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Byron Shire
February 23, 2024

Failing system creates more trauma for flood victims

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Flood impacted house from the 2022 flood. Photo Aslan Shand

Don’t ask me how my house is. Please. This question brings forth an escalated spike in my nervous system, and a sense of panic and dread. I know you ask because you care and because you are excited that I may have shared with you that I had found a way forwards. But the way forwards is fraught and the uncertainties that continue even though it should be simple, and for you I know it is, because like most, you are an outsider to my story despite me having shared a little. And that’s not your fault, it’s no one’s fault. It just is.

I think it’s time to tell a human story, and I think it’s time to allow myself to be angry, truly angry and devastated at the mismanagement of the NRRC, now the NSW Reconstruction Agency (NSWRA), and to illuminate the further trauma this organisation and its inability to actually help people move forwards has caused flood survivors, on top of the flood trauma itself. 

This has been one of the hardest years of my life. Last year I had the benefit of spending a whole year in shock after losing our home, our memories, our place, our stability.

This year, back home, we began the year with the further destabilisation of learning we would be eligible for a buyback. We were some of the ‘lucky’ ones who have not spent a year waiting only to be told they are eligible for nothing. So this whole year, I have been navigating all of the unknowns which have come with this, the excruciating waits for the next piece of information. I have looked in many directions as to how to move forwards, without knowing what we would be offered, what the terms would be, where we would go, if we could save our house, whether the Resilient Lands Program would come through with land for people to move to.

It is nearly the end of the year and still no land announcements, no tangible future within those hollow promises. My weeks are punctuated with overcoming my own growing trauma with the whole process, to make contact with my case manager and try to progress my case to the point of actually having a contract with concrete numbers, terms and conditions rather than ‘likelihoods’.

ROR (Reclaim Our Recovery) gathering last week. Photo supplied

Time for action

In the meantime, realising that I couldn’t continue to exist in a state of ongoing limbo where there is no resolution, and the circles I turn in became a prison with no walls, I began to look for land myself. There are few places you can move a Queenslander to, and few places you can afford to buy land with what you will ‘potentially’ be offered within a buyback scheme. So I reevaluated and looked for other houses, other properties, other anything? 

The questions: Do I move further inland to land which is more affordable and further from work? Can I dislocate my family again after already being so destabilised? There is little to hold on to and I understand those lonely drivers who meet with trees. Full stop. How many lives will be lost before this broken system is fixed? Before the human collateral is visible to those beyond our immediate community?

Until today, I was trying, with incredible resilience – there’s that word again which has become distasteful as it rolls through my mouth. And really, I have been a superhuman this year, I have supported two broken children with broken schools and broken teachers – all spent and nothing left – through a year of HSC, plus their exams whilst continuing to uphold a job, care for the students I teach, care for the team I lead. At the same time I’m navigating my own way forward to find some land, make a deposit and trust that the NSWRA would come through with an early release of funds. 

Flooding in Lismore, looking south to airport, 31 March 2022. Photo David Lowe.

Want to move forward

I accepted the somewhat under par offer they made for our house despite knowing that others had been offered more for houses in much worse condition before the floods – investment properties made fit for profit and not home comfort. I wished to move forward as quickly as possible to a point of securing the land I found which allows for a Queenslander and could meet my needs. 

I accepted that it would mean stepping back from a job I love as I can’t afford to live in the community I service . Moving my house means moving an extra 30km from my work place – a 180km round trip each day. It is impossible. 

I accepted all that and I trusted that NSWRA would come through with an early release of funds to buy the land and that we could then stay in the house until the final settlement at which time the remainder of the funds would be released. Because this is a solution which makes sense on a practical and human level.

Today I heard, (after more than nine weeks of suppositions and hope since accepting our offer) that they will only release ten per cent of the funds towards land purchase before settlement and you cannot stay in the house once settlement occurs. Settlement meaning them releasing the full amount of money on offer. 

This is an impossible situation. With no land available through the Resilient Lands Program to move houses to, people have no choice but to find their own land themselves, but then how do we secure land when NSWRA is unable to support that fully? 

There seems to be no consideration given to the process moving a house entails – I guess this should not surprise me as I have been the one doing the legwork for this process myself with no insight or support offered from the powers that be. 

When I met with Resilient Lands earlier this year to see if there was any possibility of this being an option for relocation, I was asked to share the spreadsheet I had created to map out the costings of moving a house! On top of the lack of insight into costings, there is also no foresight given to the length of time these processes require. 

A two-week period beyond settlement to have readied your house for removal is ridiculous, let alone the clearing of the site which I believe to also be part of the contract – though as we know, I am yet to receive one, so again, more suppositions. 

