A human rights probe into deadly floods has heard stories of those who weren’t rescued by authorities including the elderly and pregnant women.
Authorities “failed” to provide adequate flood warnings, evacuation or rescue support during the deadly Lismore floods, a new human rights report has found.
Human Rights Watch has found that NSW and local authorities such as the SES “failed to take effective steps to protect those most at risk from foreseeable harm” during the flood disaster.
“During the 2022 floods, NSW authorities did not adequately warn or help at-risk people, which led to terrifying and deadly consequences,” said Sophie McNeill, Australia researcher at Human Rights Watch.
Report authors interviewed 23 survivors of the flood, including those who heard their neighbours screaming for help before drowning, focusing on the experiences of older Australians, those with disabilities, and people who were pregnant.
“I could hear her screaming; she was only three houses down,” said Dave, 63, whose 82-year-old neighbour Marge Graham drowned.
“By the time it was light, and it [the floodwater] was up to the doors, I couldn’t hear her anymore.”
He spoke about the anger he felt after rescuers didn‘t show up to rescue Ms Graham.
“I just can’t work out why they didn’t come to rescue her, she had
a walking frame; she couldn’t climb anywhere,“ he said.
“Where’s the idea that she’ll be okay? Her voice will reverberate through my head for a long time.”
Another neighbour said he tried to call emergency services for hours trying to get Ms Graham an urgent rescue, with authorities not reaching her house until the following day.
“You couldn‘t get through, no one was answering,” John Maloney said.
“The next morning, they‘d gone to the house and she was found floating face down in the water…I just kept thinking, wish we could’ve done more to help.”
The report found that evacuation orders issued by authorities did not “adequately consider the needs of at-risk groups”, with some older residents told to evacuate by themselves in the dark.
“Emergency services did not offer older residents, some of whom had difficulty walking, any assistance to evacuate,” it said.
“The authorities’ flood rescue response in Lismore left many at-risk residents, with fewer resources or capabilities to fend for themselves, dangerously close to drowning in their homes.”
South Lismore resident Harry Gregg was forced to rescue his 91-year-old neighbour in a blow-up canoe after she was trapped by floodwaters.
“I was calling SES, triple-0, just over and over again and no one was picking up, and I tell you what, that was the scariest thing ever, when you call triple-0, and no one answers, you‘re like, well I’m truly on my own,” Mr Gregg said.
“So, I went in, she was kind of just in the front hallway and she was screaming, it was up to her neck.
“I‘m not sure if she panicked or just moved or a combination of the two, but we capsized, she went under, pretty quickly.
“I ended up having her in one arm, and I swam about 50 meters to shore.”
“During this flood emergency, NSW SES responded in accordance with existing emergency management arrangements. However, as an emergency service organisation, we will always be looking out for what we can do better,“ NSW SES said in response to the report‘s findings.
Since the Lismore Floods, the organisation has undertaken a transition to the new nationwide Australian Warning System to bring the agency in line with a nationally consistent framework for emergency warnings.
It has also increased operational capacity through additional training and call-taking capability and says it is working proactively with at-risk local communities for flood preparedness and a better understanding of what they should do if they need to evacuate.
Jahnaya Mumford, 32, was 38 weeks pregnant when the flooding began and says she did not receive an evacuation order from emergency services.
She called for help 35 times when she, her mother, and her 13-year-old daughter were trapped, however, when she got through to authorities they were told that they weren‘t doing any rescues.
“We had all been calling triple-0 and SES every half hour,” she said.
“And by the time it got to our chins, and I was standing on my tippy toes and still then SES were telling us that they weren’t doing any rescues.
“I was starting to panic; I was worried I was going to go into labour.”
They were eventually rescued by residents going past in a small boat after they climbed to the roof of their property.
Ms Mumford also believes the stress caused her to need to be induced four days after the flood.
“The stress of what I had gone through, that flood just topped it,” she said.
“And I ended up getting a phone call and saying that the ultrasound after the floods showed that my placenta wasn‘t working, and he wasn’t growing, that I needed to be induced.