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Byron Shire
May 21, 2022

NSW Flood Inquiry Lismore community meeting reflections: We’re all in the same boat

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The floods are leaving people homeless and families split

There was a housing crisis on the Northern Rivers, then we had the floods of 2022 and the issue has left increasing numbers of people homeless and struggling to find alternative accommodation.
Last night members of the NSW Government independent expert inquiry team facilitated a forum at Southern Cross Uni to talk about the recent catastrophic flood events.
Adam Guise lives on the floodplain in North Lismore and is a councillor on Lismore City Council – he has shared his point of view of the forum with The Echo.

 

Floodwater surges over the levee at Browns Creek Pumping Station, Lismore, 30 March 2022. Photo David Lowe.

It was great to attend the flood inquiry public meeting at SCU last night. Thank you to all those wonderful people who came and shared their stories. For those who didn’t make it, please make a submission to the inquiry. They’re due on 20 May but they’ll accept late ones given the circumstances.

Cr Adam Guise at Browns Creek in Lismore.

Like many at the forum, I too am sceptical of such inquiries. We have inquiries for everything these days, with the recommendations that come out of them not being acted upon for years – if at all – or recommendations being cherry-picked for political expediency and posturing. The only way to ensure recommendations are acted upon is to hold our political leaders to account. Remember, there’s an election coming up, so vote for people who genuinely care for our community instead of just their political donors.

The standout speaker at the forum was Maddy Braddon who named the invisible gas which is choking the elephant in the room: human-caused global warming through the burning of fossil fuels. Thank you Maddy for articulating it so bravely and authentically.

The bottom of a spiderweb

Flooding in Lismore CBD, looking over Wilsons River to the east, 1 March 2022. Photo David Lowe.

Yes, Lismore is on the floodplain at the bottom of a spiderweb of creeks and rivers and has always flooded. But under a supercharged climate caused by ‘calculated government policy’ to privilege coal barons, big polluters and climate wreckers, floods will become more frequent and more devastating. No mitigation will stop this unless we stop the fossil fools. Period.

I live on the floodplain in North Lismore and am now a climate refugee. I escaped through my loft and was rescued off the roof by a neighbour in a tinnie like so many. My home is devastated but still standing, and it will be months before I can return home. Government support has so far not been forthcoming and it’s only been our wonderful caring and generous community that has carried us this far. Thank goodness for our community.

Engineering solutions

Section of levee wall behind Spinks Park damaged in previous flood, with flood lapping behind. Lismore, 30 March 2022. Photo David Lowe.

People talk of engineering solutions to get us out of this, but in my view, they won’t cut it. Unless we geo-engineer the entire catchment – i.e. divert rivers and build mega-dams on a scale like China – we will be spitting in the wind. The financial and environmental consequences of geoengineering would be crippling.

The impacts on downstream communities like Coraki, Woodburn, Wardell and Broadwater would be devastating. There would be stark winners and losers and clearly the winners would be the ones awarded the multi-billion dollar contracts to concrete and bulldoze pretend solutions.

Ideas like dredging the river are nonsensical and destined for failure. No amount of dredging will prevent or lessen a major flood. You’d need to dig a hole some 5m+ deep across hundreds of square kilometres of the floodplain to have any effect. The environmental damage would be disastrous. Dredging would destabilise banks, cause more erosion and be required in perpetuity like holding back the sands of the ocean.

Reforesting a better solution

Duck Pond Tree day 2017. Photo Tree Faerie.

Infinitely better solutions would be to reforest the river banks, steep slopes and upper catchment in order to prevent erosion and return the river to health as it was prior to European invasion.

Before we had cut down all the forests for timber and farming and silted up our rivers, long keeled ships plied our river, ironically to denude it of its resources. Hence settling Lismore at the meeting of two rivers so the ships could turn around, rather than kilometres downstream at Gundarimba where Lismore was originally intended.

Our local Bundjalung warned the settlers this was a bad idea. Perhaps now we could ask them to lead us in solutions. It is pretty obvious to most that it would be far cheaper to relocate the most impacted to higher ground and offer realistic environmental and social solutions that will have long term benefits. We don’t need more of the same pipedream ‘pretend’ solutions from people who just want to award jobs to their mates. The debate is far from over, Mr Hogan.

Answers now!

