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May 21, 2022

The shock of Lismore

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As two Bendigoians, visiting Northern NSW over the past ten days, we quite expected to see flood damage in many parts of the region.

For weeks we had watched from afar the unfurling devastation of the floods from Lismore to Byron Bay and less well-known places. Places we know well – we feel exceedingly distressed for the many residents, friends and acquaintances who live in these areas. So much so that we have successfully provided two women who lost their belongings, homes and vehicles with replacement cars.

Today, Sunday May 1 we attended an afternoon ‘recovery-poetry’ event at Lismore where I participated in the readings. Yet I felt out of place, with no right to be there. But I had every right to be there as an observer, an outsider with the power of observation, a heart full of sorrow and will to assist however I could.

Arriving in Lismore and driving around we were deeply shocked by the devastation – my husband numbed by what he witnessed, and myself unable to control my tears.

Lismore was a war zone, but different, the enemy being nature itself, an enemy which has truly proved itself in this event, and may soon reappear.

Negotiations to avoid this disaster should have occurred long ago and been bipartisan, if the expression ‘caring for all Australians’ means anything.

For years we have known that, due to global warming, the Central North Coast of NSW faced inundation, yet nothing has been done to prevent this, or to decrease the devastation.

Imagine this: street after street of destroyed businesses, footpaths and recreational areas. Home after home, many constructed on stilts metres above ground and some distance from the river, their owners believing they were secure forever, were destroyed.

Shop windows were covered with mud still to be cleaned, and many were completely wrecked. All the streets were disturbingly deserted.

The few poets and friends who attended the event were clearly traumatised. Many found the subject of today’s reading ‘resilience’, although cathartic, most upsetting, it being far too close to the horror of what they had experienced. Yet, the word ‘mud’ controlled everyone’s perceptions, mud being the first thing they are still, after several weeks, dealing with. Mud layering the streets and footpaths despite all efforts to clean it away. Continued rain is not helping the situation.

The Northern Rivers poetic scene is dynamic with many excellent and well-known poets regularly performing. But today the works were profoundly different, revealing shattered human beings, their poetry written and performed in disbelief as to what had happened to their town and to their lives. Yet they were there and giving of themselves, wanting to move on.

But how, I ask, can they move on when they are so alone?

Kindly locals had established a makeshift café and were serving food, prepared, cooked, baked and delivered by less-affected residents, free of charge, by and for everyone.

Interesting, too, was the absence of major community, groups that are the pride of our nation. The CWA, Red Cross, and Lions, their banners normally loudly and proudly displayed, sorely missed.

Lismore residents are starkly alone. Their downheartedness and brave struggle to carry on was palpable. Remaining residents are exhausted from all they have been through, and have still to go through, to rebuild their lives.

Yet some caring souls cared to lighten spirits by providing ‘mud-based’ humour, and one woman had rewritten the Beatles song ‘Yellow Submarine’ with sing-a-long chorus, to brighten the crowd.

To ‘stand in the shoes’ of the people of Lismore for a split second is traumatic, to walk along streets without greeting a living soul is unbearable. Yet this is the life of Lismore residents.

Dear Prime Minister, please return to Lismore. You have only to ‘stand in their shoes’ for a split second to know how they are suffering. Please sit down with the community and listen to their stories and please move ‘heaven and earth’ to ensure that never again will their community endure such catastrophe.

Brenda and Charles Stevens-Chambers, Kennington, Vic

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