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As the people of Lismore attempt to rebuild following the second major flood this year, residents are divided over what to do next and whether to relocate the entire town. By J.J. Rose.

What is Lismore’s future after the floods?

Long-time Lismore resident Simon Robinson, who had to be rescued by boat from his flooded house in Union Street, South Lismore.
Long-time Lismore resident Simon Robinson, who had to be rescued by boat from his flooded house in Union Street, South Lismore.
Credit: Elise Derwin

It’s hard not to feel that, like a swimmer fighting, fighting and then succumbing to the depths, Lismore has finally been drowned. It’s hard to see how this once pretty town – with rivers that rippled through it like muscles – and its people can find a way back. Being here, in the deserted town centre or in the destroyed and eerily quiet neighbourhoods, there seems to be no solution of a scale to fix this.

Of course, that’s not the story. The people of this northern New South Wales town may be broken, and you can’t blame them for that, but what comes of the breaking is extraordinary. There may well be a template for something new being built on the sodden ruins of Lismore and the residents are building it.

The three levels of elected organisations that are supposed to protect and support the people of Lismore have been, depending on who you talk to, “absent”, “unfeeling”, “too slow”, “underdone”, “fucking useless”, or worse.

Within maybe a week of the first flood, community organiser Greg Hall told me, they were in town to set up for Centrelink applications. “The government has a million-dollar truck for Centrelink, confronting people with 30 to 40 questions,” he says. “Just to get $1000.”

In the old school car park, nestled between the library, the regional gallery and the conservatorium, under a fig tree with welcome shade, Hall and others set up the Trees Not Bombs cafe-restaurant days after the February flood.

There’s no electricity. No government support. But there are free hot meals – up to 400 a day. Tea and coffee. Smiles. A chat. It’s the sort of place you need when you’re homeless, and that’s now most of Lismore’s residents. “It’s never empty here,” said one diner over a plate of dal and rice.

Sitting under the tree, there’s nothing good being said about governments and bureaucrats. Official responses have baffled, frustrated, troubled and failed many. From the Trees Not Bombs hub, the formal system looks busted.

While the community cafe is thriving, the town centre is almost completely empty. Up the road a little, Keen Street is a steaming tip. Every street in town is strewn with rubbish and signs of defeat. The only sounds are generators in the still electricity-less shopping district and one or two emergency workers spraying hoses about.

There are few people, few cars. Most stores are gloomy, gutted spaces, wires hanging like stalactites from exposed ceilings. The heat pushes down and everything has the rusty patina of flood silt, even the scarce people.

Down Larkin Lane, flanked by wall art and graffiti, there’s movement. Heather McDiarmid and her partner, Carlos Vieira-Silva, and daughter Luacy are sweating in the sun, loading a truck, cleaning, or doing something else. They look tired and hot, exhausted by the effort to keep going.

A watermark runs across a building over the road well up on the first floor. McDiarmid and Vieira-Silva’s street-level Night Owl convenience store, facing onto Woodlark Street, went completely under. Luacy’s dance studio, located upstairs, went mostly under too.

They won’t be back, says Vieira-Silva, surveying the dank, empty cave his store has become. “It will cost maybe $500,000.”

As these local small businesses disappear, big businesses are literally cleaning up. Locals claim they have watched through gritted teeth as local chains such as Bunnings, Spotlight and Harvey Norman have been dragging “barely” damaged whitegoods, building materials and other useful items onto street-front rubbish piles. Attempts to salvage anything for repurposing by locals have been met, they say, with warnings from police and the army about “looting”.

Insurance is apparently the driver of this, which people like McDiarmid, Vieira-Silva and Luacy can’t afford.

 

A house in South Lismore lost its top floor to fire as the second flood raged. The black burn line just above the ground floor marks where the flood got to and doused the flames. Around the corner, there are two houses that were torn off their stumps and crashed into each other like dodgem cars. They are now still, corners smashed and dented, at odd angles to one another.

There is a table in a tree, a washing machine upside down in the street, a child’s soft toy burst and muddied lying on a clock stopped at 5.06, all bathed in pallid light and a damp, muddy atmosphere heavy in the incessant bloody rain. The effect is akin to being in a Dali painting.

Nearby, Kim McLean is standing amid a rubbish pile connected to other rubbish piles like a line of entrails along the street, his springy hair deadened by the drizzle. An artist who plays bass for the local pub band Black Train, he’s in his 60s and has been living here with his partner for decades. A few weeks ago, when the water rose to shoulder height, he was floating his fridge through the first floor of his house to use as a means of climbing onto his roof.

He woke about 4am that night, “knowing the dark waters were rising”. He says he was terrified. He looks terrified still. It’s obvious he’s reluctant to talk, that he probably just wants to be left to get on with nursing his emotions through another day.

“You could hear the rustling sound of the water in the dark,” he says finally. “The water was not still. It was moving. There were bow waves on the houses I could see.”

Quietly, he adds: “I felt I had my balls cut off. As a man, feeling I should be able to protect my family.”

His partner, Eleonora Cheles, is more talkative, and more raw, her eyes red-rimmed and lachrymose. “I still have insomnia,” she says. “I keep waking up with a dream I’m screaming through the upstairs window for help.”

When you speak to people in such situations, they often recount events as though they happened to someone else, a reflex of necessary detachment. Then, there is often a moment noted on the face, the dart of the eyes into blank space, the drop in tone of the voice, and they are right back there again. There’s a breaking they will experience over and over for some time, maybe for the rest of their lives. To witness this is the definition of humility.