The May 3 community forum at SCU. Photo Adam Guise.

People want answers now. We don’t need a drawn-out inquiry that prolongs the suffering and uncertainty. People have asked for the option to have their homes bought back at pre-flood prices so they can afford to buy back into an already overpriced market.

We need land swaps and house relocations to higher ground; flood towers with flood floor heights starting at ~16m AHD; flood resilient design that you can hose out; and floating ‘pontoon’ houses. All these options are cost feasible and immediately available. We already mass produce pontoons for the marina and the boating industry.

We have a mountain-high plastics problem that instead of burning for toxic energy in a neighbouring council, we should be remoulding into pontoons, furniture and building materials. What we need is the leadership to make it happen rather than what we continue to have – nepotism which prioritises profits for mates.

An adaptation plan

House in North Lismore with rising floodwaters, 30 March 2022. Photo Adam Guise.

But what we fundamentally need is an adaptation plan – a climate change adaptation plan that acknowledges the reality that the window to our survival on this fragile and precious planet is rapidly closing. It needs to be a plan about saving lives, retaining our quality of life (minus the fossil fuels and insatiable greed for incessant material possessions), and protecting our beautiful environment which gives us so much joy, meaning and connection.

As we deploy resources to the above-mentioned solutions, we need to immediately implement social solutions such as a mass evacuation plan for those who don’t wish to remain in place during major floods. (Better the army help before the flood moving businesses and people’s household goods rather than the heartbreak and waste after the flood trashing people’s lives).

Even a relatively simple solution of each household having their own floating pontoon (i.e. life raft) to put their most prized possessions (family, pets, valuables, whitegoods etc) is better than multibillion-dollar megadams, river diversions and levies. Better still, flood preparedness and education pre-flood, for us on the floodplain to live simpler, less materialistic lives (yes I’m guilty of this!) Smarter ways of living on the floodplain such as communal wet spaces (kitchen & bathroom) built on ground level but with individual rooms (e.g. satellite ‘pods’) built as private rooms as either floating pontoons, flood towers or moveable tiny houses.

The real loser

Melaleuca trees on the floodplain are dying. Photo Aslan Shand.

Let’s also not forget that the real loser in such catastrophic floods is our environment: the life support system upon which we all depend. Massive erosion across the landscape means millions of tonnes of soil washed into our rivers and oceans, destruction of ancient trees and vegetation, and mass fish kills. Soil takes decades to create and is the lifeblood of agriculture, forests and habitat. Without soil, we are on a barren, lifeless planet. Floods might destroy homes and lives, but the recovery must include ecological restoration on a landscape and catchment-wide scale.

Fundamentally this flood has highlighted our precarious place on our landscape and the planet. As humans, we have built and colonised nearly every last surface of the planet. There is very little viable land left to go. Remember that much of the Northern Rivers population lives on the floodplain.

Yes, it was wrong to denude the floodplains of the Big Scrub forests and build settlements here against the wisdom of our Original Peoples. But we are here now and it’s time to acknowledge our mistakes and make reparations. Advantages to living on the floodplain is that it is eminently walkable and cyclable and is in close proximity to the CBD.

Many have used their time on the floodplain to regenerate the landscape – planting trees and growing food. While some profit-driven developers will rub their hands at the prospect of carving up more farmland under the pretence of flood refugee housing, I ask, when will we stop? When we can no longer feed ourselves? When we have pushed out every last native animal from their habitat?

The solution is not perpetual growth

Lismore Presbyterian Church sign, 30 March 2022. Photo David Lowe.

The solution is not perpetual growth so that the disaster capitalists profit from our suffering. Instead, the solution is learning to live with what we have and sharing it equitably. Remember, thousands of houses sit empty across our region and handfuls of people investor-own ‘portfolios’ of houses. Remember this before we blindly colonise more farmland and habitat, ‘offsetting’ the consequences of doing so for another day.

I love Lismore and I love living on the floodplain. I love my neighbourhood and I love my North Lismore community. The solution is not to force North and South Lismore people from their homes as collateral damage for raising the levy in a false sense of security for protecting the CBD at all costs. This disaster should not be allowed to further inequality and inflict ‘divine economic justice’ already so capably articulated by Professor Jeff Lewis and  Dr Belinda Lewis in The Echo. Sections of the community should not be played off against each other for the benefit of narrow vested interests.

