Northern Rivers Reconstruction Corporation boss speaks out

David Kirkpatrick
By David Kirkpatrick
May 12 2022 - 6:00am
BIG JOB: David Witherdin, flanked by Lismore Mayor Steve Krieg and NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet at the press conference to announce the Northern Rivers Reconstruction Corporation. Picture: Cathy Adams

Flood reconstruction boss David Witherdin is certain that some areas of Lismore are going to be declared unsafe to live in.

The city, on NSW's Northern Rivers was hit by record-breaking floods earlier in the year, with water climbing to 14.4 metres, almost two metres above the previous highest record in the flood-prone city.

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The head of the Northern Rivers Reconstruction Corporation (NRRC), David Witherdin, has only been in the job a few short weeks.

And he will base many of his decisions on the results of the independent inquiry into the floods.

But it is his early assessment that parts of Lismore won't be fit for living anymore.

"If you look at areas from a community safety point of view, absolutely there are some that are not safe to live there anymore," he said

"That would open up the opportunity for land buybacks and swaps."

As for the CBD moving to a new location, Mr Witherdin said his initial impression was there was strong support for it to stay where it is.

"I am hearing there is a strong desire it and build back better and protect it better.

"But before we make any decisions we need a strong understanding what that evidence is telling us, what the flood modelling is telling us, what the risk regime is not just now but in the future.

"We don't just want to be building back for now but we want to build back a thriving community for decades into the future.

"The test of what we do over the next three to five years is if what we do stands up over 10, 20, 50 and 100 years."

Mr Witherdin said flood impacted residents of the Northern Rivers had "been through hell" and every day they had to wait for services and infrastructure was a "day too long".

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The sheer size and scale of the task he has taken on has not been lost on the senior bureaucrat, who has a background in civil engineering.

"Certainly in terms of the scale of what happened and the degree of damage, it is incredible," he said.

"I was up there in the early stages on the ground with the teams there from public works, doing clean up in the city.

'What I saw first hand is mind blowing in terms of its scale. We have a really big task ahead of us.

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"My first impressions are of a really resilient community there, and of the broader Northern Rivers community having come together.

"Clearly, people are doing it really hard, they are suffering, but I feel a real strength and positivity of banding together in their belief of a brighter future."

While he will be informed by the results of the NSW Independent Flood Inquiry, headed up by Mary O'Kane and Mick Fuller, plus several other inquiries already underway, such as the CSIRO study, Mr Witherdin has hit the ground running.

Although the NRRC doesn't officially gets underway until July 1, he's already been on the ground conducting key discussions within flood impacted communities.

"Firstly, my thoughts are with the people suffering right now, I can't begin to comprehend what they are going through at individual level," he said.

"But step by step we are getting some of recovery things in place, such as temporary housing and various funding packages they are rolling out.

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"But i know every day they have got to wait in those circumstance is a day too long to wait. They have been through hell.

"How I feel about that really brings an urgency to what we do."

Mr Witherdin believes the corporation has the teeth and backing to to cut through government red tape and get the job done.

"I don't know of anything that can prepare you for something like this," he said."But I have recently worked really closely with landholders through the drought, and through bushfires as well, through a whole range or emergencies.

"Nobody can do this on their own, so it's going to to take a really collaborative effort."

While still waiting for the results of several inquiries, he said there were a number of "no brainers' in terms of projects that could proceed as long as they had board agreement.

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David Kirkpatrick

I'm a media professional with over 34 years of experience in public relations and journalism, including a decade setting Lismore's news agenda as the editor of The Northern Star. I have proven track record in growing audiences and improving engagement by delivering quality local stories for and about the Lismore community.