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In the aftermath of cyclone Debbie’s floodwaters, the northern New South Wales town of Murwillumbah is suffering a housing crisis, with homelessness rife. By Susan Chenery.

Homelessness after cyclone Debbie

Many Murwillumbah houses remain unrepaired following cyclone Debbie’s deluge in March.
Credit: AAP Image / TRACEY NEAMY

Across the cane fields, the jagged heft of Mount Warning dominates the landscape with its soaring presence. A plume of white smoke billows from the sugar mill. As you drive into town, however, you pass businesses and shops that are closed indefinitely.

Murwillumbah, in northern New South Wales, sits in a spectacular setting. It is a country town untroubled by gentrification. It’s inland, tucked out of the way of the overdevelopment of the Gold Coast to its north, or the wealthy playground of Byron Bay to its south.

Last Sunday, there were picnics in the park, people playing bowls, a picture of normality. The wide Tweed River flowed sluggish and benign. But a patina of mud and silt still covers the town from when the river rose to 6.2 metres and came in a wave down the streets in the last days of March, leaving high-water marks on buildings and trees.

“We heard a roar, a weird noise that sounded like traffic. It just got louder and louder and a wall of water hit our house,” says Trace Henderson, a local resident. The water came through the floorboards of her 100-year-old Queenslander built on high stilts. “It was like a tsunami. The force of the water was insane. It came up on the deck, under the front door, a torrent of water bubbling over. It just kept coming up.”

In darkness, her partner, Mark, swam against the current to take their 13-year-old daughter, as well as their cat and dogs, to safety. “He had to push past wood, furniture, gas drums.” She couldn’t believe what was happening. “I had to jump into water that was over my head, swimming in a rip, getting pushed under by debris.”

The next day “we had trees in our lounge room, other people’s belongings, cushions, a microwave. A couch in the garden, pallets of wood.”

All Henderson and her family were left with was what they were wearing. Their rented house was uninhabitable. They are sinking into debt trying to get their Roundabout cafe going again. Staying with friends, they have had to send their two daughters to family in Sydney. “We lost a lot of equipment, we owe a lot of money. We are doing it a little bit at a time,” she says.

Kylie Dean is living in her car at Knox Park in the town’s centre with her large dog. Her caravan on a property nearby was swept away in the storm, along with 22 cattle and calves. Neither the caravan nor the cattle have been seen since.

In the days of disbelief following the flood on March 30, the community was remarkable in its response and generosity. Sarah Plewright cooked 200 meals a day for three weeks. Jo Higgins drove around delivering them. “We had people walking the streets with shovels and finding people in need basically,” Higgins says.

Played out on Facebook noticeboards, a rural community came into its own – a study in efficient country compassion and real kindness. Help was dispatched; donations of clothes, furniture and food were directed to those who needed them. If someone was cut off and in trouble, someone would get to them.

“Time after time they have come out in support of each other,” Tweed Shire mayor Katie Milne says. “Everyone was working in groups helping each other, going from one house to another, cleaning the mud away.”

But as the water has receded and the news cycle moved on, many Murwillumbah residents are facing a grim reality of displacement and uncertainty. With winter coming, it is getting worse. Before the flood there was an acute low-cost housing shortage. Now, homelessness is an absolute crisis. “The shock has worn off and energy levels are dissipating, exhaustion is setting in, and despair,” Milne says.

There is currently a 17-year waiting list for some form of public housing in Murwillumbah. Meanwhile, people who have lost everything are living in tents; desperate mothers with small children no longer able to pretend it is an adventure. Since the flood, 1421 adults and 415 children have presented at the Flood Recovery Centre.

“It is getting messier and messier,” says Carmen Stewart, manager of the community group It Takes a Town. Stewart believes that the flood has added another 200 to 300 people to the 400 who were already homeless. “That is a conservative estimate,” she says. “We need crisis accommodation. Some cabins or tiny homes. We are shamefully under-resourced.”

Jody Mulliss and her two daughters have moved nine times since their cabin at Greenhills Caravan Park was wiped out. Marc Austin, 47, had died there after refusing to evacuate. Mulliss is now in temporary accommodation 73 kilometres down the coast in Ballina, a long way from her friends, support, and the school that her five-year-old started this year. “All I have got is what is in my boot.”

Mulliss is medicated for anxiety and knows she is looking for something “that isn’t there”. There is no accommodation or housing.

A second wave of homelessness is hitting as people who thought they could keep living in their homes have had to move out during repairs. “The smell is so bad, it is actually toxic,” Katie Milne says. “Their carpets are rotting.”

Houses have been inundated with sewage and water, and suffered structural damage. “And there are others who are staying in the houses with climbing mould who see no other option,” says Stewart. “Babies living in houses with mould.” Trace Henderson says people are getting sick from the dust and mould. As insurance claims are processed, some are finding they are being declined.

High water also swept through the industrial estate where most of the major employers were, destroying vehicles and electrical equipment. Mick Williams, 66, is having to start again. His two insurance policies were both declined because of flood exclusion. “I have lost a hell of a lot of money,” he says. “This building and this business were my superannuation.”

Jan Bolton, owner of the destroyed Greenhills Caravan Park, had her insurance direct-debited from her bank account for 10 years. Alfred Smith paid insurance on the Southern Cross Organic Butchery for 11 years. Both are wondering where the insurance company has gone now they need a return.

“People are saying cyclone, rising water, storm…” says Bolton, “that was all on our policy – but not flood.”

Both businesses would struggle to reopen and probably won’t. “They reckon it would cost $1.2 million,” Bolton says, “and we have been told the insurance is not giving us a cent.”

Greenhills had provided low-cost accommodation for 100 people.

“It all goes back to the wording of the policy,” Mick Williams says. “The assessor came here with a predetermined outcome. We have basically been dismissed.”

Williams is determined to fight. “Everybody knows it wasn’t the river overflowing. I have been putting together all these images showing the eye of the cyclone as it re-formed over Brisbane and moved down here. We know it was a flood, but the underlying cause was a cyclone.”

While some insurance companies have shown compassion, some have not. The seemingly arbitrary differentials are becoming divisive for the community. But the flow-on effect of claims denied is job losses, livelihoods destroyed and economic decline. Some locals are still in limbo, waiting to hear from their insurers, not knowing what is going to happen to them. Families are starting to fall apart under the strain.

At the end of the month, the Mayor Appeal Fund will start handing out the $215,000 it has raised so far.

The federal member for Richmond, Justine Elliot, helped fight for the activation of Category C disaster funding, essentially for businesses “who have lost so much. But this is not enough and a lot of people aren’t even eligible for it.”

Scepticism greeted an announcement on May 6 that the NSW government would inject $12.5 million to improve affordable housing in the Northern Rivers region, including Murwillumbah.

 “It is very, very welcome but it is not going to solve the problem. It is a drop in the ocean really,” Milne says.

Stewart agrees: “We want to know where that $12 million is going and how much is specifically going to Murwillumbah.”

But for people such as Trace Henderson, “the only help we are getting is from each other”.

Elliot is “very critical” of support from state and federal governments.

“What we need is a massive injection of funding and support for local businesses to rebuild and repair,” she says. “We need a stronger commitment from both governments in terms of long-term planning for businesses, for individuals and also addressing the really chronic housing and homelessness issues. It is serious and severe.”

It may yet be some time before repairs can be financed and the growing issue of homelessness is addressed. Until then, those displaced by the elements will cling to the margins of their damaged town.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 13, 2017 as "No fixed address". Subscribe here.

Susan Chenery
is a journalist who has lived and worked in Sydney, London, New York and Italy.