19 March 2022 was three weeks since the natural disaster in the Northern Rivers began.
I live in Lismore and for the last three weeks, like so many others, my life has been a surreal blur of around the clock efforts to support our community through this catastrophe.
If you’re a local and feeling fragile, maybe sit this one out, because I want to talk about what’s happening here.
I haven’t really had time to talk to people who aren’t here, but what’s really struck me when I have is that most people don’t seem to have any real sense of the gravity of the situation.
The flood in Lismore was two metres higher than any previous records. Two metres is the difference between ankle-deep water and water over your head, and that’s on the second storey. The entire city of Lismore is gone.
There are no shops, no supermarkets, no library, no cafes, no churches, no McDonalds. Everything went underwater. The houses that can be saved need to be completely stripped down to the frame, because the walls are full of mould and E.coli from the water and raw sewerage that enveloped them.
But people have no money and no insurance, and there are no building materials even if they did.
Lismore isn’t a quaint little town – there are 29,000 people who live in Lismore – and this didn’t just affect Lismore. You can drive an hour or more in any direction (except east because you’ll end up in the ocean, which is also severely flood-affected) and you will see the same devastation. Roads lined with house-sized piles of destroyed belongings, caravans in trees, washing machines on powerlines, a film of brown on everything, clumps of grass on fences still shaped by the force of the water.
The beach I take my dogs to is unrecognisable, the coastline completely changed. The helicopters have subsided but you can’t go anywhere without seeing huge army vehicles everywhere; Bruxner Highway is an endless parade of dump trucks in both directions and there’s a permanent traffic jam to get into the closest Bunnings.
People have told me their stories of being rescued by the SES in a boat, by the RFS in a helicopter and by an old bloke in a tinnie. They’ve told me how they had to leave their pets behind, how they refused to, and how hard it was to get a rottweiler on the roof.
They’ve told me about spending a week in a community hall with no power, no water and no food. What little food they had was rationed down to a bread roll in the morning and some chicken soup at night, but there was no pet food, so people were giving their rations to their starving animals.
They’ve told me how all five members of their family who live in the same town lost their houses, so they can’t even go and stay with them. They’ve told me how they’ve never had to ask for help before, and how every day they have a bit of a cry.
I don’t understand how this can happen. How can someone be rescued by the SES in five hours and then spend a week in a hall with no water, rationing food with their two 60 kilogram dogs? Why is there still no support?
Why is the community still doing everything?
There is some support, sure, but not anything that even remotely befits the enormity of this crisis. There is still no temporary accommodation. The Government sent 40 motorhomes that no one knows how to sign up for and another 40 that are sitting empty because they didn’t organise linen or water for them.
A city of 29,000 people has been annihilated and the Government sent 40 motorhomes. In an irony so great you just have to laugh, linen and water are two items most community-run centres have pleaded for no more donations of.
They announced pod homes like in the bushfires, but haven’t bought any yet. There are payments you can apply for if you have a phone, a computer, the internet, all of your personal identification documents and the will.
They announced a $10 million flood mitigation study and $100 million in small business grants, while people are pitching tents in their condemned houses because they literally have nowhere to go. A telethon raised $25 million in a night and the resulting $500 grants ran out just as quickly. And rent relief is pretty fucking useless when there are no houses to rent for 100 kilometres.
I generally have the opportunity to speak to a few people each day who’ve been directly impacted by the disaster. Almost every one of these people has this unquenchable thirst to tell their story, to share their experience and, above all else, to have someone listen to them.
The thing that is consistent across all of these stories is this palpable sense of hopelessness. People can’t see beyond the present moment, because they can’t see how they will get there. And I completely understand that because, frankly, right now I can’t see a way either.
People here are so incredibly resilient and humble and kind. There is a sense of unity here that I’ve never seen before and, despite all the trauma and tragedy, there has been a gentleness to the last three weeks that is so rare these days.
Sunday was my second proper day off from “the flood,” and it was really nice to have a break from it because I’m one of the lucky few who can.
But in a way, pausing the recovery just makes you remember what’s been lost. I went and sat at the end of my street with a glass of wine and I watched the sunset over the place I’ve called home for most of the last two years and I tried to cry again, but I still can’t.
I regret not throwing myself into the community like this before now, but I’m so grateful I have the opportunity to be a part of it, even if it’s in its darkest, muddiest moments.
Clare Kearney is a writer living in Lismore, on Bundjalung Country. You can follow Clare on Twitter: @wordsfromrobin.
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