A lot rides on the man who will lead the flood rebuild

Susanna Freymark

“Failure is not an option,” David Witherdin said.

The civil engineer has a massive job ahead of him as chief executive of the Northern Rivers Reconstruction Corporation that will lead the rebuild and recovery after the floods.

The stakes are high. He knows that.

“The job comes with a deep responsibility. It’s all about the people. Community is at the centre of what we do,” Mr Witherdin (pictured above) said.

The Northern Rivers Reconstruction Corporation was set up on July 1 and the actions it takes will be defined by the State Government flood inquiry findings. Those findings have been handed to the Premier today, Sunday, July 31 and are expected to be made public in mid-August.

“There is a pressing need to give people certainty and get ahead of the next (flood) event,” Mr Witherdin said.

He has been on the ground in the past month, preparing for what is to come.

“I work for the government but I am a key advocate for the community,” he said.

“I have the opportunity to talk to a higher level of government. I can effect change.”

He can’t comment on the specifics of buyback, house raising and other flood recovery measures until the State Government has seen and processed the flood inquiry findings.

“Our role in the NRRC is about infrastructure including housing,” Mr Witherdin said.

Once decisions are made on what action to take to “build back better” there will be community consultations across the region.

“It will mean different things in different places.”

Mr Witherdin is familiar with places such as Woodburn where he has stopped with his family many times on his way to visit his grandparents in Iluka.

He is aware the water flow at places like Woodburn were “quite enormous”.

“We can build back with flood-hardened materials and a key part is better preparedness such as better early warning systems to help people get out of risky areas.”

The NRRC will have an office in Lismore and Mr Witherdin said the corporation is finalising recruitment of about 40 in a team he will lead.

“I’ve got the skills to lead this,” he said.

“This is one of my strengths to pull teams together and empower people.”

Until recently Mr Witherdin led 750 staff in Public Works Advisory. He was chief executive of Local Land Services where he led 1000 staff in agriculture and the environment in NSW.

He lives in Newcastle with his wife and three daughters. In his spare time he likes to ride his mountain bike.

Mr Witherdin is unlikely to have much spare time in his role with the NRRC. A lot is riding on his leadership.

Individuals, families and the region are waiting for more action on flood recovery. They are unable to make decisions about their homes or business until they know what is on offer to assist them.

 They are waiting and desperately need a vision on how to face further climate disaster.

“People feel they are in limbo and can’t make key decisions,” Mr Witherdin said.

He has been in contact with the Queensland Reconstruction Corporation set up in 2011 after the Grantham floods.

“They announced a $241 million Resilient Homes Fund in May,” he said.

The NRRC has a $30 million budget to work with. This amount is just the beginning, Mr Witherdin said.

“There is an urgency to get things on the table,” he said.

“We owe that to everyone.

“I’m in a position to do something about it.”

Mr Witherden has an enthusiasm in his voice, keen to get started.

The actions he and NRRC choose to take will be key. The region depends on his leadership.

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