Flood gauge at Lismore Rowing Club with water still rising, 30 March 2022. Photo David Lowe.

Patience

Everything takes time – I waited nearly three months to have my house assessed to see if it was able to be relocated to the land I found. Another three months of anxious uncertainty. Once I enter a contract with the house removal company it will be another six to nine months before they can do the job. It would indeed be easier to give up on trying to save the house we spent the whole of last year fixing.

I placed hope in my case manager when he said months ago that no one had put a cap on the amount of money that could be released. No precedent had been set. Well it seems it has been the singular piece of information now delivered since accepting our offer nine weeks ago. Another nine weeks spent not knowing – asking question upon question. Researching the steps needed to move a house and reestablish a home elsewhere. (And the steps are many, tiresome and every single one a new process to learn and embody alongside of upholding the everyday demands of being a working single mother).

Meanwhile the vendor of the land I have exchanged contracts with – the contract subject to me entering a contract with NSWRA within 12 weeks from exchange (that now being near seven weeks ago, so time is ticking) – agitates the real estate agent a few times a week, who then agitates me a few times a week and wants to know how it’s progressing. And until today I have had no further information to give and we continue our circle of wasting more time whilst waiting. I can certainly tell you I am beyond weary of regulating my own trauma, and managing the stress which is coming back from last year, and enduring what this year entails.

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

NSWRA failure

So now I know that what I thought possible is not and I yet again have to navigate another way forwards. Again my parents bear the brunt of my emotional collapse as they are the ones to deliver the news.

The other thing I heard today is that we should have some details of the contract by December 16! More than three months after accepting our initial offer! Yes, let’s drink to that! It’s beyond outrageous! 

By then my contract exchanged for the land itself will lapse unless I take out a mortgage and take on that burden on top of all the others I navigate in this process. Whilst the money which could be made available sits somewhere helping no one. I am enraged!

So I am left with no other option than to take on a mortgage if I wish to secure the land I have found and to pay two sets of council rates for a year or more whilst my youngest daughter finishes her last year of school next year. I will have to continue to work beyond the capacity of what I am able to uphold to meet all of those costs in addition to all of the extra costs which will come once the house moves. It is a situation beyond impossible and perhaps it is actually time for the real news story on what life is like in the flood zone of North Lismore. 

The SES had classed 3,657 homes as uninhabitable across the Northern Rivers by Monday morning – Photo of Lismore flood by Mercedes Mambort.

Give up and remain?

Take a walk in my shoes, come see it for yourself, walk with me through the many triggers of every single day and tell me you can remain sane. I would still dearly like to believe it possible.

Today I wonder again if I should just stay and trust that the next flood and the next will not be as big. But to trust in that would be to trust in humans taking care of the planet rather than their own greed and self-interest. 

It seems pretty obvious how well that’s going and when I allow myself to remember the horror of returning home that day following the flood and all the days that come after, I know that there will never be an ease in my being if I stay and I know I will only truly sleep once this whole chapter is done. 

In the meantime it is more a novel with each chapter topping the last in the incredulity of what we are prepared to subject ourselves to in finding how to move forwards. The circle I had escaped for a while closes in on me again and I know that I will now start the process of reevaluation once more, scouring the real estate market for a more viable option, writing lists, doing costings upon costings upon costings, mapping out variations on a theme – and where is the living in that?

So tonight I howl, and I reassure my parents that I am not suicidal when I break down on the phone. I howl, a guttural howl of despair, and I release the pain and anguish of the past however many months it has been – 21? It’s been that long already for such an unworthy outcome of all this promise and anguish. 

If this is the best we can do with so much funding, then there really is no hope for us. I am joining the ranks of the despairing, it is official and I don’t know who I’ll be tomorrow, whether there is any comeback from this place I have plummeted to. My grief is compounded by the knowledge that this is a shared story and still we are voiceless, speechless and the wheels of the machine keep turning.

The Book Warehouse in Lismore in the aftermath of the devastating 2022 February floods. Image: Barefoot Investor

Destructive process

I understand the graffiti on the fences which are erected in my disappearing neighbourhood, I feel people’s anger and today it becomes my own. 

I am no longer separate, functional, wishing to find a solution. I am, in this moment, thoroughly devastated and in the fullness of my despair. I am tired of being a survivor, jumping through hoops, being proactive, explaining to people who manage my case and don’t even live here, the constraints in moving a house along a road which has devastating landslips not yet fixed. 

Of explaining the time needed to move a house, the time needed to prepare a house for removal, the time needed to heal and become whole again. I am tired of feeling an alien within a process which does not belong to our community. 

If only they had given the money to Janelle Saffin – the wages would have been spared and we probably could all have managed a better future than the one we have been left with at the hands of the NSWRA. 

