A FLOOD OF CONCERNS
Flooding forcing closures to Wakehurst Parkway is a situation Pittwater locals know all too well.
Around six times a year, heavy rains cause Middle Creek to overflow onto a section of the road, triggering emergency service workers to close off a 4km stretch of road - from Dreadnought Road at Oxford Falls, to about 500m west of Sydney Academy of Sport and Recreation at North Narrabeen.
For the duration of the flooding, usually a few hours but sometimes an entire day, motorists travelling to Frenchs Forest must seek alternate routes - either heading north up Powderworks Road to Mona Vale Road or south to Pittwater Road - adding 10 to 15 minutes to their journey.
With the impending opening of the Northern Beaches Hospital at Frenchs Forest, Pittwater locals argue the flooding issue must be addressed because Wakehurst Parkway is the fastest route to what will soon become their closest emergency department.
When the new hospital opens late next year, Mona Vale Hospital's emergency department - which has 16 beds and two operating theatres - will close.
However, Mona Vale Hospital will gain a helipad and 24-hour urgent care centre that will see patients with non-critical injuries and illnesses who self-present.
One in five Northern Beaches patients who needed emergency ambulance transfer were taken to Mona Vale Hospital in 2015/16.
Angus Gordon, an experienced coastal engineer and former general manager of Pittwater Council, claims council flood studies show a severe weather event could see access from Pittwater to Frenchs Forest completely cut off.
“The flood studies show that, in extreme events, Mona Vale Road and Powderworks Road are both closed,” Mr Gordon says.
"Pittwater Road has also flooded and been closed on numerous occasions at Narrabeen. And helicopters don't fly in that weather. So, in extreme weather events, people living from the northern end of Collaroy-Narrabeen right to Palm Beach would not have access to a hospital.
"That's not my opinion - that's what the flood studies councils have undertaken show," he says.
“It's not a risk we should be taking because it involves people's lives".
Mr Gordon wants acute services to remain open at Mona Vale Hospital until Wakehurst Parkway's flooding issue is solved.
Some doctors and paramedics also have reservations. Newport GP Dr Suzanne Daly, who lobbied for the retention of inpatient services at Mona Vale Hospital, says she's been "very concerned" about access since viewing plans for the hospital in 2012.
"The parkway was closed for several days shortly after our first meeting in April 2012.
“I have brought it up on numerous occasions with bureaucrats and Pittwater MP Rob Stokes but they don't seem to care," Dr Daly reveals.
Health Services Union NSW secretary Gerard Hayes adds, "It's all well and good to say, 'Take the diversions', but every other car is doing that, too."
"Whether you have your sirens on or not, it could add around 10 minutes to the trip and when you have a patient in the back, every minute counts."
Pittwater MP Rob Stokes says emergency services vehicles are permitted to travel on the parkway during flooding "provided it is safe to do so".
Mr Stokes also rejects the idea that the need to fix the road is urgent, arguing that the majority of Northern Beaches patients in ambulances go directly to Royal North Shore Hospital in St Leonards, travelling on the same routes.
According to Angus Gordon, the long-standing issue of flooding is due to the way the road was built and the build-up of sand in Middle Creek, which occurred as a result of the building boom in Frenchs Forest and Belrose during the 1950s to 1970s.
Because sediment controls were not used, massive quantities of sand released during the suburbs' development flowed Into Middle Creek, choking the waterway.
To my estimate, there is 3 million cubic metres of sand that wasn't there in the '40s," says Mr Gordon. He says the solution is to dredge Middle Creek, and use the sand to replenish the eroded coastline at Narrabeen and Collaroy.
But to completely resolve the flooding, he says the affected section of road would still need to be shifted about 100m to the south, impacting vegetation.
Middle Creek is managed by Northern Beaches Council - which wants to set up an interagency working group comprised of various state government bodies - to find environmentally sensitive ways to fix the problem.
Northern Beaches Council administrator Dick Persson says residents want the flooding addressed, in light of anticipated increased road-traffic demand associated with the development of the hospital and rezoning of the adjacent Frenchs Forest precinct.
However, for the moment, it seems undertaking a major project at the affected site is not a priority for the government.
In 2013, the Roads and Maritime Services (RMS) Indicated it was Investigating options to fix flooding. It's unclear what was found, but a RMS spokesperson says options to mitigate flooding “have been investigated but pose significant risk".
The spokesperson points to significant hospital-related road projects that are now underway at Frenchs Forest and upgrades to Mona Vale Road designed to improve traffic flow during a flood emergency.
These upgrades cost some $600 million, says Wakehurst MP and Health Minister Brad Hazzard, who argues the electorate is doing very well in terms of roads funding.
“At some point in the not too distant future, I'd like to see more money spent on [Wakehurst Parkway] but let's get the first lot done first.
"The vehicles can pass along Pittwater Road and up Warringah Road to the hospital. It might be a slightly longer passage, but for an ambulance using lights and sirens it should not be."
He says he is sceptical about claims Pittwater could be cut off in an extreme weather event.
"I respect Angus Gordon and his viewpoint generally, but I've never heard that argument point and find it hard to believe," he states.
The health authorities say there's nothing that would warrant any major concern.”