FIRST came the disbelief, then the pain and now the questions. After last month’s flood disaster that claimed three lives in Dungog, the biggest question of all is stark in its simplicity.
What happened with the NSW State Emergency Service? How was it possible for the flood waters to get so high throughout the night with no warning on the ground to residents?
A Newcastle Herald investigation has learned a litany of factors, natural and man-made, may have played a part in the catastrophic floods. Everyone agrees that it was an exceptional flood, caused by record rainfall in the catchment areas of the Myall Creek and Williams and Paterson rivers that converged on Dungog at frightening pace.
But questions are mounting about the role of the SES and whether the organisation tasked with being the ‘‘lead combat agency’’ for flood disasters failed to prepare adequately.
Why were elderly residents in flood-prone areas left sleeping in their beds, unaware of the rising floodwaters until it was too late?
What was behind a group of angry residents having to drive to the Dungog SES unit about 6am on Tuesday to demand a boat be put in the water to rescue people?
And why weren’t other emergency services told of the imminent disaster before the town’s fire crews and police were sent 27kilometres away to Stroud as people drowned in town?
Colleen Jones, who watched her home of 36 years wash away in the storm, said something went ‘‘horribly wrong’’ with the emergency services that night.
‘‘The residents had each other and that was it,’’ she said. ‘‘We certainly didn’t get any help.’’
In previous floods, SES workers regularly knocked on doors in the flood prone areas giving water level updates and, in some cases, evacuated homes.
‘‘They would be out and about with their torches all night and if the water levels changed they would alert us,’’ she said. ‘‘This time we didn’t see anyone.’’
Many have been left asking how three people lost their lives in the April disaster and are ‘‘amazed’’ scores more didn’t die.
Citing the coronial inquiry, the SES declined to answer questions about its response, warnings issued or what action was taken. ‘‘The NSW SES will ensure that all support is given to the coroner,’’ a spokeswoman said.
SES deputy commissioner Steve Pearce previously told Fairfax Media that even with the evacuation plan, the flood was so sudden it would have been hard to reach people in Dungog. He said there was at best a few hours’ warning of the specific threat to the town.
But flooding in Dungog was in no way a novelty and authorities were aware of the risks from Myall Creek.
The SES has been responsible for floods and storms since being created following the 1955 Maitland floods.
The combat agency’s own Dungog Shire Local Flood Plan, obtained by the Herald, identifies nine houses, two businesses and four aged-care units as high risk of flooding that may require evacuation. They are in Hooke, Dowling and Brown streets where Robin Macdonald, 68, Colin ‘‘Spider’’ Webb, 79, and Brian Wilson, 72, died.
Forensic pathologists have determined each cause of death was drowning.
Elderly residents in known flood-risk areas didn’t receive any official alerts about the rising waters.
Mr Webb, who was in the Alison Court assisted-living facility in Brown Street and Mr Wilson, across the road at Johnson’s Flats, had no warning of the calamity.
Ms Macdonald, a former SES member, had been monitoring the water beside her Hooke Street home and was calling people throughout the night to alert them of the danger. SES workers visited her Hooke Street home after 4.30am to lift valuables and asked her to evacuate, but she refused.
‘‘Major flooding may necessitate evacuation from a small number of dwellings in low-lying areas in Hooke, Dowling, Brown and Windeyer streets,’’ the flood plan reads. ‘‘Substantial flooding from Myall Creek can cause inundation of three lower units in the Alison Court Retirement Village and one house in Brown Street.’’
Pauline Cambourne owns 38 Brown Street, the house identified in the flood plan. It was deemed structurally unsound and uninhabitable after water hit the ceiling.
Evacuated by emergency services in the 2007 Pasha Bulka storm, Ms Cambourne said she was amazed there was no warning this time.
She called the Dungog SES at 11.30pm on Monday to report water from the storm drain next to her house was in her carport. Phone records show she had a seven-minute conversation.
‘‘They [the SES] always used to come around and monitor the water levels,’’ she said. ‘‘When I didn’t hear from them in the street I wanted to let them know what was going on.’’
At 5.10am, Ms Cambourne called the Dungog SES again to report the water was about to enter her house and she was evacuating. Asked if she needed assistance, she declined because a friend was helping and she didn’t want to ‘‘tie up their resources’’.
She left at 5.45am when the water was chest deep.
‘‘From my experience in 2007, I assumed with that level of water around I would have been evacuated or put on alert for evacuation,’’ she said.
The Herald has spoken to numerous residents who recall being evacuated in the 2007 storm when flood waters were nowhere near as high.
It is not clear if the SES alerted other emergency services that were called out of Dungog as late as 4.30am on Tuesday. Dungog has two police officers, who are also retained firefighters for the town’s Fire and Rescue NSW.
The Herald understands one officer was called out with five other firefighters in the town’s only fire tankers at 4.18am to respond to flood emergencies at Stroud some 27 kilometres away.
A second police officer left Dungog bound for Stroud at 4.35am, leaving the town without any police or town fire trucks as the floodwaters rose to their peak levels after 6am.
In fact, when the police first heard of the Dungog emergency, they immediately left Stroud but could not get through floodwaters.
Instead, they parked their police truck near the rail line heading into town and ran the final two kilometres.
But the flood had already been through.
The Herald has been able to confirm that there was no correspondence between the SES and other emergency services in the lead-up to the flash flooding which could have allowed police and fire crews to prepare or warn residents of the impending disaster.
Jamie Bidner, whose home was washed away in Dowling Street, said the SES was absent throughout most of the crisis and terribly slow off the mark when the situation exploded.
He said for hours residents had to fend for themselves because there was no help coming.
‘‘There was a fair bit of anger when the SES finally turned up,’’ he said.
‘‘When they eventually arrived we told them to go around to Hooke St and help other people because we had sorted ourselves out.’’
Ken Cherry, whose father Allan lived next to Colin Webb, who died in floodwaters outside his Brown Street home, said he was angry about the lack of warnings.
‘‘The SES should have been monitoring the water levels. In other floods, the SES are up monitoring, but this time they weren’t,’’ he said. ‘‘I reckon if they did that, Col would still be here.’’
The feeling is shared by Brown Street resident Dennis Bourke who said it was hard to avoid suspicion that the emergency response to the worsening flood danger was far less than perfect. He said a key aspect would be determining the flood history of the town and what warnings authorities were given.
‘‘If we had some kind of warning, perhaps those people would not have died,’’ he said. ‘‘In general terms emergency services do a great job, but in this particular incident I’m not so sure.’’