‘No one could have predicted’: authorities defend Lismore flood response after evacuation order was cancelled

Emergency services have responded to criticism of the response to this week’s flooding in Lismore, Byron Bay and Ballina, with the SES acting commissioner Daniel Austin admitting some things would have been done differently “if we had a crystal ball”.

An evacuation order for the Lismore CBD was removed late on Tuesday afternoon, only to be reinstated at 3am on Wednesday after more heavy rain overnight.

The local flood siren also did not sound when the levee was breached because it malfunctioned.

At a press conference about the unfolding flood situation, the acting NSW premier, Paul Toole, said “no one could have predicted some of the amounts of rainfall that we have seen land”.

“If you look at Alstonville, in the last 24 hours, we’ve seen 430mm of rain land in these communities. Four weeks ago, these communities were impacted by heavy rainfall in that area. No one could have predicted they would be back here again.”

SES head Austin said the decision to drop the evacuation order at Lismore was taken based on local consultation and advice from the Bureau of Meteorology about the incoming weather.

“At that point in time, that advice was the right advice to enable the community to try to restore and work through its recovery process,” Austin said.

“Some hours later, we then saw a significant thunderstorm form over the Lismore area, which led to that extreme flash flooding event. The community reacted well through the evening.”

Austin said the situation developed “exceptionally quickly”.

“If we had a crystal ball, then you may make different decisions,” he said.

“You make your decisions based on the information that you have at the time.”

He pointed out the SES had been warning residents that information was subject to change at short notice.

BoM meteorologist Dean Narramore said it was getting harder to predict these flooding events, noting work was being done to improve modelling.

He warned anyone who lived near rivers, creeks and streams in the northern rivers area to stay vigilant.

“Please stay up to date with the latest forecasts and warnings and listen to all advice from emergency services because, as we saw last night, these coastal troughs and small-scale low pressure systems are always rapidly evolving and quickly changing weather systems,” he said.

Byron Bay experienced flash flooding overnight, with the main street inundated, and local federal MP Justine Elliot questioned why there was no evacuation centre set up by early Wednesday morning.

“Our staff are responding to situations as fast as they can but many have been impacted by the weather as well,” a spokesperson for the Byron council said.

“Please avoid flooded areas around the Byron Bay CBD. It’s not the time to be going for a drive to have a look at things.”

Toole said resourcing of the SES would be one of the matters considered as part of the independent inquiry announced following the devastating floods a month ago.

“That inquiry itself, I am sure, is going to outline a number of changes and things that may need to happen as we go forward,” Toole said.

“We can always look at doing things better and I want to make the commitment that we always should.”

The emergency services minister, Steph Cooke, said the inquiry would also look at “planning matters”.

Toole warned residents that more flooding was possible in coming weeks, with more wet weather predicted throughout April.

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