Five key questions raised in the 2022 NSW flood investigation

A report on the 2022 catastrophic floods across NSW focused on a recurring problem – the dangers of not preparing.

The inquiry, led by NSW chief scientist and engineer Mary O’Kane and former police commissioner Michael Fuller, sought to examine what went wrong during the floods, which claimed the lives of nine people .

The inquiry made 28 recommendations for change, all of which were accepted by the state government.

The 323 page report covers a wide range of issues, but here are five of the key takeaways.

The SES was not prepared

The State Emergency Service (SES) has limited “at best” capacity to respond to large-scale disasters, the survey found.

Its flood response fell short because it didn’t “come back early and big” – put as many resources into a disaster as possible in the early stages.

Indeed, they were unable to deploy resources in a timely manner and were “unprepared for events of the magnitude … of 2022”, according to the report.

“This was demonstrated by the many failures to give timely public warnings, which led to the need for high numbers of rescues, particularly in the northern rivers, where community rescues significantly outnumbered SES rescues.”

The SES placed little emphasis on flood mitigation because, according to the survey, the organization did not have an adequate culture of emergency planning.

The SES told the inquest that their poor preparation and response was due to unreliable forecasts, however, the inquest hit back at this excuse.

“It is the opinion of the survey that NSW cannot predict its recovery from the flood events.”

Other issues identified by the survey included:

  • Lack of training for volunteers, with members worrying about the usefulness of computer-based learning
  • Insufficient flood rescue technicians to service high-risk basins
  • The SES did not know that it could call on certain government resources, including the Defense Forces
  • The Northern Rivers Region flood plans have not been revised following the 2021 flood. This is the responsibility of the SES Commission and the local SES Controller.

However, it was noted that the SES is not sufficiently funded to achieve the same performance results as agencies like the Rural Fire Service (RFS), which receives four times the funding from the SES.

For this reason, he recommended merging the main functions of the SES with the RFS, so that volunteers could be trained much faster.

Redemptions are essential

The survey indicated that residents of the most at-risk areas of the Northern Rivers floodplains needed to be relocated.

This must be done “urgently” through land swaps and buyouts, prioritizing the most vulnerable.

Prof O’Kane and Mr Fuller said many community members had come to the inquiry about the need for help moving.

“We hope that the government will consider buyouts for our area, otherwise we will have to stay and face this situation again. We now feel economically stuck in our house,” said a submission.

In response to the report, Prime Minister Dominic Perrottet said eligibility for the buyback program would now be established and by the end of August expressions of interest would be open.

It will also now be determined which public lands can be made available for land swaps.

The inquiry said evacuation orders should not be used to signal the start of rescues.(AAP: Darren England)

The inquiry also urged the government to:

  • Relocate residents displaced by flooding to more permanent settlements where community can be re-established
  • Ensure that new housing stock is as flood resistant and salvageable as possible
  • Encourage new developments in safe areas

It has also been suggested that floodplains could be repurposed in ways that minimize the risk to life, converting them into spaces for sports, forestry or renewable energy production.

NSW resilience leadership failed

The disaster management agency, Resilience NSW, did not perform as expected during this year’s floods, according to the report.

This underperformance was the result of its small size and breadth of remit.

Instead of coordinating emergency management, the investigation found that Resilience NSW had actually caused confusion about who was responsible for what.

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NSW Government to establish buyout scheme and cabinet committee for disaster control

In particular, the investigation found that the chaos in the evacuation centers was due to confusion in decision-making, with a blurring of the roles of Resilience NSW and the Department of Communities and Justice.

“Resilience NSW’s approach to recovery centers was slow and often inconsistent. Among other things, there was a delay in setting up mobile recovery centres, which were crucial for smaller communities,” revealed the investigation.

“There was a widespread view of a failure in the leadership and planning of Resilience NSW.”

Despite the findings, the inquest recognized that many Resilience NSW staff did their best under difficult circumstances.

To prevent these mistakes from happening again, the survey recommended that Resilience NSW be reshaped into ‘Recovery NSW’ – a more streamlined and agile agency to drive recovery in the first 100 days after the disaster.

This would mean a number of NSW resilience tasks being reassigned to agencies, including the new NSW Reconstruction Authority.

Emergency Telecommunications Needed

The report says the loss of telecommunications services caused communities the most distress, as it meant they could not seek flood relief or communicate with family and friends.

At the height of the floods, 18 communities in NSW had no access to telecommunications, but Telstra told the inquiry it had restored communications with these communities within 13 days.

More resilient services need to be put in place to avoid prolonged disruptions in the future, according to the survey.

This means moving critical infrastructure out of floodplains and improving backup power devices.

A man cycles through flooded Byron Bay
Drainage was considered inadequate in parts of Byron County.(PAA: Jason O’Brien)

The survey also recommended roaming agreements between operators

National roaming agreements between operators allow triple-0 calls to be made regardless of mobile coverage, but there are no similar agreements to make calls, send texts or access data in case of emergency.

“The survey understands that this is primarily due to commercial considerations rather than practical issues.”

Unsuitable rain gauges

According to the report, the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) NSW rain gauge network is not fit for purpose.

Many people told the inquest the network was a ‘patchwork’, with Lismore MP Janelle Saffin saying the gauges were in ‘poor condition’ and ‘unreliable’.

There was also confusion over who maintains the gauges — whether it’s state, local or federal government.

The survey called on the government, together with the BOM, to invest in upgrading the network.

“The river gauging network covering NSW needs to be significantly improved and maintained appropriately, preferably under the direction and coordination of the Bureau.”

Gaps in radar coverage, particularly on the Mid-North Coast, were also identified.

As floods are difficult to predict due to their highly localized nature, reliable rain radars are essential, according to the survey.

“NSW has strong capabilities and systems in research and sensor technologies, but needs to leverage them further to provide more flood monitoring information and warning systems.”

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