Dungog superstorm inquest findings handed down

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.

An automated flash-flood warning system should be developed for Dungog and the State Emergency Service should have access to a part-time meteorologist, an inquest into the 2015 superstorm deaths has found.

In handing down her findings from the inquest into the deaths of Robin Macdonald, 68, Brian Wilson, 72, and Colin Webb, 78, Deputy State Coroner Teresa O’Sullivan reiterated that the 1-in-1000-year storm that appeared over Dungog on the morning of April 21, 2015, was unprecedented and unpredictable.

She recommended the SES, Dungog Shire Council, the federal environment minister and the NSW emergency services minister to set up a technical advisory group to consider developing an automated flood warning system for the Myall Creek area – involving rainfall data and river levels.

Ms O’Sullivan also recommended the NSW Government give the SES access to a part-time meteorologist for ongoing planning and assistance during weather events.

The inquest found that Ms Macdonald, Mr Wilson and Mr Webb drowned in rapidly rising floodwater – within a street of each other – at their homes between 6.30am and 7am on April 21.

They died in a flash-flood caused by a storm that pummeled the town with 166mm of rain in two hours.

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.

“This was an event that had a devastating impact on the entire township of Dungog,” Ms O’Sullivan said.

“This extraordinary weather event was matched by the extraordinary conduct of the residents of Dungog. In many cases their conduct was nothing short of heroic.”

That morning, three people died, four houses were washed away by floodwater and 46 premises were inundated, the Coronial report noted.

In her findings, Ms O’Sullivan addressed detailed evidence about weather predictions and river heights that were given during the four-day hearing in late August, which showed the severe storm cell was unpredictable.

She also made it clear that Dungog SES local controller Matthew Too and his deputy Clayton Shean were not culpable for the lack of warning that people in the town received.

“In the absence of an early flood warning system and well established evacuation procedures and routes, I am satisfied there is no basis on which to conclude that an evacuation order should have been given prior to about 6.16am,” she said.

After the findings were released on Friday, SES commissioner Brigadier Mark Smethurst told the Herald he was “delighted with the findings”.

“It just highlighted the efforts of our volunteers, particularly Matt Too – the unit controller – and what he had done in preparation,” he said.

“It’s also demonstrated what we’ve done after the event to improve our processes and the training of our people.”

Brigadier Smethurst said the SES supported Ms O’Sullivan’s recommendations but said an automated flash-flood warning system wouldn’t necessarily guard the community against freak weather events.

“Some of these things just happen and we can’t do much about it,” he said.

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