The national disaster recovery and resilience agency has defended its decision to omit Lismore from its priority areas for flood mitigation funding just three months ago, as the city battles record floods.
The local Coalition MP has criticised the omission as “crazy” and said he expected the issue would be resolved for funding applications in future.
Round one of the Preparing Australian Communities Program (PACP) was announced in November, offering grants of between $20,000 and $10m for local disaster projects. The National Resilience and Recovery Agency (NRRA) said projects would be selected which would “assess and plan for disaster risk, increase capacity and raise awareness of disaster risk, or that deliver resilient infrastructure.”
The funding was “open to all local government areas across Australia” NRRA coordinator-general, Shane Stone said, but the agency identified dozens of “priority” LGAs in areas particularly prone to bushfires, floods or tropical cyclones. These places were automatically granted extra points under the assessment process.
Lismore, one of the most flood-prone areas in Australia, was not classed as a priority area.
Hundreds of residents were rescued on Monday as flood waters peaked at 14.4 metres, two metres higher than the previous record.
Previously, the worst flooding event in the region occurred in February 1954 when flood waters rose to 12.27 metres. Another flood in March 1974 saw the river rise to 12.15 metres.
Nationals MP Kevin Hogan, whose electorate of Page covers Lismore, told the ABC in November it was crazy the town was not considered a priority under the flooding program. “It needs to change, and I’ll be doing everything I can to get those LGAs put in,” he said at the time.
Hogan said on Tuesday he had been in contact with the NRRA and the issue had been fixed.
His office did not respond to requests for further clarification about whether this meant Lismore would be classed as a flood priority area for future funding rounds.
The Preparing Australia Program was announced in May 2021, with $600m to be allocated for reducing disaster risk over six years to 2026-27, in response to recommendations of the royal commission into national natural disaster arrangements.
Applications for round one of the PACP only closed in January, and no grants have yet been announced, so it is unclear if Lismore was awarded funding under the program.
In response to Guardian Australia’s questions about why Lismore had been left off the initial priority list, and whether it had since been added after community representations, an NRRA spokesperson said the agency was not able to comment on specific applications during the assessment process.
Under the PACP, applications are assessed by the NRRA and given a score out of 100 points. Funding guidelines state that LGAs classed as priority areas “will be awarded an additional 20 points” as part of the application process.
The NRRA said priority areas were decided based on their exposure and vulnerability to each disaster type, the infrastructure and resources of each community, and the impacts of climate change. The Australian Climate Service, the NRRA itself, and state and territory governments also had input.
In December, Stone stressed that applications outside priority LGAs could still be successful in seeking funding.
“Projects will be funded based on merit, so a local government area that isn’t listed as a priority location is still eligible to receive a share of the $150m available under this round, if they put forward a strong application that meets all the criteria,” he said at the time.
However, the agency admitted there were concerns raised by the Lismore community after its omission from the priority list, and that Stone visited the area with other NRRA representatives in November to meet “a range of stakeholders and residents”.
The NRRA said they met the local council and citizens flood group to discuss “ways to support local, state and federal governments to better work together on local projects” and “improving people’s ‘flood literacy’ so they know what to do when a flood threatens.”
“As emphasised at the time, applications from all Local Government Areas were welcome under Round One of the Preparing Australian Communities – Local Stream, even if they were not listed as priority areas for funding,” the NRRA spokesperson said on Tuesday.
“Once the immediate emergency has passed, [Stone] will visit the parts of Queensland and NSW that have been heavily impacted.”
The federal Coalition government has come under fire from Labor in recent months over another disaster preparedness program, the Emergency Response Fund. Labor’s shadow emergency minister, Murray Watt, complained that only a fraction of the fund – originally commenced with a $3.9bn investment – had been spent, while it had earned more than $800m in interest in the four years since it was set up.
But federal emergency management minister, Bridget McKenzie, defended the program, saying it was “only to be accessed once all other sources of funding have been exhausted” and stressing the government contributes billions in disaster funding from other sources.
The ERF has only $50m of its funding so far, which had been directed to flood mitigation. Another $50m for floods is in the process of being allocated, while a third round of $50m was allocated to the Coastal and Estuarine Risk Mitigation Program two weeks ago.