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Fights broke out as top-down approach to Lismore flood response failed, inquiry told

Locals who were trying to help rescue residents and feed evacuees clashed with NSW agencies, community witnesses say

People use small boats to travel through flood water in Lismore on 28 February.
People use small boats to travel through flood water in Lismore on 28 February. A parliamentary inquiry into catastrophic flooding in the town has heard residents were disillusioned with the response from officials. Photograph: Jason O’Brien/AP
People use small boats to travel through flood water in Lismore on 28 February. A parliamentary inquiry into catastrophic flooding in the town has heard residents were disillusioned with the response from officials. Photograph: Jason O’Brien/AP

Lismore residents have told of fights breaking out between members of the public trying to help and officials attempting to implement a failed “top-down” approach during the height of the flood emergency.

Several community witnesses at a parliamentary inquiry into catastrophic flooding in the town told MPs on Tuesday they were completely disillusioned with Resilience NSW, the new agency established in 2020 to lead disaster and emergency efforts from prevention to recovery.

But it was far from the only state agency to face criticism.

One man told of a physical fight with volunteers from another state agency because he was helping boat owners launch their crafts into the flood waters to rescue stranded residents.

A local councillor said he had defied a request from one department to stop feeding evacuees in need of comfort at an evacuation centre.

The hearing heard countless tales of government unpreparedness during the peak of the crisis, in the recovery centres and as efforts continue to find accommodation for the thousands left homeless.

Earlier in the day, Lismore MP Janelle Saffin said the lead recovery body, Resilience NSW, had been “found wanting at every level”.

“It’s institutionally incapable of doing the job,” she said. “They were missing in action and they never made their presence known.”

NSW Lismore MP Janelle Saffin.
Lismore MP Janelle Saffin said Resilience NSW ‘were missing in action’. Photograph: Dan Himbrechts/AAP

Her sentiments were echoed by community members in the evening, who shared their stories with the NSW upper house committee touring the flood-hit northern rivers this week. The parliamentary inquiry is separate to an independent inquiry also probing the flood response.

“Top-down handling hasn’t worked, Resilience NSW has failed miserably,” said Jude Forsyth of Girards Hill.

Marcus Bebb, formerly of South Lismore, explained that he and his family of five call a caravan home in a showground after losing their home. A rebuild could take three years, and he is still waiting to hear the government’s position on house buybacks.

“Resilience NSW, all I can do is laugh. Give me five minutes and let me run the place,” Bebb said.

The slow rollout of NSW flood grants also came under attack.

“Don’t make it so hard for us to get funding,” said mushroom farmer Kylie O’Reilly, who has applied for multiple state grants and commonwealth payments.

She said Centrelink had asked her for identification five times. “It’s ridiculous what they do to us.”

Another woman said financial institutions lacked sympathy. “My bank has asked me for everything but my bra size.”

The desperate need for housing was often outlined and people spoke about couch surfing, sleeping in vans and camping in houses with no walls or doors.

Demolished houses in Lismore after the recent floods devastation.
Demolished houses in Lismore after the devastating flooding. Photograph: Patrick Hamilton/AFP/Getty Images

Hanabeth Luke, a university researcher who carried out boat rescues, described the region’s mental health as terrible, with people falling into a “catatonic state of depression”.

She warned the disaster should be a wake-up call for Australia as climate change creates increasing challenges.

“This is about how we as Australians work together, listen to each other, and get the best outcome … for communities at this time of climate interruption.”

The Richmond Valley mayor, Robert Mustow, said there was too much government red tape.

“I am constantly bombarded by people who are frustrated, disappointed, angry with the application processes to get their back-to-home and business grants,” he said.

The mayor of Lismore, Steve Krieg, said he was embarrassed and upset that state legislation compelled councils to charge rates on homes now uninhabitable.

“I don’t think bureaucratically it’s understood the scale of the trauma,” said Krieg.

There were calls for a more community-led response and for emergency management to shift from a position of reaction to preparedness.

Naomi Moran, general manager of the Koori Mail newspaper, described the Lismore recovery hub set up by her Aboriginal-owned organisation.

“The Koori Mail took the initiative to act quickly to take care of the community during this time,” she said

It provided Lismore with a food bank, medical centre, emotional wellbeing centre (supported by counsellors and psychiatrists), access to free bedding, clothing and baby supplies, a kitchen that prepared hundreds of meals and an equipment registry for tools to borrow. The centre also coordinated helicopter visits to remote communities and vehicle drops for families unable to visit the hub.

Moran said the hub had been supported by businesses from Australia and had not received any government money.

The inquiry will hold a hearing in Murwillumbah on Wednesday.