Both Cheles and McLean were rescued by one of the many local heroes in a tinny.

 

Lismore was established in 1856, as pastoral runs around the confluence of the Wilsons River, Leycester Creek and Richmond River grew into settlements. The local Bundjalung people apparently shook their heads and headed back to their grounds in the surrounding hills. Stand on Robinsons Lookout and you can see why: the town is a crowded hive of buildings bunched together, with large rivers snaking everywhere and with hills all around. Some locals call Lismore “The Wok” because of the shape of the valley it sits in.

The waterways would quickly become major, and lucrative, trade routes before roads were built, but they were also the town’s constant threat. According to Lismore City Council figures, there have been 32 events classified as “major floods” between 1870 and 2017. If the two so far this year are included, that’s about one every four-and-a-half years. By the time they finish high school, a child born in Lismore will have lived through two or three major floods.

Concrete levee walls and floodgates were built in 2005. Imposing pump houses are dispersed along the riverbanks. But the floods just get bigger. In 2017, the levee walls were breached and this year they have been overcome twice in a few weeks. The pump house in Molesworth Street has a pink mark painted where the waters got to this time, not far short of the first-floor roof, a reminder of nature’s imperiousness.

Dr John (Jack) Corkill was washing dishes in tubs at the Trees Not Bombs cafe when he overheard a conversation about Lismore’s enduring ties to its environment. He approached with his maps and laid them out on the trestle table.

He believes passionately – his eyes bulging with the force of his ideas – there needs to be a wholesale revegetation of unused farming land, especially to the north of Lismore, to absorb and slow swelling water bodies. The space in a V-shape north of Lismore, with roughly Kyogle on one arm and Mullumbimby on the other, contains a vast number of river systems running through the map like veins, with Lismore as the heart. On his map there is green for forest and white for farmland. There’s a lot of white space.

Others speak of revegetating or “rewilding” farming strips along the rivers, even if only to slow floods and give people time to evacuate. Some suggest using more appropriate building materials – steel, tiles, concrete and Hardie Flex Sheets, for instance – that can be flooded and recovered.

Then, there’s talk of moving the whole town somewhere – no one really knows where – higher.

This is a topic that seems to divide Lismore. McDiarmid and Vieira-Silva disagree on it as we speak. Others shake their heads as if to suggest this is just another harebrained effort to look as though something is being done. Some say, “Maybe.”

Either way, the politics and the cost are beyond imagining. And why stop with Lismore? What about Byron, Ballina, Murwillumbah and other flood-prone towns? On the surface, it seems a desperate idea, seeking to soothe addled minds or perhaps to distract.

NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet has been to Lismore multiple times and has released grants and funds, as leaders do. The prime minister was here, too, but few spotted him. The announcements tend to ignore the fine print: people who are insured may not qualify, whether their insurance pays up or not, nor might those who have claimed from other grants.

These conditions leave flood victims with a kind of grant roulette: Which one to go for? Which one blocks another? The Disaster Relief Grant? The Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payment? The Lismore Flood Fund? The Business Flood Grant? The Resilience Grant? This ID check? That hardship statement? How to navigate this?

It is another flood, measured not in metres but in fine print, applications and Muzak-hours on the phone.

One waterlogged home owner was anxious because she had put in an insurance claim for minor house damage before the flood and was worried this would affect her flood claims.

Lismore City Council – which, somehow, isn’t in Lismore – has released 10 media statements since the first flood. Not one has been about immediate community care, mental health support or advice on the bewildering array of applications and forms to get assistance.

Kim McLean, as he recounted his harrowing time, blew off the requisite steam on the dysfunctional government responses. But he paid solemn respect to the local community. It had been “amazing” and “unbelievable”. Finally, he said the community had been what governments had not: “Thoughtful.”

 

The Lismore-based Koori Mail is Australia’s best-known Indigenous news organisation. Its headquarters sit where the Wilsons River and Leycester Creek join, in the shadow of one of the river pump houses. Today, there are cars and people everywhere, delivering things and taking stuff away. In an underground space is a jerry-built supermarket with shelves full of non-perishable food, camping equipment and cleaning materials.

It’s all free. No conditions. Just come and take what you need. There’s a medical centre, a counselling service. No questions asked. No qualifying. No income statements. No additional stress.

Naomi Moran, general manager of the Mail, says this was an act of dire necessity. No government officials were seen in town until six or seven days after the flood. She sweeps her hand wide: “We had all this set up and running here in the same time the government took to build a database to register volunteers to co-ordinate care.” She says the government systems are all “whiteboards and notebooks”.

Scott Morrison noted in early March, soon after the first of this year’s floods in Lismore, “Always there will be a community response in disasters such as this, because the community is already there. The resources move and they come as you see them now, but they are not available on a moment’s notice.”

That notice was 170 years in the making. Nevertheless, modern governments can’t or won’t respond with the intent or energy of the locals. It’s a sobering fact as we head further into the uncertainty of our age and it prompts, surely, a greater awareness of the power of community and of the need to find spaces for this component of our collective governance to evolve.

Right now the people of Lismore simply need someone to lead, to take responsibility so they can get on with their lives, until the next crisis comes along.

In the streets and suburbs of Lismore, the connection between the community and governments or business elites looks a little like the old Mullumbimby line railway bridge: prettied up but disused.

Localised, spontaneous, non-government initiatives, such as the Koori Mail services or the Trees Not Bombs cafe, seem to be all that’s working. 

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 16, 2022 as "After the floods".

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J.J. Rose is a journalist and author who has also worked as a policy and media adviser. His novel Game will be released in June.

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