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Byron Shire
December 1, 2023

Zero official support for community group helping flood survivors

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People are living rough on the Northern Rivers three months after floods destroyed homes. This photo was taken in the Byron Shire
Photo Francesca Esposito.

Northern Rivers flood survivors are living in flimsy tents by the side of the road, in caravan parks, out bush or in backyards, as morning frost appears this winter.

Wardell CORE volunteer Joel Orchard told The Echo on Tuesday morning the community service had up to twenty regular users living in tents more than three months after floods first devastated the region in late February.

The service didn’t receive any government funding or support but was supplying essential goods and welfare support in a small town where the only other option for most flood survivors in need was to leave.

The closest official support in terms of donations was the Ballina Shire Council’s distribution depot in Ballina.

Mr Orchard said most people using Wardell CORE didn’t want to have to drive all the way into Ballina while others simply couldn’t, having lost vehicles to flood damage.

Significantly increased traffic and demand for services in the coastal town of Ballina since floods wiped out facilities elsewhere meant a once straight-forward drive for most had become a stressful day-trip.

Flood survivors travel from far and wide to access Wardell CORE

Wardell locals collecting donated goods from CORE. Photo supplied.

Flood survivors from Coraki, Lismore, Woodburn, Broadwater and Casino were seeking help from Wardell CORE volunteers rather than having to trek to Ballina and navigate services there, Mr Orchard said.

‘We’ve created a facility that feels comforting and nurturing, it’s not just a depot,’ Mr Orchard said.

‘People are hearing that and coming to see that themselves,’ he said.

The centre was receiving visits from a lot of elderly people with pre-existing health conditions; single mothers; people who had been living on their own and suffered social isolation; people with severe housing insecurity at high risk of post-traumatic stress disorder; and ‘quite a large community of people from the Bundjalung community,’ he said.

A professional mental health practitioner was working at the centre pro-bono but Mr Orchard said the free labour, as well as that provided by various other professionals volunteering at Wardell CORE, wasn’t sustainable.

The group also offered an outreach service, Mr Orchard said, focussed on welfare checks and mental health support.

Reflections on climate disaster recovery processes so far, such as those heard in an ongoing NSW upper house inquiry into government responses to the floods earlier this year, had highlighted the need for governments to support community-led services but Mr Orchard said authorities were failing to heed the call.

Already-traumatised people were forced to endure new forms of suffering while promised temporary public housing failed to materialise anywhere other than on a sports field in Wollongbar and winter set in.

A second temporary mini-village for the Ballina Shire had been promised in Wardell but Mr Orchard said Resilience NSW had failed to provide any information to locals, including at Wardell CORE.

Previously the Ballina mayor had suggested up to four hundred people might be accommodated in the village, which was to include a pre-school and primary school but no services in terms of supplies.

Mr Orchard said he was concerned Wardell CORE would be overwhelmed by need  unless it received official support in terms of funding.

Winter brings extra health concerns for flood survivors

National media debates centred on an energy crisis and whether or not Australians could afford to heat their homes but in the valleys and plains of the Northern Rivers, people were desperately trying to rug up inside cars, tents and caravans after thousands of flooded buildings were declared uninhabitable.

Mr Orchard said some people didn’t even have tents tall enough to stand in.

‘People’s health is really suffering in lots of cases,’ Mr Orchard said, ‘we’ve seen cases of pneumonia and chest infections and the flu has been going around, which is quite dangerous’.

People were coming to Wardell CORE in need of warm clothes, bedding and a hot meal, not to mention a gentle chat with someone caring.

Wardell’s changed community needs since floods overlooked, says volunteer

The facility, running out of Wardell’s privately-owned old bank building since its effective eviction from the council-owned Wardell and District War Memorial Hall, featured a variety of services including laundry, soup and music nights and a mothers’ group.

The Ballina Shire Council was receiving submissions on its proposed lease of the Wardell Hall to another tenant and Mr Orchard said Wardell CORE was calling on supporters to comment on a process he thought contradicted stated council policy.

‘The council has a policy around community assets and facilities like halls,’ Mr Orchard said, ‘the council is supposed to review best use of assets and the changing needs of communities’.

‘The council’s argument was that the Wardell Progress Association has been a good tenant, which is true,’ he said, ‘but the decision to renew their lease doesn’t reflect the changing needs of the community, which are obvious and drastic since the floods occurred’.

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