Discussion paper

Flood rubbish around You Are Here sign in Lismore, 7 March 2022. Photo David Lowe.

Council has put out a ‘discussion paper’ just now about Lismore’s Growth Management Strategy: the strategy which defines where and how we build our houses for the future. I’ve been calling for this review repeatedly during my previous five years on council but it took a catastrophic flood like this to galvanise some action.

Why now at the height of a disaster while people are traumatised, exhausted and vulnerable to supposed well meaning government bureaucrats? Will it be used by disaster capitalists to carve up more farmland under the pretence of flood refugee housing? Or will we acknowledge that we need to design differently and in keeping with our landscape and ecological limits?

Some of the ideas flagged in the discussion paper are to depopulate North and South Lismore; prioritise the protection of the CBD (which means a levy at the sacrifice of North and South Lismore); the questionable idea of turning the green space of East Lismore golf course into a new shopping mall/housing precinct (for the benefit of who I ask?); and a potential buyback/land-swap IF the state or federal governments come on board. That’s a big IF and all other ideas should be contingent on floodplain dwellers being given genuine options for relocation first.

We do not want a repeat of Grantham, where so many have been left behind. I think some of the ideas in the discussion paper are red herrings and distractions, some are developer-driven and some have merit.

Make your views known!

In my view what’s really needed is a strategy that acknowledges the limits of perpetual growth and the fundamental realisation that there can be no more business as usual in a climate emergency. Homes are not a commodity for a lucky handful to trade and game and profit from. Homes are a human right and a fundamental requirement for health, happiness and safety.

Fundamental flaws

Lismore residents watch rising floodwaters on Uralba Street, 30 March 2022. Photo David Lowe.

Unless we address the fundamental flaws of a housing market rigged for developer profit and investor-driven policies like negative gearing, housing will remain the domain of the landed gentry.

We’re all in this together and we utterly depend on this singular, precious blue planet we call home. Make your voices heard and hold our elected leaders to account while we still can. Democracy does not end at the ballot box. The fight for our survival is now.


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9 COMMENTS

  1. Adam has made some very good points.
    In addition, This catastrophic ‘one in a hundred year event ‘ presents us with a once in a hundred opportunity to show the world what can be done to mitigate and adapt to climate change by intelligent design using truly sustainable materials to rebuild housing with zero or negative emissions.
    This means going much further than standard building codes – conferring with energy efficiency experts, designers architects project managers all from the perspective of recreating a vibrant community that live healthy sustainable, energy efficient homes.
    We need government and green businesses to stump up the money to move people to a better cleaner more sustainable future.
    In Australia our climate mitigation efforts alone will not halt climate change but that is no reason not to lead the way.
    Let’s lobby governments at all levels to be investors in a rejuvenated northern rivers with leading sustainable house designs the the rest of the world can emulate – that would be really revolutionary and it show the world the way forward out of climate catastrophe to a sustainable future.

    • Record Floods, Fire storms, Heat waves, Droughts and Super Cyclones

      This is what we must build for. It will require a very different style of building.

  2. Well said,Adam.I also lived in North Lismore between Brewster and Diadem Streets but although I imagined the flood was coming I did not expect the magnitude to which we were subjected.It would appear insurance companies are not supporting any claims so government needs to step up.Using the golf course is ridiculous as it has been badly affected too and we need that recreational facility for its present use.

  3. In my ’50s / ’60s childhood Lismore, some stores – including a major, Brown & Jolly in Woodlark St, and parts of the Mewings grocery mini-chain – would flick a switch to raise floors (stock and displays intact!) well above flood levels such as experienced in ’54 and ’74.

    When eventually those premises were redeveloped, the ‘magic’ floors were replaced with unimaginative concrete slabs. I mean, WTF!

    AFAIK, the only extant remnant of those ancient times’ mitigation efforts is to be found in the Mecca Cafe, where the large wall mirrors are hinged to the ceiling; come flood time, the glass is swung upward from the bottom and hung from ceiling hooks. This simple, low-tech approach should be awarded some kind of historical protection status and be preserved for posterity.

    You give us much to consider. It’s good to know there’s at least one functioning mind on Council.

