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As further floods tear through southern Queensland and northern New South Wales, communities are exhausted, devastated and searching for answers. By Rick Morton.

Lismore inundated again in ‘never-ending’ floods

A Lismore resident clears mud and debris from around his house this week.
A Lismore resident clears mud and debris from around his house this week.
Credit: Dan Peled / Getty Images

In Lismore the residents darkly refer to it as the “one-in-30-day flood”. A month after the town was inundated, another intense low-pressure system has dumped hundreds of millimetres of rain in southern Queensland and northern New South Wales.

The storms and flooding have already claimed at least two more lives, in addition to the 22 people killed across Queensland and the NSW Northern Rivers in February. Early Monday morning, emergency responders were called to a flooded road in Kingsthorpe near Toowoomba where a man and a woman were trapped in a submerged ute. The woman was rescued and taken to hospital in a stable condition but the man, who was due to be married, died at the scene.

An hour later, in North Branch, 53 kilometres south-west of Toowoomba, swift water rescue crews responded to the occupants of two cars caught in floodwater. A woman managed to escape on her own but a man in the other vehicle was swept away when he tried to climb out of his car. His body was found on Tuesday morning.

From there, the bad weather moved south and thrust the Northern Rivers into flood again. “It’s pretty rough up here,” a resident of the region told The Saturday Paper. “The fear is real and it is really tough.”

In Alstonville, between Ballina and Lismore, the Bureau of Meteorology recorded 431 millimetres of rain in just 24 hours. Despite the already saturated river systems and more heavy rainfall, predictions for Lismore and elsewhere were hard to pin down.

Late on Monday, the bureau noted the Wilsons River could peak “near the Lismore levee height” of 10.6 metres by Tuesday afternoon. In reality, as conditions worsened in catchments, the river peaked at 11.4 metres about 5pm on Wednesday.

For context, the 2017 Lismore flood was the first time the town’s then 12-year-old levee had ever been “overtopped”. In that event, the river peaked at 11.59 metres.

As water inundated the central business district of Byron Bay and cascaded through the already gutted streets of Lismore, emergency systems failed.

The evacuation sirens in Lismore “malfunctioned” and the river gauge was giving readings that were understating water levels by 40 centimetres.

“Our members have taken manual readings of the flood water heights in the CBD and compared them to the flood gauge readings,” the NSW SES Lismore City Unit posted on its social media pages early on Wednesday morning.

“There is a 400mm difference between the countdown display on the Browns Creek pump station and the actual water level. This means if the levee overtops, the display will still show 0.4 metres remaining, even as the water commences flowing over the levee.”

A series of evacuation orders for Lismore were issued earlier in the week but an order for the Lismore CBD and East Lismore was cancelled late on Tuesday as flood forecasts failed to eventuate. At 3am on Wednesday, however, following hours of intense rainfall, the evacuation orders were reinstated.

Lismore City Council mayor Steve Krieg told the ABC there was “a lot of confusion”. Speaking on Wednesday, he said: “When we thought we were out of the woods yesterday, when the evacuation order was lifted, there were some good signs, but from about 11.30 last night the phones started ringing and no sleep since.

“Just a lot of confusion around it to be honest with you. Seems to have been a bit of indecision coming through from the bureau and the SES. No one was prepared to stick to a decision ...

“Now we find ourselves in this position. No doubt there’ll be another inquiry leading to another inquiry and that will lead to no answers.”

At a press conference on Wednesday morning, NSW SES acting commissioner Daniel Austin defended the changing advice, saying the “situation we saw overnight [Tuesday into Wednesday] developed exceptionally quickly”.

“So we talked yesterday afternoon about the potential for levee overtop. We talked again during the night about the potential for levee overtop,” he said. “Emergency text messages were also issued during the night to the community, and the warnings were also issued during the night.”

When asked for a response to Steve Krieg’s assertion that SES and Bureau of Meteorology advice couldn’t be “relied upon at the moment”, Austin said the Wilsons River level “actually went down after the order was revoked”.

“If we had a crystal ball then you may make different decisions,” he said. “The reality is that you make your decisions based on the information that you have at the time and the information that we had at the time was that the rivers were falling and that the conditions we expected were no longer going to present.”

What changed, according to the Bureau of Meteorology’s Dean Narramore, was a “small but intense low-pressure system that rapidly developed just off the coast of the Northern Rivers” late on Tuesday.

“Once the situation did change late last night, we upgraded our warnings around the midnight hour [and] we briefed the SES,” he said. “Unfortunately, that caused significant and destructive flash flooding through the communities of Ballina and Byron Bay and many others in between.”

Asked if the bureau’s prediction models were still up to scratch in an era of dramatic climate change, Narramore replied: “It’s a good question.”

“One of the things we are working on is we are moving into high-resolution modelling,” he said. “It’s a much finer scale so it can pick up these convective elements. Now, convection has always been a really tough element of weather forecasting. We are continuing to upgrade and build new radars across the country as well but in the world of meteorology and weather we can never have enough data.”

While residents in Byron Bay, Lismore and other communities across the north and mid-north of the state assessed the damage from another round of natural disasters, they have some help on hand this time.

“Those scenes in Lismore are very distressing,” Prime Minister Scott Morrison told ABC’s News Breakfast on Wednesday morning. “And once again we’ve got over 3200 defence forces are up there, obviously in place from the previous floods. But both the trauma of these events just must be unbearable for people up there in and around Lismore today. And we’ll be there with them, as we have been, and will continue to be.”

On March 21, three weeks after the catastrophic 14.4-metre floods in Lismore and record-breaking rainfall events across the north of NSW, acting NSW Premier Paul Toole announced an independent inquiry into the disaster, led by Professor Mary O’Kane and former NSW police commissioner Mick Fuller.

Its remit is wide and includes reporting on “current and future land use planning and management and building standards in flood-prone locations across NSW”. Some 4000 homes were deemed uninhabitable after the event, signalling an even greater housing supply crisis than the emergency levels currently being experienced.

A year ago, Byron Shire Council declared a housing emergency. “The scale of housing loss across the Northern Rivers may outstrip available supply across the state,” one source told The Saturday Paper. “Large-scale investment in social housing is fundamentally important in the rebuild.”

Just what that rebuild looks like, however, is hard to discern.

NSW Minister for Emergency Services and Resilience Stephanie Cooke told reporters on Wednesday that the inquiry would examine measures to move people out of flood plains but added that there were bigger issues for some communities.

“There are discussions, of course, being held in and among the community of Lismore itself in relation to its future,” she said. “I know that for many of you in the Northern Rivers region and the mid-north coast it must feel as though this flooding emergency is never going to end.”

At time of press, authorities were still searching for aged-care nurse Anita Brakel who was reported missing in floodwaters late on Tuesday night while driving a white Holden Captiva station wagon. NSW Police had not seen Brakel or her car since.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 2, 2022 as "Deadly repetition".

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Rick Morton is The Saturday Paper’s senior reporter.

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