (SEOCON) as a fifth Deputy Commissioner of Police
- Improved flood rescue capability
- The much criticised (in both reports) Resilience NSW being reshaped to ‘Recovery NSW’
- The development of a ‘Community First Responders Program’, and the creation of a high-level Government standing committee, Task Force ‘Hawk’
- The back-office merger of SES and RFS
- Disaster education courses in schools and rescue trainng for community members
- A longitudinal study on the effect of consecutive disasters on community mental health
- The establishing of a permanent state-wide agency, the NSW Reconstruction Authority (NSWRA) dedicated to disaster recovery, reconstruction and preparedness. This body will be charged with managing expressions of interest for a buy back and land swap scheme, commencing the end of August.
- An online visualisation tool to display, for all land parcels (land titles) in NSW, the extent of known disasters that have affected each piece of land in NSW in the past.
- Starting a process of revising all flood planning level calculations in the state’s high-risk catchments
- Building a disaster adaptation plan for each city and town, with planning instruments discouraging (and in many cases forbidding) development in disaster-likely areas
- Treat floodplains as assets, specialising in uses that are productive and minimise risk to life during major weather events. Such uses would include sporting and recreational activities, garden plots and community gardens, agriculture and forestry, renewable energy production, biodiversity offsets, parks and outdoor education activities. (Land below the flood planning level would be returned to Government ownership.)
As with the LegCo report, well down the list (Recommendations 22-24) come the options for Lismore’s current and future homes.
Headed “Relocating communities most at risk with good homes and amenities”, #22 urges that to ‘empower vulnerable people and communities to relocate, Government should –
- identify and prioritise those communities most at risk from future disasters, and for whom relocation may be appropriate or necessary
- leverage the work done through Government’s homes, cities, manufacturing and skills policies, to collaborate and work with these communities in examining, designing, building and installing affordable, attractive and insurable housing options (e.g. locally fabricated high quality modular homes, or utilising local builders to retrofit and/or relocate existing homes to safer ground) and to enable small housing developments with capacity to grow organically over time
- utilise best-practice policy for rapid urbanism and community-building to establish new settlements.
New settlements should ‘reflect the aspirations and vernacular of the local community, whilst meeting the technical needs of establishing settlements and delivering infrastructure at low cost.’
This process should also ‘consider the role of locally manufactured, well-designed and regulated modular housing solutions — promoting a sense of community by ensuring appropriate amenity (e.g. schools, shops, and services) is available to relocating people and communities at the time of moving to their new settlements — working with the financial and philanthropic sectors to investigate a special purpose fund to provide continuing support for these communities as they transit through re-establishment.’
Housing, or the lack of it because of flood damage, is key:
‘There are still some 1300 in emergency housing across the Northern Rivers, more than four months after the floods. This is driving more demand for social, affordable and market rental housing and has worsened homelessness. Urgent action is needed to provide fit for purpose, resilient homes for the displaced or those who continue to reside on high-risk floodplains. This includes homes for Indigenous peoples which are respectful of culture and kinship’.
While figures are attached to damages - the Insurance Council of Australia calls the February-March flood events in NSW and south-east Queensland the costliest flood in Australian history, with claims totalling $5.1 billion in insured damages – no firm prices are put on buying people out or relocating them.
It must be hoped that the weather will hold and the Northern Rivers will not face further deluges over the coming months. Otherwise, even more inquiries are likely to be needed, with a key question being why couldn’t the recommendations of these reports be implemented sooner?