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Byron Shire
July 20, 2024

Lismore loudly reclaims its recovery

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Bungawalbin resident Deborah Johnston. Photo Tree Faerie.

On Friday night, the Star Court Theatre in Lismore was the location for a much needed public conversation about what’s happened since the 2022 floods, and how the recovery process could be better managed into the future.

Members of the large audience, who came from Lismore and the wider Northern Rivers,  spoke about their ongoing trauma, the injustices of government decisions to date, and community-centric solutions for what might happen next, as Lismore MP Janelle Saffin and Sue Higginson MLC listened and took notes in the front row.

The entire event was professionally filmed, so that decision-makers who couldn’t be there could hear directly from community members. The collective trauma was tangible in the room, but so was the indefatigable Lismore spirit, which has survived major challenges before and will no doubt do so again.

MC Andrew George. Photo Tree Faerie.

MC Andrew George explained that the event would be in two halves, focusing on the past and the future, with Red Cross volunteers present to help with psychological first aid.

‘I’d like to acknowledge and recognise those who lost their lives in the flood, and in the aftermath,’ he said, ‘along with all those we’ve lost from our community, people who’ve been forced to leave, and potentially also people who’ve been trapped as well. There has been a lot of suffering since the flood. We’re hoping that the space of listening and speaking is therapeutic space.’

Questions

Facilitator Sarra Robertson then opened the conversation with three questions. ‘Number one, what is the main reason you think the recovery program has failed up to this point, and what impact has it had on you? Two, what has been damaging or needlessly difficult? Three, what experiences have eroded your trust in the process?’

A roving mic then went into the audience. The first speaker talked about how many were dealing with rebuilding community infrastructure as well as homes, with responsibilities ill-defined and people over-stretched.

Another man said that for the first weeks after the flood the recovery process was fantastic, thanks to ‘local anarchy’, but as soon as things were taken out of the hands of communities and talk of buybacks began, things went downhill.

‘I would recommend that the buybacks more or less cease at this point, and any further money should be devoted to fixing the houses of people who have been hanging out for buybacks and didn’t get one,’ he said.

‘If you remove half of the population from the Northern Rivers, you’ve removed half the customers for the businesses that have to remain.’

He said the whole process had been mismanaged from the beginning.

Sarra Robertson agreed that mismatched solutions had been ‘one of the most disempowering elements of the entire recovery,’ even as far back as the previous flood of 2017, after an ‘initial wave of hope that we were going to get a solution.’

Woodburn resident Robert May said he had four metres of water over his land during the flood, and was seeking buyback, but he would continue to support local businesses if he had to leave. ‘If I don’t get buyback, Mr Premier, you better look out!’ he said.

Janelle Saffin MP and Sue Higginson MLC joined forces to welcome those gathered and acknowledge Country, after Uncle Gilbert Laurie was unable to attend. Photo Tree Faerie.

United front

Another speaker, Noelle from Mullumbimby, emphasised that all the community members across the region needed to ‘work together, as the Northern Rivers, to get more strength.’

She said that in her region landslips brought their own challenges, but there was no assistance forthcoming. She went on to say that after numerous meetings and community engagement sessions with the NRCC, almost the whole shire of Byron Bay had been rejected for assistance to become more flood resilient, on the basis of one in 20 year flood estimates, with only 10 properties identified for buyback and 14 raises and retrofits out of the 2,200 properties identified as having been flooded.

‘Only then did we realise that we’d been strung along – putting off repairs so we could retrofit or raise – our lives on hold waiting for something that wasn’t coming. And I would like to acknowledge that we have been lied to,’ she said.

‘They continue to spend money on information sessions and encourage us to appeal, but these things do not help us become resilient… I guess that they are just not very good at their job. Because of this, I feel we should proceed without them in order to get some kind of result.

‘The issue still remains how to make our towns and homes viable, safe places to live, grow, run a family business and invest in; to stop and mitigate the ongoing trauma.’

She suggested interest free loans would directly help people raise and retrofit their homes.

