Back in the early 1950s, George Garbutt’s family knew they needed to keep abreast of what was happening upstream on the Richmond River if they were to protect themselves and their livelihood from flood.
“If the Lismore River got to 34 feet, I think it was, and it was raining up Kyogle, it was best we get going,” Garbutt told historians in 1997, setting out the basic flood warning system his family relied upon to know when to move their cattle, and themselves, to higher land.
Locals in fishing boats help with rescue efforts in Lismore.Credit:Elise Derwin
Despite the fact the Bureau of Meteorology issues flood warnings these days based on scientific data, many in the Northern Rivers still turn to that old-school, word-of-mouth method to get their information about the rain and the network of creeks and streams that rush and wind their way through this lush, subtropical landscape.
Now a report into devastating floods that hit the area in February and March has found the State Emergency Service was too reliant on what the bureau was saying before the disaster, and did not do enough to incorporate local knowledge into its own flood planning.
The report’s authors, Mary O’Kane and Mick Fuller, say the warnings issued for Lismore and surrounding towns were based on a network of rain and river gauges that were “not fit for purpose”, and that warnings were inaccurate and poorly timed. They say more needs to be done to share and incorporate local information before a flood.
It’s welcome news to Patrick Tatam, who lives in the hills above Lismore, surrounded by the remnants of ancient rainforest in an area that regularly records the most amount of rain in the state, and which broke rainfall records in February. It is part of the 1400 square kilometres of land that form the Lismore catchment.
Patrick Tatam inspects the creek which broke its banks at the edge of his property in February.Credit:Danielle Smith
On his property at Whian Whian, Tatam recorded more than 800 millimetres of rain in just over 24 hours on February 27 and 28 – rain that ran straight into the creek at the edge of his sodden property and headed for Lismore.
He tried repeatedly to raise the alarm and warn people downstream about what was heading their way. He rang local radio stations and the State Emergency Service to share his observations, but fears he failed to get the message across about the danger the city of 40,000 people was facing.
“My advance information on how much rain we had already had before the event, that the creeks were fully charged, the ground fully sodden, that 100 per cent of the rain was going into the creek – that’s accurate, and everyone’s agreed that that data was critically important.”
He was not the only one making those urgent calls on the night of February 27. The report found locals across the Lismore catchment, in those ragged steep hills above the city, were calling the SES to share what they were seeing and recording on their own land upstream. Such intelligence appears to have been “a significant blind spot” for the SES, according to the flood report.
South Lismore artist Victoria Pitel says after the flood, she kept hearing stories of residents in the hinterland who had tried to warn the SES about the impending flood, and this had prompted her to start a Facebook group, where people in the Northern Rivers can monitor and share local rain and river information, and get timely warnings to evacuate. More than 500 members have joined in less than a week.
“There’s an obvious need for it,” Pitel says. “We’re all finding ways of trying to work together. It’s been such a life-changing event for everyone, both in the floodplain and for people up the hill. The fact we can’t rely on the authorities and the BOM is a bit of a shock really, for me.
“I kept seeing Facebook posts from people up in the hills, who were saying how distressed they were when they saw how much rain was falling [in February] and that they couldn’t communicate it to the people in Lismore … People were distressed before the floods even got to us.
“My son and I were on the roof for seven hours, and our neighbour nearly drowned. We were absolutely desperate to get her safe. She’s a very elderly lady, she can hardly get to the post office … She was up to her neck in water. It’s just not acceptable. It cannot happen again.”
The community rallied to help itself during the severe flooding that hit Lismore.Credit:Elise Derwin
O’Kane and Fuller believe that in future disasters, a smartphone app could help the public, and the authorities, to be better informed and prepared before a flood, if the app were to provide access to flood warnings, flood mapping and real-time information gathered from river and rain gauges, and from residents like Tatam who live upstream of major rivers.
Developing such an app is one of a number of the report’s recommendations that look to better harness community knowledge and skill in the face of disaster.
There are very few good news stories from the floods that devastated Lismore and surrounding towns in late February and early March, leaving thousands traumatised and homeless, but one is the way the community rallied to care for each other while isolated from the rest of the state, and largely from government help.
The report documents the extraordinary efforts of communities in the Northern Rivers to step up and help each other, from the “tinny army” that rescued people off roofs, through to community hubs that performed a multitude of tasks, from organising helicopter food-drops for communities cut off by floodwater and landslips, through to providing shelter, clothing and mental health support to flood victims.
“These acts were so often heroic, altruistic and kind,” the report states. “They were also often a direct response to the absence of expected assistance from government authorities and emergency services … [and] profoundly benefitted the wellbeing, health, and safety of those who were flood-affected and displaced.”
