Inquest into Dungog Superstorm deaths 2015: Day four

Response: State Emergency Service Assistant Commissioner Mark Morrow speaking after the inquest at Newcastle Courthouse on Thursday afternoon.

Response: State Emergency Service Assistant Commissioner Mark Morrow speaking after the inquest at Newcastle Courthouse on Thursday afternoon.

Shortcomings in emergency volunteer training, lack of information in flood plans and inaccurate weather warnings are not to blame for three deaths during the 2015 superstorm, a court has heard.

A sudden cloud burst that spewed 166.8mm of rain at Dungog within two hours was an anomaly and “unforeseeable”.

Those were the key arguments put to Deputy State Coroner Teresa O’Sullivan by her counsel assisting, Mark Cahill, during his closing remarks at the inquest into the deaths of Colin Webb, Robin Macdonald and Brian Wilson.

Mr Cahill recommended that Ms O’Sullivan find Mr Webb, 79, Ms Macdonald, 68, and Mr Wilson, 72, drowned in rapidly-rising floodwater between 6.30am and 7am on April 21. 

He said Mr Webb, Mr Wilson and Ms Macdonald – who spent 20 years as a State Emergency Service volunteer – were valued members of the Dungog community.

The inquest finished on Thursday, a day earlier than expected, after four days of evidence from SES members, Bureau of Meteorology experts and heroes from the community about the unpredictability and severity of the disaster.

Mr Cahill described a perfect storm of events in the hours before the cloud burst hit Dungog.

This included fire crews and police being called to an emergency at Stroud, the “relative inexperience” of the Dungog SES unit controller, the availability of only five volunteers for field duty, the unknown flood risk of Myall Creek and the “entirely unpredictable rainfall event” that was about to lash the town.

Colin Webb, Robin Macdonald and Brian Wilson died during the superstorm that hit Dungog on April 21, 2015. An inquest into their deaths began at Newcastle Courthouse on August 29, 2015.

Colin Webb, Robin Macdonald and Brian Wilson died during the superstorm that hit Dungog on April 21, 2015. An inquest into their deaths began at Newcastle Courthouse on August 29, 2015.

“Whilst undoubtedly there were holes in systems, it’s highly unlikely that any holes in systems caused the deaths of those who passed away,” Mr Cahill said.

“The cloud burst was an anomaly… that delivered an entirely unprecedented and unpredictable level of rainfall – it was a one in 1000 year event. There was no warning, but under the circumstances that is entirely understandable.

“It was both reasonable and appropriate that [Dungog SES unit controller Matthew Too] didn’t identify a weather anomaly.”

Mr Cahill said it was “difficult to see how a safe evacuation could have been performed”.

“Walls of water were rushing down the streets,” he said.

Counsel assisting Deputy State Coroner Teresa O'Sullivan, Mark Cahill. Picture: Simone De Peak

Counsel assisting Deputy State Coroner Teresa O'Sullivan, Mark Cahill. Picture: Simone De Peak

Mr Cahill recommended the SES, BoM and Dungog Shire Council form a working group to develop an automated flood warning system for the town.

Outside court, SES Assistant Commissioner Mark Morrow said the service had taken action to improve since the superstorm.

“The one point I do want to make is that it’s very important for communities to understand the value and nature of volunteering,” he said. 

“We can’t assist communities to deal with these sorts of disasters and emergencies without the assistance of people in the community.”

Detective Senior Sergeant Andrew Wheatley, the officer in charge of the investigation, said there were “many heroic efforts” during the superstorm.

“If the investigations into this tragedy can be used to improve awareness and preparedness for organisations and any community during flash flooding then I would say it's a positive outcome,” he said.

Ms O’Sullivan will deliver her findings on September 29. 

Creek triggers missing from flood plan

Alison Court, the unit complex where Colin Webb died, in the days after the 2015 superstorm.

Alison Court, the unit complex where Colin Webb died, in the days after the 2015 superstorm.

Dungog's new flood plan doesn't outline the flash flood trigger points for the creek that caused a major inundation during the 2015 superstorm, a court has heard. 

But the State Emergency Service says it will work with Dungog Shire Council to update the plan, which went on public exhibition earlier this year. SES Hunter Region controller Stephen Hart gave evidence on the fourth day of the inquest into the deaths of Colin Webb, 79, Robin Macdonald, 68, and Brian Wilson, 72, at Newcastle courthouse on Thursday. 

The trio died during a flood on the morning of April 21. 

The court heard that the flash flood started at 5.05am after Myall Creek backed up. 

The Williams River did not peak until after the flash flood. But the court heard that the new Dungog flood plan principally dealt with river flooding.

The plan makes several references to Myall Creek and points out that it can flood independently of the Williams River. 

However, the court heard the plan doesn’t include information about the creek’s trigger points – the causes behind flooding of the creek.

Mr Hart said the SES was preparing a flash flood action card for the Myall Creek and would work with council to update the 2017 flood plan. 

The court also heard evidence from Singleton unit controller Simon Merrick on the fourth morning of the inquest. Mr Merrick assisted the Dungog unit during a major rain event in January, 2016.

The court heard how he played a mentoring role for Dungog controller Matthew Too in managing the response to rising river levels during that period.

When asked whether he believed the main risk of flash flooding in Dungog came from Myall Creek, Mr Merrick replied: “yes”.

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Dungog flood inquest likely

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