MINISTERIAL STATEMENTS - New South Wales Floods
The situation with the floods in the Riverina has not yet been averted. There are still communities on very grave flood watch alert in the Riverina and the situation is quite critical in those areas downstream where sandbagging has been done and people have been evacuated and now they are just waiting, watching, hoping and praying.
Elsewhere in the Riverina there is not one nook, not one cranny of the electorate which was not affected by the rains of the weekend before last. Rainfall which fell was anywhere from 250mm right up to a record 400mm which was dumped on Marrar and other parts of the Riverina. It had a very serious effect on all of the ephemeral streams, and certainly the Murrumbidgee River, from which the electorate takes its name.
There were places evacuated, including Hanwood, Gundagai, Lockhart, North Wagga, The Rock, Tumut, Uranquinty and Yoogali, just after that initial weekend downpour of rain. The Rock is not in my electorate, it is in Sussan Ley's Farrer electorate, but it was very severely flood affected, as was the community of Lockhart in the Farrer electorate. Elsewhere we have had floods in Northern Victoria in Nathalia, and the situation has been quite critical. While we have had the very worst of weather we have also seen the very best in human nature and people have rallied together magnificently for the cause. I am going to single out the State Emergency Service's regional controller James McTavish. James is a former army officer and he has had a lot of experience with flooding, certainly he was involved heavily in the relief efforts in the Queensland floods of 2010 and 2011, as well as the Moree floods of more recent times. He was a calm and reasoned person in a time of crisis. It was through his wonderful direction and coordination that we have avoided any serious injuries—any injuries whatsoever to speak of. Certainly, there were no fatalities. That is a tremendous thing, because I know in the 2010-11 Queensland floods we had a huge number of deaths, including many in the Grantham township. We averted that.
At 9:30 pm last Monday night, James McTavish made the call for the extraordinary move to evacuate the central business district and central Wagga Wagga area. It meant that 8,000 people needed to move homes in the middle of the night. He called on the efforts of the Army, the Air Force and the Navy. We are blessed to have those three services present in our city. They went to work doorknocking. The alert went out on telephones and word spread very quickly that central Wagga Wagga was being evacuated. It as an extraordinary move. It was a big call for the SES to make and certainly a big call for James McTavish to make, but he made the right call.
As events turned out, the flood did not go over the levee bank, which is structurally positioned to withstand a flood of 10.7 metres. The flood peaked at 10.6. We were 10 centimetres away from disaster. Wagga Wagga dodged a bullet. There were suspect areas of the levee bank, one where a wombat had dug a hole and one where another hole had appeared. The trucks went in and dumped a heap of dirt and there was much sandbagging and reinforcement of the levee bank in those areas. There were other patches where the levee bank, which was first constructed in 1962 and obviously upgraded since then, was at risk. We ended up being 10 centimetres from disaster. Had the water started to go over the top of the levee bank it would have taken probably only five minutes for the levee bank to give way. Pretty soon we would have had a 100-metre wide gaping hole with the muddy river water swirling through in the middle of night, and had that call not been made it would have meant a huge loss of life.
There has been criticism of the SES and, unfortunately, of the decision to evacuate Wagga Wagga. But it was the right decision to make and anyone who wants to criticise should consider themselves very lucky that we have someone such as James McTavish in the position of SES controller. He made that brave call and it was the right decision.
The Premier of New South Wales, Mr Barry O'Farrell, visited on Tuesday. When he arrived in Wagga Wagga he had an aerial tour by helicopter. When he landed in the area near the local emergency control area, hundreds of people had swarmed in to start sandbagging. It was an amazing scene. I have never seen anything like it in all my life. There were children from as young as seven and eight, school girls, school boys, people right up to the age of 80, people who probably properly belonged in nursing homes were out there holding bags open whilst men and women, some of whom were pregnant, were busy shovelling sand. It was just like a scene out of a disaster movie.
But you see the best in people in the worst of times. Wagga Wagga people rallied magnificently to fill up sandbags faster than was possible, because we ran out of dirt. Pretty soon the sand was replaced by loam. Trucks then had to go onto farms elsewhere to find anything we could put into the sandbags to put in front of shops and businesses in the central business district and in front of homes in the area, which looked as though it was going to be inundated. We were very lucky in Wagga Wagga. Not so lucky were the people of Ungarie. When I went to West Wyalong on the Monday morning to do constituent interviews, Ungarie had been evacuated overnight. Ungarie is not a prosperous community and their homes received a huge amount of water from Humbug Creek. It is not the first time in recent years that Humbug Creek has overflowed, but the 300 residents of Ungarie had been evacuated and were being housed in the West Wyalong sports stadium. Despite the fact that some of these people who, as I say, are not the most prosperous of people, got out with only the shirts on their backs and despite the fact that kids had lost their toys, families had lost their precious belongings, had furniture destroyed and everything else that is associated with flood waters, these people had a marvellous resilience and a marvellous upbeat manner about them. I was just amazed, and also at the work of the Salvation Army, the Red Cross and St Vincent de Paul, who moved in very quickly and helped those people—found them clothes and bought them food. The West Wyalong community responded magnificently as did communities right throughout the Riverina.
