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Scott Morrison was late to his first public appearance in Lismore.
In a way it was reflective of how people in northern New South Wales feel about the official response to the flooding crisis that has ravaged their region — they’ve had to wait, and wait, and wait.
There was plenty of anticipation surrounding the Prime Minister’s visit to the Lismore City Council Chambers on Wednesday.
Outside the council chambers about 100 protesters chanted loudly, while a large media contingent waited for more than 90 minutes inside.
Scott Morrison had been delayed by private meetings with flood victims and official briefings.
A local volunteer seized the moment to be heard.
Rich Latimer introduced himself to the media and said the community had a message.
He went on to speak for six minutes.
“We need a lot less resistance between us and the agencies,” he said.
“Drop the narrative and message of the us-and-them and the polarisation, which is hard with what we’ve been through.
That Mr Latimer filled the vacuum left by Mr Morrison’s delay added an exclamation point to what many in NSW’s Northern Rivers region say has been happening since the devastating floods — community members have stepped in when the government and other agencies are nowhere to be seen.
It’s been well documented that as the water rose in towns around NSW’s north, it was locals in their private boats who saved the majority of people, not the emergency services.
Desperate calls to triple-0 and the State Emergency Service (SES) either went unanswered or were placed in a queue.
Then, when the water began to subside, the government response was chaotic and fell far short of what was needed.
There have been food and fuel supply issues in the area, and, initially, very little help when it came to the clean-up.
The PM declared the floods in NSW and Queensland a “national emergency” while speaking in Lismore on Wednesday, nine days after the town was submerged.
The state government seemed to take charge last Saturday – five days after the floods struck – when NSW Emergency Services Minister Steph Cooke visited the area and said her administration had asked for the Australian Defence Force to assist.
“We asked for everything they could give us,” she said.
“Today they’ve increased that offer to 5,000 [personnel] and we’ve said we’ll take every one of those as well.”
But on Monday there were only 275 ADF personnel on the ground in Lismore.
Almost 3,000 have since joined the efforts.
Resources were ‘being assembled’
The Commonwealth and NSW governments have spent a lot of time and money over the past two years to be better ready for what unfolded in the Northern Rivers.
After the Black Summer bushfires in the summer of 2019-20, there was a state inquiry that handed down 76 recommendations, some of which were directly relevant to planning, preparing and responding to other disasters.
The Commonwealth’s probe went further and the Royal Commission into National Natural Disaster Arrangements eventually handed down 80 recommendations.
One, which was adopted, was to create a law so that the federal government could declare a “national emergency” and then cut through red tape to get resources on the ground more quickly.
On Wednesday, the Prime Minister defended the speed of deployment.
“We don’t have those resources which has ADF waiting around the corner,” Mr Morrison said.
“We were assembling those resources.”
While in the Northern Rivers, the Prime Minister announced that residents in the Richmond Valley, Lismore and Clarence Valley local government areas (LGAs) would be eligible to access extra payments of $2,000 for adults and $800 for children under an extension of the Commonwealth’s Disaster Recovery Payment scheme.
It enraged people in neighbouring shires of Tweed, Ballina and Byron, who claimed they were forgotten about, despite hundreds of homes in their areas being damaged or destroyed in the disaster.
Yesterday, amid the criticisms, Mr Morrison said his government was considering what support it could offer people in those LGAs.
Premier Dominic Perrottet said yesterday that 2,800 homes had been deemed uninhabitable and 5,500 were declared “damaged” by flooding in northern NSW, numbers he described as “just the beginning”.
Ten days on from the floods, he also announced a housing package that included 16 weeks of rental support for those who had lost their homes.
He will split the cost with the Prime Minister.
Since the bushfire inquiries, the federal and state governments have set up their own “resilience” agencies to oversee the recovery from major disasters.
Resilience NSW, with its annual budget of almost $800 million, has had a rough start in Lismore.
Many locals in the Northern Rivers say the agency confused the chain of command in the days after the flood struck, while some NSW government MPs privately claimed it added an unwelcome layer of bureaucracy.
It is run by the well-known former head of the Rural Fire Service, Shane Fitzsimmons, a former NSW Australian of the Year who was praised for his handling of the Black Summer.
However, based on the response in Lismore and its surrounds, Resilience NSW has, so far, failed to live up to its promise to drive “world-leading disaster preparedness and recovery”.
The word “unprecedented” has been used repeatedly to describe these floods, which broke records in many towns.
Mr Perrottet claimed it was a “one-in-1,000-year event” and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce even it called it a “one-in-3,500-year event”.
Despite that, there is a general acceptance that these disasters will become more frequent.
What’s become clear is that New South Wales still isn’t prepared.
All levels of government should have learnt more from the past two weeks than any Royal Commission or special inquiry can tell them.
Action is needed now, because there may not always be a Lismore local in a tinnie to come to the rescue.