Sarra Robertson was the facilitator at the Lismore event. Photo Tree Faerie.

Merrilee from Bungawalbin agreed that a united front from all of the Northern Rivers community was needed, having been isolated and trapped on her property for eight weeks following the 2022 floods. She said the SES had many fantastic members, but needed better resources.

‘They are a State Emergency Service and they could not support us,’ she said. ‘We need the government to support these guys, they’re volunteers but they need the support and funding for proper equipment, so we can rely on them when there is an emergency in our area.’

All or nothing?

Returning to the government response, a man from South Lismore said he’d had three metres of water through his family house, then ‘they made us wait for a year and dumped us with nothing. And that’s kind of hard because people 20 meters away have been offered over $600,000.

‘That’s quite weird,’ he said. ‘It’d be nice to see a more evenly distributed form of help. Even if it meant less. It’s a bit strange that some people get total bailouts and other people get nil. There’s no way that those people are in a different situation from us. And I think it was quite damaging, being led on for a year and I won’t say lied to, but led on with promises.

‘It’s a strange position to be in for a year when your house is wrecked and everything’s wrecked, and you’re absolutely exhausted. That was extremely damaging to trust. I don’t know how the children are going to think about whatever it was, that did that to us.’

Other speakers said that some people who had been offered buybacks would prefer assistance to raise their houses, reiterating stories of neighbours in identical situations who had been offered nothing at all.

‘It’s not surprising that people are feeling suspicious,’ said a speaker from Nimbin. ‘And exhausted because they’re getting so many answers that don’t match. If we’re looking at a reset down the line, there has to be absolute honesty and absolute transparency.’

Harper Dalton at the NRRC protest earlier this year in Lismore. Photo Aslan Shand

Queensland vs NSW

Harper Dalton noted that authorities in Queensland were using the one in 100 year flood level for retrofits and the one in 20 year level for raising, while NSW was using the one in 20 year level for both raising and retrofits, ‘which means in areas like Lismore, most of the houses in the highest risk areas are already raised.

‘So that type of data basically excludes people from any type of help.’

Another speaker said flood mapping surveys being used from 2010 lacked essential data, and there weren’t enough flood meters in critical areas. This meant areas like Bungawalbin went underwater before Lismore was flooded, and water had nowhere to go, but with insufficient knowledge of what was happening across and between catchments, people were unprepared.

Another speaker talked about the importance of geotechnical assistance, especially in landslide areas. ‘We needed to know what was safe and what wasn’t,’ she said. ‘If something of this magnitude happens again, that assistance from the government needs to be provided.’

Naomi Tarrant spoke up for renters in the CBD flood zone. ‘What concerns me a lot about the buybacks is that the houses will be demolished – at least that’s how it’s appearing. These are perfectly good houses they could be moved somewhere for renters, and for anyone to buy, that people need to solve the housing crisis and escape the flood zone.’

Sarra Robertson added that 29 per cent of flood affected people were renters.

Protecting the most vulnerable

Another woman spoke for flood-affected people with a disability, such as her son, who has been ‘stuck in a loop’ when seeking assistance, unable to talk to anybody in government who could actually help. ‘I’m also a domestic violence worker,’ she said. ‘And I can tell you that the rate of serious domestic violence has escalated three times in this community since the flood.

‘We have no houses, we have nowhere for people to go,’ she said. ‘How do we take care of the people who can’t speak out, who are dealing with so much that they can’t be here to speak up for themselves?’

Another man said his daughter had renovated her flood affected property to make it flood safe for the future. She has belatedly been offered a buyback, but no money to move the house, despite ‘over $400,000 worth of equity.’

Bella Frankie sang about the floods. Photo Tree Faerie.

The first half ended on a positive note, with one speaker noting ‘what a beautiful community we have, and we’re very proud of it.’

Another man said the large turnout indicated that the community was not broken, in spite of everything, but continuing to stand together.

Intermission music for the event was provided by the wonderful Bella Frankie, led by Ajita Cannings, who premiered several pertinent new songs, including a very clever reworking of ‘The Road to Gundagai’.