The Premier arrived and offered any state assistance that he could muster for the people of Wagga Wagga, as well as Ungarie, obviously, and also Tumut and Gundagai, which had also been flood affected and where businesses and homes had been inundated. We do not get too many prime ministerial visits in Wagga Wagga—in fact, I could almost name them on one hand for the past 50 years—but the Prime Minister visited Wagga Wagga on Wednesday, and the community was very pleased that she made her presence felt. After the briefing from James McTavish and other SES people we went into the nearby emergency control centre, where the Prime Minister was greeted by a woman who, despite having her North Wagga home completely inundated, had manned the fort there at the emergency control centre. She told the Prime Minister just how important it was to be with her colleagues at this time of crisis; much more important than to try to get whatever she could out of her home. She said, 'Well, it is gone anyway so I might as well be here with my colleagues.' That sort of summed up the spirit of the Wagga Wagga people.
The Prime Minister had an aerial tour by helicopter to see for herself the damage caused. Then, while she stood on the Wiradjuri Bridge as the swirling muddy waters of the Murrumbidgee went underneath, she promised that she would do whatever she could from a government point of view to make sure that the people of the Riverina were not forgotten and, indeed, that the people of Farrer—as my colleague joins me here in the Federation Chamber—were not forgotten.
To that end I do hope that the argy-bargy that is currently, unfortunately, existing between state and federal governments is sorted. Try as I might to sort out emergency payments for people via Centrelink they have not been forthcoming. I am not putting the blame on any government in particular, but it is a situation that just needs to be sorted. It is a situation that the opposition leader called on to be sorted today. I am sure the Prime Minister knows full well the extent of the damage caused; she saw it for herself. She saw the heartache in people's eyes. I saw it in her own eyes and I believed her when she said that she would do whatever she could to help the people of the Riverina and elsewhere in this flood calamity. I just hope that this situation between the state and federal government is sorted in the next 24 hours so that those emergency cash payments to families and individuals can come through, because some people do not have a cent to their name at the moment.
Certainly, the people of Griffith had a situation which they have not faced before. The Mirrool Creek, which between the early 1980s and 2010 had not had a trickle of water in it at its source in the Temora district, all of a sudden became a 15-kilometre raging torrent—a lake moving steadily towards the Griffith area. Once it got into the irrigation channels and canals it created mayhem. Yenda had to be evacuated, it caused severe flooding around the Barellan area and the Griffith suburbs of Hanwood and Yoogali were not spared either.
There were a lot of concerns by people in Yenda that they were evacuated too soon. That has been a problem that has been acknowledged by authorities in the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area. It is something that we will need to look at after all the waters subside and the clean up is done. Certainly a lot of people in Yenda were most annoyed that they had to leave their shops and their houses when the water was not really at its height and not really threatening, and then a period of dry time lasted for hours and hours. The area was cordoned off by police and local government officials and these people were not allowed to get into their homes, which caused some consternation which was expressed very passionately at regional community meetings held in Griffith. However, that said, there were no injuries or deaths in the Griffith area. It is better to be safe than sorry. The SES made the call they felt was right at the time. The important thing is that nobody was hurt in these dire flood events.
The Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott, visited Wagga Wagga yesterday and I was very pleased to have him there. He went to great pains to go there. In fact, I tried to talk Mr Abbott's office out of his coming to Wagga Wagga as I felt that people had been overwhelmed by the whole exercise. A lot of people were very fatigued. They had been out fighting the good fight against the floods. A lot of people had lost everything. Others had lost nothing but had the inconvenience and disruption of having their businesses affected and were making a lot of noise and fuss and bother about the fact that their lives had been disrupted. I tried to tell Mr Abbott's office that I thought it would perhaps be best to come at another time. But he was insistent on coming and, as it turned out, I am glad he did. Rather than it being some sort of media stunt or circus with a flyover using valuable SES equipment, helicopters and resources and rather than getting into people's way Mr Abbott rolled up his sleeves and offered to help. After a briefing at the SES he and I went out and helped the people of North Wagga. We walked right around the suburb dropping in on people.
