Bureau of Meterology rejects suggestions it was unprepared for Northern Rivers NSW flood event

Australia’s national weather agency has issued a staunch defence of its handling of deadly flooding in New South Wales earlier this year, after a parliamentary report found it did not comprehend the scale of the threat.   

Five people died in the first flood event in the Northern Rivers on February 28, with evacuation orders for towns such as Lismore issued through the night as flood waters tore through the region.

A NSW parliamentary committee found the Bureau of Meteorology (BOM) was not prepared, that information used to make decisions was “incorrect and out of date”, and recommended it review its data processes.

The bureau declined to be interviewed by the ABC but in a statement a spokesperson said the agency “strongly refutes” the committee’s findings.

The statement outlined how the BOM warned governments, including national cabinet, and the community in 2021 of a likely La Niña event and above-average flooding risk across Australia’s north and east.

Specifically in relation to flooding in northern NSW, it said it told the State Emergency Service (SES) five days before the first event of “the potential for life-threatening flash-flooding over the NSW north coast” and that it issued flood watches and warnings “many days in advance”. 

“The bureau also explicitly identified the risk for intense localised rain events, life threatening flash flooding and the potential for rapid river rises,” it said.

Aerial photo of Lismore in flood in 2017
The Northern Rivers flood event was the region’s worst on record.(ABC North Coast: Ruby Cornish)

The statement also addressed the report findings that some agencies treated it “as a nine-to-five business operation”, arguing it was instead a “365 days a year, 24/7 operation”.

The bureau said that for this event, a specialised meteorologist and a hydrologist were embedded with the SES at the Wollongong headquarters, and that the bureau supplied area-specific briefings to agencies.

It also noted that engagement with the parliamentary committee had been “limited”, and that a separate independent flood inquiry, which has handed its report to the government but was not yet public, was much more proactive with asking for information.

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Probe finds lead emergency agencies failed in flood response(Bruce MacKenzie)

‘More of the same’

Kyogle Shire Council general manager Graham Kennett said the report was missing recommendations to improve telecommunications, which were crucial for monitoring levels to make decisions.

“If we know what’s going on in this catchment and in that catchment, then we have warning times and we can predict flood levels to a degree of accuracy that is good enough to make informed decisions about when people need to leave,” he said.

“It takes 45 minutes to an hour for the data to get online and in some cases that is too long for a decision-making process.”

In Lismore, a group of residents said the 37 recommendations did not go far enough, and wanted locals to be given the power to make decisions in future flood events

The parliamentary committee slammed the response of the SES during the flood crisis, accusing it of “issuing out of date, inaccurate and confusing messages”.

It has recommended that a restructure of the SES be conducted to harness local knowledge and increase the number of salaried staff and volunteers.

Man and woman sit at a long table in front of microphones
Beth Trevan (left) believes the recommendations do not afford local people enough autonomy.(ABC North Coast: Bruce MacKenzie)

Lismore Citizens Flood Review group coordinator Beth Trevan said while the inquiry findings mirrored the group’s submission, the recommendations were “disappointing” as they appeared to be “more of the same”.

Ms Trevan wants local people on the ground to have the power to make decisions.

“In the past we’ve had long term local people, who had been here for 30 or 40 years and were in senior positions at a regional level … and the knowledge of the entire area and the knowledge of all the agencies and the people who ran them was at their fingertips,” she said.

“By the time it gets transferred from here to Sydney and they have a chat with the bureau, the time is wasted, and we don’t have time.”

Catherine Cusack wearing a grey jacket and sitting in a park.
Catherine Cusack left parliament in protest of her party’s handling of the flood crisis.(ABC News)

Catherine Cusack represented the Liberal Party on the parliamentary committee, but no longer sits in parliament after letting her membership lapse in protest at her party’s handling of the crisis.

She fell short of backing the notion that local people should be making decisions but said they should be “more front and centre”.

“Of all the data that flows into them, there’s just no capacity for locals to say ‘I don’t know what it is in your gauges … but all I can tell you is the water is metres high up here in an unprecedented way’,” she said.

The SES said it is reviewing the report and will provide a response to parliament.

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