The NSW agency tasked with preparation and response for natural disasters was missing in action following disastrous flooding in the state’s north, an inquiry has been told.
Lismore MP Janelle Saffin told an inquiry hearing Resilience NSW were “simply not there”.
“They were missing in action and they never made their presence known,” she said.
The hearing is being held on Tuesday in Lismore, the northern NSW town hardest hit by disastrous flooding from relentless rain in February and March.
The agency was hindering instead of helping the disaster response and the role or existence of the agency needed to be re-evaluated, Ms Saffin said.
The agency was unprepared to respond and struggled to coordinate evacuation and recovery centres, some of which had no staff when residents arrived seeking help, she said.
Lismore Mayor Steve Krieg told the hearing Resilience NSW struggled with the concept that an evacuation centre would be a 24/7 operation.
“To have a public service come in and run an evacuation centre is a challenge because it’s almost treated like a nine-to-five job,” he said.
Southern Cross University’s Lismore campus transformed into an evacuation centre following the floods, housing up to 1200 residents on campus at its peak.
Schools, government agencies and charities had also been based there.
Vice-chancellor Professor Tyrone Carlin told the hearing the university has been asked to help in previous disasters, but the 2022 floods had prompted a review of how it could do it better in the future.
The SCU review recommended strengthening infrastructure to help fill gaps in its capacity to respond.
Backup power and generation, a dedicated helipad, communications upgrades, water storage and filtration equipment, and basic evacuation centre bedding and storage facilities were among the recommendations.
Prof Carlin said governments should recognise the unique role regional universities can play in disaster response and consider that in their funding decisions.
Without mentioning Resilience NSW directly, he said there was a lack of leadership and coordination of various state agencies in the flood response, which is the agency’s role.
“Our experience was lots of moving parts, a perception of a lack of capacity on the ground early on, and a desire on our part throughout, to have an authorised party with whom we could directly operate, to cut through and get things done quickly,” Prof Carlin said.
Clarence MP Chris Gulaptis told the hearing communities and government agencies were caught off guard by the scale of the flooding, which contributed to shortfalls in the response.
He said there should have been more warning and the Bureau of Meteorology’s systems should be reviewed.
“With all its technology and science (it) should have determined that this was going to be a major flood,” Mr Gulaptis said.
People’s lives were being put at risk by cost-cutting at disaster agencies like the State Emergency Service and the Bureau of Meteorology, said Mr Krieg, who claimed they were hanging up on locals attempting to warn them about river levels.
“The centralisation of these agencies is a real problem area, and we need to decentralise and have local knowledge in local areas.”
Lismore’s application for a $110,000 government grant to improve gauges and warning systems, including installing CCTV upstream to monitor river heights, was knocked back three days before the first flood hit in February, Mr Krieg said.
Substantial damage to warning systems and gauges in the first flood meant there was no accurate warning for the second flood, he added.