I’m sorry, but I am tired of waiting, I am tired of false hope, I am tired and I am no longer reasonable, measured, rational. I have joined the ranks of the rest of those who long ago lost hope and couldn’t bear, or afford, to stay. 

And I had so hoped I could be the one to prove that we could at least save one house from this whole mess. It tears at me, this wasted opportunity as I walk my streets and witness the graveyard to be, in the North Lismore which was.

So please, don’t ask me how my house is. My house is fine, it’s just the system which is broken.

♦ The author’s name was withheld on request. 


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7 COMMENTS

  1. What a powerful piece of writing. I’m so sorry you don’t feel safe to tell us your name. I know a few people who feel that much distrust in the system – that they cannot speak out publicly in case it negatively affects their process. But – how can it get much more negative? Maybe they would be more motivated to fix things if you went really public? I don’t know. But I do think you should talk to Janelle. Or ROR. Don’t be alone in your despair. And thank you for powerfully conveying the immense difficulty of the situation. It sure doesn’t help that a global consulting firm (WSP) was put in charge of outsourcing the case management system of the RLS. I mean … what could possibly go wrong?? Totally agree that if the money had just been divvied up directly by Janelle/the community, we would have sorted things out. It would’ve been tough, but we’d get there.

  2. This reads like “How Not to Manage a Catastrophic Flood Event and the Aftermath- a Guide for Officials”. Shame it’s a true story.

  3. The ongoing human misery. Why does it have to be this way. Where is Minns and Albanese .
    After all the big promises of helping…yuu huu, calling PM Albo and your national presser October 2022….still no real progress is seen.

    Contrast the Norco story.
    Yes, great that Norco is up and running again and in quick time, and WITH government assistance.
    Why can’t Flood Victims get similar quick resolutions?
    .

  4. It is very difficult to unearth motives why gov appointed corporations set up for a specific public purpose seem to often play by the same playbook; hide behind a political and legal wall, run on an unreliable time line seemingly unaccountable to no one – especially Ministers who set them up and continue to draw substantial wages and costs through delay after delay.. This obfuscation runs on while the direct beneficiaries of the trust – the disaster victims – the reason the funds were set up are rudely sidelined. Amazing stuff! There is a strong case for private disaster donations to be sent to a private entity for distribution. There must be some not for profits out there that can compete with the gov and not just hand collections to the gov later.

  5. I feel for us all
    None of us have any hope left
    How is going to look after our homes when they say we can’t live in them after the fence goes up
    No insurance to protect our homes from fire vermin swuatters
    2 years on and we are still waiting
    After so much trauma
    Losing everything throwing our history off the deck to garbage trucks ripping our walls bare for weeks with hundreds of volunteers luving in our shells awaiting awaiting john Lyng to get us back home living in caravan parks awaiting to go back home finding john Lyng haven’t completed scope of work to get me back home accepting a pod then being told i have a buyback being told i have to leave the pid cause i have a house that in yhere view is livable going to house to have a murder next door by a squatter killing my neighbor
    Begging to stay at pod due to more sdded trauma from going home then waiting again for words relating to conditions and finding out that I can move my house to being told no land information yet??? To not been able to make my house safe to feel comfortable fear of my house being destroyed due to no land available
    Havjng to leave the pod to sell my house to become homeless for the first time in my life at 64 years old !!!!
    To now about to live in a van till land is available and i have information on moving yhe house
    To getting permission to move my heritage house removal of tree council offiers finding a removal company that doesn’t overcharge and hoping the land that is supposed to be available is discounted enough to make it viable to move yhe house to
    Thats alot to navigate for a woman of so called resilience
    Oh gifting everything that was donated cause there are few storage units available
    Leaving my amazing gardens flowers fruit trees and 28 years of bringing up my children and grandchild in this house
    I should be grateful for a buyback but navigating the nrrc now the Ra is so disappointing and frustrating
    Nobody gives answers they always have the stance that oh we will send it to the team or yhere solicitors and my questions are answered with No
    Its very tiring and the minties and cup of tea and water for my lifesaver my dog Strawberry don’t cut it
    In a perfect world this flood could of been handled much more efficiently without all the stressful trauma we floodies have had to endure
    I’m hoping that my house will be safe with a big fence around it for god know how long and that they do mow it every month and that nobody burns it down that the land is affordable that the moving companies do not exploit us that council make it seamlessly easy to jump the hoops and that within 2 years we can be up yhe hill on landcthat is safe serviced well planned with our gorgeous heritage homes planted ready for my family’s future’s

    A long sad story hopefully with a happy ending
    Signed
    Hopeful

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