  4. Farming land on the Northern Rivers is a typical example of how to destroy the land and create a major problem with erosion and silting the rivers. Just look at how the macadamia plantations are managed trying to get as many trees as possible per acre with bare earth under the canopy so in heavy rain the top soils are continually washed down the creeks. The Wilson River is a toxic water way full of silt fertiliser and chemicals apart from other debris. The plantings of trees on the river banks sounds good but a raging river will erode the soils around the trees and eventually the trees collapse. Better off growing grasses which can hold the banks better with less erosion.Dont forget Lismore isn’t the only town on a flood plain. I didn’t see them move parts of Brisbane CBD after the big floods. The golf course is a joke for development . Give the CBD a place where business can store their stocks . Give the community better information in flood times and not from a place miles and miles away with no local knowledge. Get flood readings by the hour from up in the catchment with rain fall readings by the hour . As for our politicians get stuffed your just a bunch of glorified idiots riding the gravy train at the taxpayers expense

  5. Adam firstly would like to say sorry for your loss
    Of your home very sad indeed and know of others
    Who are in the same predicament… Adam we all
    Have choices you chose to live in a area that
    has past and future over the generations
    Of catastrophic flooding events you know this !!
    You mention climate change emergency?
    Adam it was a climate emergency between 1830
    and 1893 that flood went over 2022 by two
    Meters all Pre industrialisation/ hydrocarbon’s
    Fossil fuels.. and yes it is 💯 percent correct
    First nation’s people’s adviced not to build
    Where north / south Lismore is now because
    Of previous flooding events.. ! They new this
    Yet white man did not heed the advice ..
    So Adam to gaslight the very notion that
    Hydrocarbon’s/ Fossil fuels has remotely
    Anything to do with the latest flooding event
    Is just far fetched..solution’s moving foward
    Adam alway’s prepare for the worst and Lismore
    Green Council’s over the decades have a lot to answer for ? Most that have lived in the
    Area’s know this.. my mother lives in Lismore..

  6. Great article Adam . We thought it was all going to change for the better back in the early 70 s. It’s so sad that it hasn’t . Greed and dishonesty still reign. Political double speak. Johny Howard’s got a lot to answer for . Malcolm Frazers treasurer. In cahoots with bjelkey Peterson and nefarious American and English elements . The little rat . Chewing away there in the background. Hanson and Clives boss . Still doing it. Still pulling the strings. Creating more racism. More greed . More selfish snobbery. Blame the victims if they’re doing it tough. Create friction with our neighbours . Be afraid . Be very afraid . Vote for us . We’ll save you . ……………….. If this way of thinking was a gardening job then in the day I’d be there with my team of workers cleaning it up and in the night I’d be secretly there with a bag full of asparagus fern seeds and be tossing them around everywhere . And be telling the client watch out for those weeds . You need me there permanently to stop the weeds overtaking the garden. Sounds like a good way to keep a job doesn’t it. ……Not. ………. Sounds like corruption and dishonesty and blatant lying to me . And that’s how the lib/Nat , one nation, uap,, run their business . Sneaky tricks. Pay trolls to spread negativity . trump tactics .

  7. Dear Adam.

    We should absolutely reforest the riparian areas of the catchment, however if you think this is going to stop flooding in lismore and stop land slides, than you are living in an ideological world where ‘everything natural is great and humans are evil’. Go up into the national parks and see that in this flood, the fully vegetated catchments did not stop the huge torrent of water coming through the creeks and there were landslides within the forested slopes of the national parks. By the way, the catchment is already reforested a large amount compared to the early 1900s, we are already on our way to this goal through natural regrowth, even if a lot of it is Camphor Laurel.

    What is wrong with using some engineering solutions? we humans are of this planet, we have survived for millenia by adapting to the environment, we need both natural and engineering solutions, its an ideological position you take, which is just the same as on the opposite side saying that climate change isn’t real. Please stick to science rather than ideology.

    North and south lismore needs to be moved, its a good idea, but what about the CBD? as I have not heard of ONE single proposal from you about the CBD yet.

    I still fail to see real practical solutions in your article, its all airy fairy, no specific proposals of how to solve the issue, you do realise voters disserted the greens last election (many like myself), this is why…please write a follow-up article with specific proposals of what to do.

    eg. how a landswap deal can work, where the new CBD is located, where to reforest the catchments to stop a flood, etc. not just broad statements that are ideological in thinking rather than specific science based solutions.

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