One of the people we met was an elderly fellow by the name of Allan Bell, who became quite emotional. Mr Abbott said, 'Gidday, mate, can I give you a hand?' Mr Bell appreciated it but then, upon the awful realisation that he had lost everything and also with Mr Abbott there and I suppose the glare of some of the national media who were there, he broke down and was quite emotional. And you can understand that. His feelings were reflected by people right throughout the city and throughout my electorate and also Sussan Ley's electorate of Farrer. We got in and lifted some things out and moved some fencing. We then went to the neighbour's place and pulled out carpets and got quite dirty. I know that the opposition leader is a driven man but he is also almost a machine in some ways. He got in and did a lot of heavy lifting and anybody who thought it was a media stunt I can guarantee you that my arms and legs are not feeling today as if it were a media stunt. We got in and helped and the locals appreciated it. They appreciated the fact that the Prime Minister came, they appreciated the fact that that Premier of New South Wales came, and they certainly appreciated the fact that the opposition leader got in and got dirty and helped out with a lot of the mop-up operations.
The clean-up operations are going to take many months. A lot needs to be done right throughout the Riverina. I was at great pains to point out in any media interviews I did—and I did them right around the countryside, and I will come back to the media in a minute—that this was not just a Wagga Wagga flood, even though by Wagga Wagga flood standards it was very high. It did not reach the record of 10.97 metres, in 1844, when there was hardly anybody in Wagga Wagga, and it certainly did not reach the four peaks of 1870 and earlier. Fortunately it did not reach the big peak on 30 August 1974, when the Murrumbidgee River topped at 10.74 metres. Many people still living in Wagga Wagga will recall that flood. The good folk at North Wagga remember that flood, because they too were inundated then.
But Wagga Wagga people are very resilient, as are Riverina people. They are very resilient and brave and they will bounce back from this. A lot of scorn was poured on the climate people who told us that the dams were never going to be full, the rivers were going to run dry and it would never rain again. There was a lot of comment about those sorts of things. People said, 'Well, look at us now.' It certainly is, as Dorothea Mackellar said, a land 'of droughts and flooding rains'.
A fundraiser will be held in Wagga Wagga—but it will be a regional fundraiser, I am pleased to say—next month. Already many bands and musicians have promised their assistance. We are going to need a lot of government assistance as well as financial assistance from locals and corporate bodies to assist those people who have lost just about everything.
What needs to be done with the levee bank? It needs to be heightened and strengthened. We cannot afford to take the risk of having to evacuate the city again. We certainly cannot afford to take the risk of a bigger flood than 10.7 metres coming down and destroying our beautiful and magnificent city. We also need to examine the releases from Burrinjuck into an already flooded Murrumbidgee Valley. In 2010, the Burrinjuck was allowed to flow out. We need to look at the capacity levels of Burrinjuck and manage that dam better so that we are not allowing huge releases into an already flooded system. As I say, we need to get cash payments to those who need them desperately, and we need to sort out that situation between the state and the federal government in the next 24 hours.
I spoke about the media. I have to say that the media responded magnificently, both the commercial media and certainly ABC Riverina, which is managed by Christopher Coleman. My two sons, Nicholas and Alexander, and I went in and helped evacuate the radio station at ABC Riverina. There was a headline for you: 'Conservative politician helps rescue ABC'. Certainly they were appreciative of the fact that they were able to get up to higher ground—indeed, to one of the evacuation centres at Wagga Wagga High School—and continue operations from there. Chris and his team did a magnificent job to keep updating people, from Gundagai down to Carrathool and Darlington Point and all places in between, on when they might expect river peaks and what to do in that dreadful time.
The New South Wales Volunteer Rescue Association, an organisation which started in Wagga Wagga in 1950, when we had a particularly wet year with many, many floods, was magnificent, as was the Rural Fire Service, the police, the SES, the three branches of our Australian defence forces and all the local government bodies right throughout the Riverina. They were magnificent. Unfortunately, they spent a lot of time manning cordoned off areas and they copped a bit of abuse because of it, including of SES and VRA people. That was unfortunate. Sometimes patience gets tested in these times of crises. Some people copped a mouthful of abuse when perhaps a helping hand might have been better.
But we will learn from this flood. Next time around, we will be better prepared. Certainly, I cannot speak highly enough of those people who chipped in and helped. It was an unprecedented event. You do not get 400 millimetres falling on a weekend and not cop a flood of this magnitude, but we will come out the other side stronger for it. I just hope that, in the weeks and months ahead, people pull together as they have in the last week or so to help those who have lost everything to mop up and clean up. I thank the House.