Reset

Opening the second half, Aidan Ricketts said, ‘The thing that really moves me is that we already are an empowered community. We have shown that so many times. And the kind of reset I want to see is one in which we really draw on that strength and have government recognise that strength, instead of trying to work over the top of it.

‘We know if we’re empowered we can do it ourselves,’ he said. ‘And when government comes along, we need them to get in behind with their big dollars and help our organisations and our community self organisation, and help us.

Aidan Ricketts. Photo Tree Faerie.

‘It’s so sad that we’ve spent all this time losing our way because we’re broken into individuals and broken that capacity… [They] need to say, you are the people who know best how to do this, and how to get it done.’

Lyndall from Evans Head then gave an example of this, talking about a community-driven project which set out to get vulnerable flood-affected people from tents, caravans and insecure accommodation back into warm housing, so far completing 21 homes, with 53 to go, having fund-raised $62,000 to do the work.

She said that in terms of the government response, waiting was the biggest problem. ‘We have been waiting for 17 months and we continue to wait. People cannot wait any longer. I can’t see another old person that’s chronically ill and dying, living in a really insecure, unsafe and cold home.

‘We are leaving the Aussies behind. That’s why we’re standing up, because no Australian deserves to be left behind, and our communities are being left behind. And we have the solutions. We are empowered communities.’

Ballina memorial event for Lindy Lucena earlier this year. Photo David Lowe.

The next speaker returned to the issue of domestic violence, noting that the first woman to die at their hands of her partner in 2023, Lindy Lucena, was a flood refugee living in temporary accommodation.

Referencing a discussion about evictions currently happening in Lismore, the speaker went on to say, ‘a third of the people who went through the flood were renters, and their needs are not being met. Not only that, but the solutions that they find are being taken away from them.

‘Thanks for speaking about the vulnerability,’ she said. ‘I don’t want to become a woman in a house with no windows and doors. If I’m in a house with windows and doors, don’t take it away.’

Solutions

Speaking of solutions, another speaker said, ‘I know someone in this audience who has a safe warm place where they live out of the flood, they have a partner. And their flood house, they’re not going to take the buyback. It was in a really poor state and rundown, but they have handed it over, rent free, to essentially a caretakers agreement.

‘And so there’s a 10 year old and a 50 plus year old, warm and safe in a house and everyone’s happy. It’s mutual aid, I think.’

Another renter said he was wondering if it was possible to rent from the NRRC, considering his home was likely to be facing buyback?

Ryder wanted to see a rapid transition to renewable energy. Photo Tree Faerie.

The following speakers addressed the climate change issue, which would inevitably lead to worse disasters in future, with the state government urgently needing to supply the promised second tranche of money for flood affected people so residents could find safety before the next emergency.

What about summer?

A couple of people mentioned that the expected extremely hot summer would also be a serious health hazard for flood affected people living in poorly insulated temporary accommodation. ‘How are we going to survive summer, if we are struggling to survive winter? That makes me really frightened.’

Laurie Axtens said he was converting his large flood-hit house into a ‘cooling hub’, offering it to others in urgent need, and suggesting that people who were able to do something similar should think about it before the dangerous summer heat arrived.

Young audience member Ryder said he was also worried about the next drought, saying climate change needed to be fixed, with a renewed focus on renewable energy.

Jyllie Jackson.

Jyllie Jackson said that after a long period of nothing happening with reconstruction, now things were happening too fast. ‘There’s all sorts of gossip and wondering about whether or not this house is going to be demolished, whether it’s going to be smashed up, or what’s going to happen to these beautiful timbers and these beautiful houses.

‘There’s something going on, but we don’t know about it,’ she said.

Considering the impacts on local businesses she went on to say, ‘What came out of a gathering the other night was a petition and a request that things slow down… we should take care and have a moratorium on smashing the buildings or moving them… so that our businesses can survive, so that our rents can be paid so that Lismore stays alive.

‘If we move way, way away, there’s no Lismore,’ she said.

