People living with disabilities, older people and people who were pregnant when catastrophic flooding tore through Lismore this year were left to fend for themselves, a new report has found, as Australian authorities failed to protect the region’s most vulnerable.
On Friday, Human Rights Watch released new reporting that found the emergency response from New South Wales and local authorities failed to include at-risk members of the community in their response plans, leaving many of them stranded, without access to warnings,and “powerless” to help anyone around them.
“I could hear her screaming; she was only three houses down,” said one 63-year-old man, whose 82-year-old neighbour drowned. “By the time it was light, and it [the floodwater] was up to the doors, I couldn’t hear her anymore.”
The man’s neighbour would eventually become one of four people to drown in the historic floods, which rolled into Lismore on February 28, and peaked at 14.4 metres, breaking the region’s previous record by 2 metres.
Along with the four drownings recorded—two of whom were women in their 80s, as well as a man and a woman both in their 50s—more than 2,000 homes were destroyed and later declared uninhabitable as a result of the carnage, while countless others continue to undergo restoration more than six months later.
The region’s fatality rate, however, could have been much higher had it not been for community efforts mobilised across the entire northern rivers region, who are understood to have saved the lives of more than 1,000 people as flood warnings failed to reach those in harm’s way.
In Lismore’s CBD, the offices of the Koori Mail—a national newspaper for Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population—was swiftly converted into an ad-hoc emergency response centre as soon as floodwaters began to recede.
The dilapidated two-storey structure on Molesworth Street, in the city’s centre, became the central nervous system, where everything from gurneys and toolboxes, to children’s clothes—in pretty much every size—were donated, catalogued, and tracked by hand “in a little red notebook”.
Residents from across the city would go there for food. Maybe to track down a sparky. Or to be connected with mental and medical health services.
In the city’s neighbouring town centres, like Murwillumbah and Woodburn—where floodwaters caused similarly catastrophic damage—the sentiment was the same. Locals had stepped in where they suspected Australia’s local and state authorities had failed to.
Not long after, the NSW government commissioned an independent expert inquiry into the “preparation for, causes of, response to and recovery from” the catastrophic flooding that engulfed swathes of the state’s northeast corner.
It found that the State Emergency Service (SES) didn’t go far enough to ensure the weather’s severity was adequately communicated via its flood bulletins, on its website and Facebook, or any other warning methods.
Of the 15 households spoken to by Human Rights Watch, for instance, only two said that emergency services had knocked on their door and told them to evacuate. Beyond that, emergency services were reported to have offered no assistance, leaving families with small children, older people, and people living with disabilities trapped and unable to leave.
The state’s flood inquiry was later told 3,000 calls for help from residents of the communities were missed as a result of a software system failure. The inquiry said that eventually led to a “systemic failure” which left residents without enough time to evacuate, or enough information about just how severe the weather would be.
Only a few of the 23 survivors interviewed by Human Rights Watch were rescued by emergency services.
“I was calling SES, 000, just over and over again,” said Harry Gregg, a 24-year-old who told Human Rights Watch that he risked his own life to save a 91-year-old woman. “And no one was picking up and I tell you what, that was the scariest thing ever, when you call 000 and no one answers, you’re like: ‘well I’m truly on my own’.”
In a statement to VICE, the NSW SES said the agency has “implemented a number of improvements” in the months since the floods. Among them are simple operational changes, like deploying resources sooner, and working more proactively with partner agencies and the Australian Defence Force.
According to a spokesperson, the SES has also trained more “incident management personnel”, and has launched a public information campaign in six languages, aimed at closing the gaping information hole that was left for residents across the northern rivers earlier this year.
“NSW SES Community Capability Teams work proactively with at-risk local communities for flood preparedness and better understanding what they need to do if they need to evacuate,” the spokesperson told VICE.
“We are continually communicating via a variety of methods including community meetings, door knocking, social and digital and traditional media. The NSW SES communicates early as possible via a variety of means working with communities and individuals with additional or different needs.”
Even still, researchers at Human Rights Watch have called on the government to go further, and “urgently carry out” a recommendation made by the flood inquiry to have “clear, consistent and effective messaging prior to and during a disaster, to ensure all community members understand the risk in all its dimensions including vulnerability, capacity, exposure and hazard characteristics.”
Above all, though, at-risk groups should be consulted with and prioritised in the NSW government’s Climate Change Adaptation Strategy, the researchers say.
While there is currently no conclusive evidence that attributes the 2022 floods to the climate crisis, the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projects an uptick in more extreme rainfall events, like the intense La Niña weather system that flooded the northern rivers of NSW earlier this year.
On Friday, researchers at Human Rights Watch joined the UN Secretary-General, António Guterres, in calling on world leaders to take immediate short-term action on adaptation strategy to ensure that “those on the front lines of the climate crisis”, like residents of low-lying flood-prone areas, are no longer relegated to the “back of the line for support”.
“Adaptation must be treated with a seriousness that reflects the equal worth of all members of the human family,” Guterres said this week.
“It’s time for a global climate adaptation overhaul that puts aside excuses and picks up the toolbox to fix the problems.”
Sophie McNeill, an Australia researcher at Human Rights Watch, said as a high-emitter of fossil fuels, Australian authorities have a human rights obligation to ensure that those most at risk are protected from the worst possible outcomes.
She said that begins with a better-informed climate change adaptation strategy, and an end to all new coal and gas.
“With severe climate change impacts expected in the years to come, the Australian government needs to make at-risk groups a priority in their extreme weather response planning,” McNeill said.
“At the upcoming UN Climate Change Conference, COP27, Australia should show it’s serious about preventing the worst effects of the climate crisis by announcing an end to new fossil fuel projects and a rapid transition to renewable energy.”
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