At 7.00pm on the 15th March 2012 an SES Incident Controller authorised an evacuation order for the town of Hay. The Murrumbidgee River that runs through the town was in flood and waters were predicted to peak at around nine metres (similar to the 1974 floods that went through Hay). This order was to remain in place for the next ten days.
A lot can happen in nearly forty years and one thing that was obvious to all was that the much talked about town levee bank was in urgent need of a top-up if it was to hold back the predicted flood.
In true Australian pioneering spirit in the face of the impending flood, the Hay Shire Council, local SES volunteers and local residents rallied together and worked furiously to secure the town. Council, Roads and Maritime Services and earth-moving contractors worked around the clock and by the time the floodwaters arrived the upgraded levee looked magnificent and stood at a height equivalent to 9.5 metres on the town river gauge. More than high enough to withstand the predicted flood height of nine metres.
To put this into perspective; a quick lesson in how river heights are measured: The zero level of a river gauge ("gauge zero") is typically set at the low level of the river, i.e. the riverbed. River heights are measured in metres above the gauge zero. For example, a river height reading of nine metres means that the water level has risen nine metres above its lowest level. It does not mean that there is a nine-metre wall of water bearing down on the town in tsunami-like fashion.
Unfortunately for the residents of Hay the SES bureaucracy (note: Not the SES volunteers), were unable to recognize the new and improved levee, as no engineer was willing to take the responsibility for signing off on the earthworks. In fairness to the SES they were stuck between a rock and a hard place as they were required to abide by Emergency Regulations that are Acts of Parliament.
Once again common sense and local knowledge went out the window and the Nanny State reared its ugly head. The SES maintained the levee height was only guaranteed to a height of 8.1 metres at Hay and as such the town residents must be evacuated. The upper echelons of the SES hierarchy completely disregarded the fact that the levee had easily withheld a flood of nearly 8.5 metres in December 2010 because there wasn’t an official piece of paper stating this.
For ten days all Governments Departments, banks, the post office and schools in Hay were forced to close and local businesses were hit hard by the downturn in trade. One might have hoped the influx of SES and extra police may have at least contributed to the town’s economy by way of food purchases… but no, they flew their own caterers and food in from outside the region at great expense using public money.
Unsurprisingly to most Hay locals the levee banks held and the town remained dry as the flood passed through as it had done many times before in the town’s one hundred and fifty odd year history.
The SES with its army of volunteers does an incredible job under very difficult circumstances in times of major disasters. A simple fact we can all be very grateful for. However in the case of the 2012 Hay Flood its leaders exercised a dictatorship style control, tried their utmost to remove freedom of choice from the people of Hay through a campaign of fear via excessively frightening text and telephone messages to the town residents as well as being responsible for an obscene misuse of public money.
Had the town levee bank failed the town may have experienced a shallow and very slow moving body of water through the lower lying areas. A messy and perhaps costly inconvenience but certainly not a life threatening and disastrous event such as the unexpected flash flood that hit Toowoomba’s central business district and also devastated the Lockyer Valley communities in Queensland during January 2011.
Hopefully lessons will be learnt from the recent Hay floods and the SES will work with, rather than against communities in the future and with a far more efficient use of public funds.