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The NSW State Emergency Service faces accusations of failing to plan for a catastrophic flood in Lismore and the wider Northern Rivers, despite decades-old research warning such a disaster was probable.

In exclusive interviews, as well as testimonies to two separate inquiries, Northern Rivers political and community leaders, residents, rescuers and insiders have detailed how SES management faltered in the face of the natural disaster, while its army of volunteers strived, often without any communication or direction, to combat the disaster that swamped the Northern Rivers of NSW.

Woodburn, in the Northern Rivers region of NSW, was inundated with water earlier this year.Credit:Janie Barrett

Four people died in the February 28 flood and thousands remain homeless after the event, which is now the subject of an independent inquiry by Professor Mary O’Kane and former police commissioner Michael Fuller.

The inquiry was due to report the first of its findings by June 30 and a second report later in the year. However, it will now hand down one report by the end of July. A separate state inquiry is also being held.

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Local state MPs Geoff Provest, Janelle Saffin and Tamara Smith also have expressed concern about the SES response, including a lack of co-ordination, inadequate training and a lack of local knowledge from fly-in professional staff, including the failure to earlier earlier the towns down river of Lismore, including Coraki, Woodburn, Wardell and Broadwater, as well as the SES activities in the Tweed Valley and Byron Shire.

While the size and speed of the flood in the February disaster stunned and overwhelmed everyone, with rainfall records being set for NSW, many residents and community leaders are asking why the SES, the designated combat agency for flooding under NSW law, was unable to right itself in the immediate aftermath. And, most importantly, whether it prepared for how such a catastrophic event would affect its ability to rescue people.

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Andrew Naughtie

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