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A year after the floods, Northern Rivers residents are in limbo, with many likely to miss out on recovery funds from a program that is beset by delays and a lack of transparency. By Royce Kurmelovs.

Lismore one year after the floods

A woman sits by an open window with a dog by her side. It's sunny outside, and from the window is a view of green trees.
Crystal Lenane, who, along with her family, is living in a caravan beneath their house.
Credit: Isabella Melody Moore

Back in town a public ceremony is being held to mark the anniversary of the Lismore floods, but Vicki Findlay is sitting it out.

The 63-year-old makes her home on the edge of a creek in North Lismore and the memory of the catastrophic flood that swept through the region a year ago is still strong.

On that day, her family were preparing for a flood – something they have had to do often. A seven-metre rise in the wetland around her property will cut off the street and so, for the 26 years her family have lived in this place, they have had to organise their lives around flood management.

Nothing, however, prepared them for the scale of the 2022 flood. One rainfall gauge at Goolmangar Creek recorded 531 millimetres of rainfall on the night Lismore flooded. As the basin at the confluence of two rivers filled, the water rapidly rose to the ceiling of her home, forcing her family to retreat into the roof cavity above.

“I never really conceived of that much water,” Findlay says.

The family were not taken by surprise, but others were. When Findlay called the State Emergency Service to arrange an evacuation, she was sent to an answering service.

“The message said that if I left my name and number, they would call me back,” Findlay says. “A year on, I’m still waiting for that call.”

At the sight of the family’s possessions floating off down the river – the first time this had happened – Findlay knew it was time to leave. Eventually the family was picked up by a friend with a boat.

As climate change means these extreme events will only grow worse and more frequent, the risk of staying outweighs her love for her home.

Now Findlay is waiting for another call from the authorities – this time about a buyback as part of the reconstruction program – an irony not lost on her.

“Another call that never comes,” she says.

 

Over in Lismore’s central business district, it’s hard to find traces of the event that killed five people and drove 15,600 others across the region into evacuation centres. Shops are boarded up and the interiors of buildings are having work done, but the streetscape has been restored as a point of pride.

Two in three businesses have since reopened, but as the recovery program has taken time there are now growing concerns about an exodus. Before the flood, 44,334 people were thought to live in Lismore; no one is sure how many remain.

A sign of what’s happening can be found in the advertisements listed in the front windows of real estate offices along the main strip. One heading reads, “Opportunity Awaits”.

“This flood-affected diamond-in-the-rough is ready for you to take it to the next level,” it says. “This classic, high-set hardwood three-bedroom home has incredible potential for a first home or as an amazing investment promising solid rental yield for years to come.”

Compared with Sydney, the $225,000 asking price for this home in South Lismore is a steal. Next to it are the other properties being sold to investors and first-time buyers, right in the middle of the flood zone.

“It’s disaster capitalism,” says state Greens candidate for Lismore, Adam Guise. “It’s tragic. It’s heartbreaking for those people that feel like they’ve had to sell up in such desperate circumstances so that they can get on with their life and make something of their lives. They can’t wait around longer, waiting for some certainty or support from government.”

Guise, a local councillor, is running against incumbent Labor MP Janelle Saffin. Guise’s home was overtaken in the flood and his family evacuated in the driving rain. He says the town is now at a crossroads, finding itself on the front line of climate change, a housing shortage and a rental affordability crisis. The start of the recovery has taken so long to get going that now those who lived through it want out and those outside the community are eyeing up the town because they can’t afford to live anywhere else.

It is estimated 1700 homes were damaged in the flood, 1400 of them severely. The affected people are likely to make up a small fraction of Australians who have been dislocated by extreme weather events worsened by climate change: 48,900 people had already been uprooted in 2021, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre.

Among them is Crystal Lenane, 39, who says her two kids still ask whether a flood is coming whenever it rains. The family currently live in a caravan beneath the shell of their house in East Lismore.