Returning to the Queensland comparison, Harper Dalton said there were much more generous retrofitting options north of the border for people not eligible for buybacks. He also said it was important for communities to stay together, if possible, and not be forced to become fragmented.

‘We need to move our community together,’ he said, ‘and to start healing and growing and building a resilient future for heatwaves, floods; for our future generations. Not just for me, not just my house, but for the people that can live there in the future.’

Other speakers said people needed to remember they were voters, reconsider the idea of developing on high ground at North Lismore (and the golf course), improve weather monitoring as per CSIRO recommendations, and try to find a single way to communicate, with many important pieces of information not getting through as community members were using different platforms and interfaces.

Maddy Braddon. Photo Tree Faerie.

Get involved

Maddy-Rose Braddon said that she would encourage anybody to get engaged with flood recovery support, even if they weren’t personally affected. ‘Please keep reaching out to those who have been flooded. Please offer your help to advocate, to appeal, to help them do the paperwork. Sit with them and help them carry that burden, because hope is not lost.

‘I know for a fact that climate risk was not considered in the maps. And that is of great concern to me. And I just want to say your voice and your individual experience does matter.

‘Please keep meeting with local politicians. Please keep advocating your story, and if you’re exhausted, which of course you are, please engage with your local flood recovery service… There are people out there who want to help, and there’s opportunities to be supported to continue to advocate. We just have to keep helping each other to do that.’

Everyone wanted to see positive outcomes. Photo Tree Faerie.

Late in the meeting, there was a strong yes consensus (via show of hands) for the following questions:

  1. Do you want the grassroots community to lead in this recovery with adequate government funding?
  2. Do we need more transparency from the process?
  3. Do we agree we need 100 per cent of tranche two funding?
  4. Should good houses not be demolished?
  5. Would you all like to try and do this again, and make it bigger?

Once again, the answer was yes.


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4 COMMENTS

  1. What “recovery”?
    There is no recovery, Lismore is an Ex City. Businesses are gone, and shopping is now at Goonellabah, Alstonville or even Ballina or Casino if you are desperate.
    My only access road is still closed, many houses are still precarious with landslips (avalanches ) a constant threat…. and a burgeoning bureaucracy that is primarily to blame for the fiasco that served as a response at the time, and since seems to be incapable of any meaningful plan to progress, thus mirroring the general incompetence demonstrated amply on the State and Federal levels, where accountancy firms charged with the ultimate credibility of the Government, Industry, the Banks and the Country as a whole, have proven to be fundamentally corrupt to the core and to represent the new standard of organised crime.
    The country, the State, Federal and Local Governments are paralysed and incapable of dealing with any issue of substance and divert the populace with trivia such as sport or ‘the voice’ while the Planet fries, … and do nothing but instigate carbon credit scams that do nothing but fund polluters to commit even greater extremes of ecocide in the pursuit of meaningless GROSS NATIONAL PROFITS.
    “Oh ! what fools these mortals be.” G”)

  2. It is pointless having endless meetings and reports when clearly no-one is actually going to do anything except have endless meetings and reports

  3. The renters have been forgotten. We lost everything in the flood here in Ewing Street. We got next to nothing compared to our landlord who threw our belongings onto the street so he could save his dump from going moudly. Five weeks later we were back in. We are paying pre-flood rent, no kitchen, a broken toilet, sleeping on rotten floorboards. Meanwhile, he put his twenty grand handout into his back pocket. Now the government are pampering him with half a million dollars, he is salivating. In a month or so we will be homeless. When will the renters be getting a pre-flood evaluation and buyback money for their posessions they lost?

    I am sorry for those who genuinely lost their homes. I have no pity for the bogan investers who already own several homes and don’t give a crap about this town. It is a case of the ‘haves versus the have-nots’. The home owner is king and the politicians will look after them. I suspect this government land grab is part of a globalist agenda. Once they knock out the houses one by one like teeth, they’ll build more Bunnings, after all, we urgently need more hardware shops the size of airports! Maybe they will build a Service NSW in Ewing Street on concrete stumps with a Department of Housing logo on it?

    It is a crying shame.

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