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Residents ‘laughed off’ warnings in lead up to deadly floods

As Lismore faces further destructive flooding on Monday, residents have looked back on last month’s event and what went wrong.

Thousands of people were stranded requiring rescue after flood waters rose to record levels on Monday 28 February.

An overstretched NSW State Emergency Service (SES) was unable to reach everyone in need of assistance, requiring the public to act and save others.

Despite warnings from the Bureau of Meteorology about the approaching weather system, residents told ABC’s 7:30 they did not expect it would get so bad.

“We did hear ‘possible major flooding, possible 1974 level’, but that’s all I was aware of at the time,” Lismore resident, Joel Wilson said.

“Social media pages were sprouting 1000mm in some places. I think it was laughed off, a lot of people laughed it off,” another resident, Jason Paterson said.

An offer for assistance made by the ADF days before flood waters peaked was turned down by the SES.

“We did not at that stage think that we were beyond our capacity and we needed them to come in,” NSW SES Commissioner, Carlene York told Today on 14 March.

Despite warnings by authorities for residents to evacuate, many chose to stay.

“The SES came around and said ‘we do recommend you evacuate’, we didn’t think it was necessary at that point because the flood was not going to be anything that was going to endanger our lives at that stage,” Mr Paterson said.

Camera IconThe SES responded to thousands of calls for assistance, but many were left to fend for themselves. Toby Zerna Credit: News Corp Australia

On the night on 27 February, evacuation orders were issued for lower-lying parts of the city, for residents to leave by 5am.

Two hours later advice changed, telling residents via social media and SMS to leave immediately.

By morning many people were trapped by the water and calls to the SES yielded little result.

“Basically their advice was ‘we can’t help you, or we might not be able to get to you. If things get desperate you’re going to have to get on your roof,” Mr Paterson said.

Members of the public with boats used them to rescue stranded neighbours as emergency services struggled to cope with thousands of calls for help.

Floodwaters claimed the lives of four people in the Lismore area and left thousands of others’ homes devastated.

The ordeal left many who live in Lismore asking if their city will ever be the same again, and wondering when the next big event will occur.

Last week the NSW government announced an independent inquiry into the flood disaster, to finalise a report by 30 September 2022.

It will consider a range of factors including preparation and planning by agencies for floods across NSW.

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