Lenane says she and her husband are waiting for news about whether they are eligible for help under the government’s reconstruction program, but the lack of information means she – and everyone else –
is in a holding pattern, unable to make choices about their future.

“Hope is a dangerous thing,” she says. “Especially here.”

Many of the neighbours on her block have sold up and moved out, she says.

“Now we’ve got new neighbours. We’re in the middle of a housing and rental crisis, so you can’t blame them. But I thought the whole idea was to move people off the flood plain.”

 

A year on, the obvious solution – moving people off the flood plain and out of harm’s way – has proved contentious.

To even get to this point, Janelle Saffin had to hammer the government in the aftermath for failing to respond. Saffin, who herself had to be rescued from the floodwater, says the flood exposed how unprepared and hollowed out the public service has become.

“The machinery of government is just not there, it does not exist,” she says. “I’m banging away every day trying to push for something for which the machinery of government is not fit for purpose.”

If the first struggle was to create the Northern Rivers Reconstruction Corporation (NRRC) out of the ashes of Resilience New South Wales, Saffin says now the goal is to make the NRRC better.

“This was our Tracy moment,” Saffin says. “Cyclone Tracy. It was massive physically, massive psychologically. We expect a participatory approach. That’s not too much to ask for, given what our community has been through.”

As much as Lismore has become a symbol for what took place on the morning of February 28, 2022, it is not the only town. Others across the Northern Rivers that were badly affected include Wardell, Woodburn, Broadwater, Coraki, Casino, Mullumbimby, Murwillumbah, Nimbin and Bungawalbin.

So far these communities have been promised a share in the $700 million recovery fund that will give about 2000 people buybacks to move them out of danger, raise another 2000 homes above the maximum floodwater level, and retrofit 2000 more.

Elly Bird, chief executive of Resilient Lismore and a local councillor, says more than 6500 people have registered their interest since January, meaning there will be those who inevitably miss out.

Bird says the state government and NRRC have made “big commitments” but frustration at the slow pace of the rollout is growing within the community.

“They’ve been very clear that it will take the program at least five years to deliver, so the community has to sit with that and figure out how to live with that,” Bird says. “What we’ve got is what I consider to be a very long-tailed humanitarian crisis of people living in homes, under homes, [with] inadequate toilet facilities or bathrooms and people living their lives in an unsustainable way.”

A key issue has been a lack of transparency from the NRRC and the department – particularly around who may be eligible for buybacks under the scheme, what flood maps are being used and how decisions are being made.

Since October, the NRRC has hosted
53 community information sessions – 28 town hall presentations and 25 “pop-up events” – but locals say these sessions have been heavy on promises and light on detail.

Even information about how many people have been offered buybacks so far remains a closely guarded secret.

A week before the anniversary, a joint statement by federal Minister for Emergency Management Murray Watt, NSW Deputy Premier Paul Toole and NSW Minister for Flood Recovery Steph Cooke announced the buyback scheme was “under way”.

“By getting people out of harm’s way we can help to prevent repeats of the life-altering floods we’ve seen in the last few years in the Northern Rivers,” Watt said.

The announcement did not disclose how many offers had been made.

The Saturday Paper made multiple attempts to speak with NRRC chief executive David Witherdin ahead of the anniversary.

Responding to written questions in a statement, the department said 250 buyback offers will have been made by April “to residents whose homes are located in the region’s highest flood-risk areas”, with further offers made through the year.

But it is this lack of communication that Vicki Findlay describes as “appalling”. She believes it has contributed to the uncertainty and has been responsible for declining mental health across the region.

“What’s huge for me is that here we are at the anniversary and all of us are in limbo,” Findlay says. “The lack of hope is increasing as people don’t get information and I suspect the anniversary date is quite triggering around that lack of information.

“None of us think we should have got a buyback or been moved by now, but we should know what we’re going to be offered.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 4, 2023 as "‘Hope is a dangerous thing’".

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