Now O’Kane and Fuller want the government to build on that good work. As well as having a greater role in sharing information, they say civilians should be trained in flood rescues so they can help in any future disaster in a safer way. And they say the state needs an improved understanding of how the nature of volunteering is changing, to ensure volunteers can best contribute in emergencies.
That’s a view shared by Elly Bird, the co-ordinator of volunteer group Resilient Lismore, which has helped thousands of flood victims in the city over the past six months, providing food and other support, then helping residents to clean up their homes and start to make parts of them habitable again.
“The usual structures of volunteerism – that you show up every Wednesday night for training – just doesn’t work for people any more,” she says. “They don’t want that regular commitment. They want to volunteer as and when required, to step up when there’s an event.”
She says on the back of the report, community members would ideally “be able to do one-off or periodic training” that would enable them to respond when a disaster happens.
This year’s devastating floods left a massive clean-up task behind them.Credit:Elise Derwin
“The scale of this disaster has thrown into sharp focus that emergency services and government don’t have the resources to do the full scope of work that needs to be done,” Bird says. “It’s really revealed that the resources aren’t there, and that should we continue to experience disasters of this scale, they’re not going to be.
“There is no way a bureaucracy can scale up as quickly as it needs to, in order to meet the need after an event like this.”
Resilient Lismore was born of the 2017 flood that hit the city, meaning that when the 2022 disaster struck, the group was already organised and quickly able to provide support. Within days, its Facebook page went from 7500 members to 30,000, and it soon moved from sharing official information about the flood to matching up volunteers with requests for assistance. Other organisations, including the Koori Mail, are also still helping victims in Lismore.
Bird says that alongside training, community groups also need to get resources and equipment to help them do their jobs. She runs through her ideal shopping list: “Satellite telephones, generators, solar power systems – what we need to set up emergency telecommunications and co-ordination systems.”
But she says it is not always easy for community groups to fit in with already established emergency management plans, and work with government agencies.
“If I could wave a magic wand, then I would train communities in emergency management operational procedures. I would train up community leaders and organisers in understanding incident management systems for instance, so there is a common language.
“It’s really important that the emergency services are prepared and willing to work with community responses,” she says, advocating for clear and efficient communications between official agencies and community groups, and greater inclusion of community groups in decision-making.
“For example, going forward in Lismore, whoever is co-ordinating spontaneous volunteers needs to have a seat at the table with the Local Emergency Management Committee [which is made up of representatives of various emergency services and government agencies].
“We need to have access to that information to make critical, operational decisions. Otherwise, community groups may unknowingly walk into a situation of risk because they don’t have all the information that the official organisations have – a chemical spill in an area, or that an electricity grid in that area is being worked on in a particular day.
“There’s no way it’s going to be easy, but we really have to work out how to [work with government] better.”
Emergency management expert Andrew Gissing, who runs Natural Hazards Research Australia, agrees.
“Emergent volunteering is a typical community response after disasters when resources are overwhelmed,” he says. “It’s almost impossible for governments to have a standing army of resources available across the country and able to respond at short notice to events.
“We should be expecting this after a disaster and put strategies in place to work effectively with these spontaneous volunteers, and make sure their work is safe.
“Something that’s changed in last decade is social media, and the ability of a community to co-ordiante a response, like they did in Lismore, through social media. We need to think about how those more official and informal co-ordination mechanisms come together.”
He also says that official government agencies can also work with community groups to better educate the public about risk and the importance of preparation, before a disaster hits.
“This is an opportunity – and one that should be taken – to ensure we have a community-centred approach to disaster management.”
Koori Mail general manager Naomi Moran also found herself in charge of a volunteer army in Lismore, instead of a newspaper, when the flood submerged the publication’s offices.
The paper’s staff set up a small marquee to help Indigenous flood victims and started a GoFundMe page to help them buy basics, like toilet paper. Before they knew it, the paper had raised $1.3 million, which it has been dispersing through grants, largely for housing, while also providing other support across the Northern Rivers community.
“A lot of it comes naturally to us, how we would co-ordinate things as an Aboriginal community. It’s very much a holistic approach, in that this is what it looks like to care for people. It’s not just about a bottle of water and a tin of baked beans at that moment, it’s also about having wellbeing team on site to help someone with mental health, or a medical team to treat cuts and scratches from the floodwater.
“It’s an example of how Aboriginal people and non-Indigenous people can work together and support each other in a time of crisis.”
For his part, Tatam would love to see a network of flood monitors across the Lismore catchment set up with standardised weather gauges and 24-hour reporting periods. He intends to keep monitoring the rain that falls over his property, in the hope of warning people before another flood hits.
“I do 50 push-ups every morning, and read the rain gauge every morning,” he says.
“I see it as a duty. Having a civic responsibility to those who don’t know what’s happening up here – to tell them what’s happening – is vitally important.”
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