VicRoads will investigate why workers holding a “slow down” sign guided motorists onto the Hume Freeway, only for them to get trapped in floodwater a short time later.
Water had flooded the road north of Wangaratta after a heavy downpour of 80mm of rain on Thursday morning.
Angry motorists who had been forced to abandon their cars after getting rescued attended a community meeting yesterday.
They were not happy that Emergency Management Commissioner Andrew Crisp said driving on the freeway was “a dumb thing to do”.
"There is a certain degree of frustration, when people after many warnings continue to make those poor, foolish decisions to drive into floodwaters," he said on Thursday.
But the motorists all said the same thing: they were only following the advice of people directing traffic at the Wangaratta on-ramp, with one man saying the attempt to make them look like fools with public shaming was “bulls---”.
VicRoads liaison officer Rowan McEwan said he was not aware of who approved the people with the “slow” sign to allow cars onto the freeway.
“We know the water rose incredibly quickly. In a perfect world, you would not have been directed in there,” he said.
We know the water rose incredibly quickly. In a perfect world, you would not have been directed in there ... I can only apologise.VicRoads liaison officer Rowan McEwan
“The guys who waved you through, they were doing so under the impression it was safe to drive through and they would not have been aware the water was rising so quickly.
“I can only apologise for that occurring.
“We haven’t got the details of who they were.”
Mr McEwan tried to calm people as the meeting became heated, asking them to work together so the abandoned cars could be moved safely off the freeway.
“The vehicles were bobbing around a bit in the water and we thought they might have gone to the downstream side, but no,” he said.
“Very surprisingly at 1.50am this morning, the water had receded, which no one expected.
“We thought like in 2012 the road would be underwater for 48 hours.”
VicRoads and the SES started work yesterday afternoon to tow the abandoned cars to the nearby Benton Hill rest area, where they could be picked up by their owners.
The southbound lanes on higher ground were reopened yesterday morning, but SES incident controller Bruce Weiner the northbound lanes took longer – eventually reopening at 4.30pm – because of the debris which needed to be cleared from the road.
“It is highly recommended you get your vehicle cleared as safe to drive before you drive, as aspects such as power steering and electrics may be affected,” he said.
“Yesterday I appreciate was a very stressful day for as and I appreciate it would have been a very stressful day for you people.
“Heartfelt feelings go out from us to you, it would have been a pretty tough day for you all.”
Kate Reid was one of the motorists stuck on the freeway on Thursday and had her two-year-old and five-month-old children with her in the car.
Luckily she had packed snacks for the day, so aside from being a little restless, the children were safe and comfortable.
“Obviously fate was looking out for us and we were all organised to sit in the water for two hours,” she said.
Mrs Reid was was of the lucky motorists who was only 200 metres from an emergency u-turn point and was eventually able to get to the southbound lanes.
She said she was very grateful to the truck driver behind her who returned and drove her car to safety, as she held her restless baby in her arms.
He also checked it was safe to drive home and got rid of a huntsman spider crawling inside.
“Everyone rallies together and that’s what’s reassuring,” Mrs Reid said.
“He said he had children and grandchildren and would like to think that someone would do it for them.”
But like many of the other frustrated motorists, she said the wire rope barriers had the unintended consequences of trapping the cars in the floodwater, with no way to escape.
“It wasn’t actually avoidable, it was the barricades that caused the most hazard,” she said.
“It started off mild, just like you were driving through a bit of road water, then it just all of a sudden got quite deep to the point where you slow down to a crawling pace and then the traffic just stopped completely.
“It’s because of the (wire-rope) barricades – no one could go anywhere, everyone was trapped.”
Once the motorists followed the instructions of the person with the “slow” sign, there was nowhere for them to go but into floodwater.
“Even though they’re in place for certain other measures, that’s the reason why everyone was so stuck,” Mrs Reid said.
Mr McEwan told yesterday’s meeting that not everyone would have been able to reach the southbound lanes.
“Because of the configuration of the road, you wouldn’t have been able to cross that road with the southbound carriageway being so much higher, you couldn’t have driven from north to south anyway,” he said.
Euroa MP Steph Ryan has called on the impact of wire rope barriers on motorist safety during emergency events to be reviewed.
“Considerations such as access for emergency services or the ramifications in flood events like those of the last 24 hours haven’t been properly thought through,” she said.
“Because of the barriers, motorists had nowhere to go.
“They did not have the option to cross the median strip to the south bound lane which sits on higher ground than the north bound lane and a number of people had to be winched out by helicopter to safety.
“Emergency service workers did an outstanding job ensuring nobody was hurt, however I have grave concerns that if this event had been a bushfire people would have been trapped with no escape.”
Wangaratta mayor Dean Rees has described the incident as a “freak rainfall event”, which had been unprecedented.
“We know there’s been at least 23 residences and the Everton Community Hall experience floodwaters above floor level,” he said.
“Council played a role in setting up the emergency relief centre at the HP Barr Reserve, which accommodated about a dozen people on Thursday night and had about 100 people come through the doors.”
Council crews have also been out inspecting closed roads to assess if they are safe to open again.
“Many roads have started to re-open but we know there is significant damage in some areas, and this will take some time to firstly assess, then repair,” Cr Rees said.
As of yesterday evening, road closures remained in place on the Great Alpine Road at Wangaratta and Everton, and on Beechworth-Wangaratta Road is closed at Tarrawingee.