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  • Nicole Richards

'We are climate refugees': Voices from the Northern Rivers

“We haven’t recovered.” This was the message I was asked over and over to convey by flood-impacted residents of the Northern Rivers as I listened to their stories of lived experience a year after the flood disaster.


Spanning seven local government areas in NSW’s far north-east, the Northern Rivers is Bundjalung Country. It’s where I come from and where I live. We’re used to flood events, but nothing like we experienced last year.


The catastrophic floods that swept through northern NSW and southern Queensland in February and March of 2022 are now the costliest natural disaster in Australian history according to the Insurance Council of Australia, with the damage bill exceeding $5.65 billion.


Twelve months on, thousands of people and dozens of communities are still contending with the aftermath. Many families are still bunked in with relatives with relationships fraying or scattered throughout the region in temporary accommodation awaiting decisions from insurers or government agencies about the habitability of their homes.


For hundreds of Northern Rivers residents, disaster recovery has proven to be a frustratingly slow and tedious business.


“It’s like a pause button has been on all year,” Louise, a mother of one from Mullumbimby says.


“We’ve been bounced from agency to agency. We’ve been put in accommodation and then moved on for holiday rentals, staying one or two weeks then having to move.

“We are climate refugees right now.”


Louise’s experience is not uncommon in our region where the housing crisis has been exacerbated by sky-rocketing property prices and the displacement of long-term residential stock by short-term holiday rentals.


Another Mullumbimby resident, Susan, in her 70s, has had to move 18 times already and is still yet to receive a final outcome on her insurance claim.


“Everyone has a trauma going on in their head here,” Susan told me.


Addressing the influx of mental health programs that have swamped the region, Susan said bluntly: “The thing that would help our mental health is a little bit of housing!”


Community advocate Mandy Nolan says in many cases, “hope has given way to despair. People need to support hope because that’s what underpins the community”.


For artist/songwriter and mum of two, Candice, living in a caravan beside their “broken home” in Condong while waiting for insurance issues to be resolved has pushed her young family to the brink.


“The reality is there’s barely any difference between the day after the flood and now in terms of how we’re living,” she said. “It’s going to be at least two years with a broken home.”


Candice has lost track of the number of hours she’s spent on the phone – a three-hour wait on hold is nothing out of the ordinary, she says, yet usually yields few answers. The most recent quote she received for annual house insurance was $54,000.

In the nearby village of Tumbulgum, the local community deliberately chose not to mark the 12-month milestone.


“We are still at recovery stage,” explains Tumbulgum Community Association President, Jenny Kidd. “Our people don’t want to be triggered by looking backwards.”


Jenny says the community is resigned to the fact that another disastrous flood event is not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’ and is doing all it can to be prepared by implementing learnings such as the need for child-sized life jackets for evacuations, devising a system of identifying inundated houses (“When letterboxes go under you can’t see the house numbers”), and securing ladders to help people clamber over second-storey balcony railings into boats.


While many residents are redirecting their own money from super into rebuilding their house, others are waiting for an outcome from the Northern Rivers Reconstruction Corporation as to whether they will be eligible for one of three options: buy-back, house raising which costs between $80,000-$100,000, or retro fitting of their property.


COMMUNITY = HUMAN POWER

Throughout the Northern Rivers, from Chinderah in the north to Woodburn in the south, the power of community during the immediate response through to recovery and rebuilding is a recurrent theme. The life-saving work of local heroes has been captured in the new documentary, Tinnie Heroes.


Tom Cornish, co-founder of award-winning volunteer centre, Hub 2484 in Murwillumbah, coordinated hundreds of volunteers, devising a mapping system and implementing a “decentralised approach to get the help out to people rather than expecting them to come in to a central hub”. This approach saw 1,800 meals being delivered in one night with cars rolling into town after seeing the social media shout outs. Kayaks were also used to deliver food and water. “It was all just human power,” Tom says.


Similarly, the Mullumbimby District Neighbourhood Centre relied on community networks and people power to distribute 10,500 frozen meals and 40,000 grocery items through its community pantry. Further south, the two food pantries managed by the Mid-Richmond Neighbourhood Centre (MRNC) at Evans Head and Woodburn still see 100 people coming through to purchase food each day.


“Areas like Woodburn were just as heavily impacted as Lismore,” MRNC’s Jaime Cooper explained while pointing out the building in which we’re standing was submerged up to the tip of its roof in flood water. “There are 300 houses in the township and only six weren’t flooded.


“So many households are still living off one power point in the house and cooking with gas cookers. There’s still no petrol station here and no supermarket.”


WHERE TO FROM HERE?


The environmental impact of the flood disaster in the Northern Rivers is still being grappled with. Many roads are still inaccessible, local bridges washed away and the hills scarred by hundreds of landslides.


Anna Dicker at Australian Seabird & Turtle Rescue in Ballina explained that the local saltwater river had zero salinity for four whole months, such were the forces of the flood waters rushing from the hinterland to the ocean.

A storefront in Lismore.


The force of the water is something Chris Binge, CEO of Jali Local Aboriginal Land Council will never forget. With no support from emergency services, Chris was left to coordinate the evacuation of the 200+ First Nations residents of Cabbage Tree Island.

“The Richmond River converged with the Wilson River to give us 16 metres of water at a velocity I’ve never seen in my life and hope never to see again,” Chris said. “You could hear the water roar. I’ll never forget it – it was like an aircraft taking off.”


Evacuating entire families of “Mum, Dad, Nan, Pop and 12 kids” in whatever boats were available, Chris and other community members carried Elders out on their backs through waist-high water.


Access to Cabbage Tree Island is still closed and the community is still living in temporary accommodation across the region.


“This is cultural land with significant connection to Country – there are burials on the Island,” Chris said. “Where do we go?”


In Lismore, physical reminders of the floods are everywhere. Shopfronts in the central business district, which still only has a 60 per cent occupancy rate remain boarded up. Condemned houses line residential streets like scars surrounded by temporary fencing. These are houses that have been ripped from their footings, external walls ripped apart and leaning back on the house at strange angles. These properties can’t be demolished until official decisions have been handed down about next steps.


“It’s critically important as we move into a time of increased disasters that place-based, locally-led organisations like ours exist and are enabled to exist beyond the immediate impact of the disaster,” explained Elly Bird, Executive Director of Resilient Lismore, the heart of community-led disaster recovery in Lismore.


“After the disaster there’s a lot of funding washing around for usually two years then it dries up because people think disaster recovery takes two years when it actually takes five or ten.


“One of the wicked challenges for disaster recovery is the meaningful inclusion of community voices and perspectives,” Elly continued. “Community recovery plans are being written by bureaucrats in Sydney and then being delivered into the region.


“If community organisations are in place, they know what they’re doing, they understand the disaster landscape and context and they’re really well positioned to respond.


“We live here, this is us, this is our community, and we have a lot of work to do.”




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