According to many people affected by Lismore’s catastrophic flooding on 31 March, as well as others with long-time memories of local flood events, it wasn’t the 1-in-10 year levee bank that let the city down.
Rather, they say, it was the various tiers of officialdom that should have provided more consistent information about the chances of inundation and a timetable for remedial measures such as saving home and business contents, and an orderly evacuation.
As it happened, the previously unbreached levee looked increasingly likely to over-top, yet many residents and businesses were still being told the flooding would probably be minor, and the levee would repel the floodwaters.
When it was clear this was not so, the urgent (and mandatory) evacuation gave little time for people to elevate or relocate their possessions, and barely enough to make themselves safe.
Yet ‘old timers’ suspected a bad outcome after hearing rainfall figures from up in the catchment, and began to make early precautionary moves.
“There’s definitely a need to be better prepared,” said Maddy-rose Braddon, an SCU environmental science graduate who played a key role in coordinating support for displaced residents on both sides of the swollen Wilson’s River.
“We need to close the gap between government, local government and the community.”
Fortunately, no lives were lost, unlike in the Tweed where a mother and two young children drowned, although many homes were destroyed or seriously impaired, with immense damage to possessions, while scores of businesses in the CBD and surrounding area suffered extensive water damage.
Given the prohibitive cost of insuring against flooding - $29,000 a year, one Keen Street shop owner who had decided to forego it told GP Speak - many businesses will be unable to recover, while those willing to have another go were still struggling to clean up and re-open several weeks after the flood subsided. Government grants will help, but large financial gaps, including debts, are likely to remain.
It is clear that many lives, and livelihoods, in this regional centre will never be the same again, yet there are more than a few heroes, as in any disaster.
One such is a group formed the day after the floodwaters surged in and promoted to the community largely through a Facebook page, ‘Lismore Helping Hands & After Flood Clean Up’.
Starting with a small number of followers Helping Hands soon had an online membership of 2,000, according to Maddy, who coordinated the page and developed an Excel spreadsheet to better match resources and actions with needs. Within three weeks their following would quadruple.
As well as Maddy herself, key participants included Lismore City Councillor Elly Bird, whose Council would lead the subsequent clean-up, Lia Hibner from Israel, and 60-year-old Aboriginal woman Lorraine Tasker. Groups such as Lifeline, Red Cross, St Vincent de Paul and other NGOs were quick to offer help, and continued to provide valuable support in the early days and ensuing weeks.
Although Lismore’s flood circumstances were unique, the group quickly sought advice from others experienced in managing natural disasters, including a US free website www.recovers.org that led to the establishment of www.lismore.recovers.org
Brisbane City Council, with its own flood experience, was also contacted, as were those who had helped with the fallout from Victorian bushfires.
Along with the rapid and adept use of communications technology good old-fashioned leafleting was also employed, with widespread drops of information sheets listing contact numbers for organisations that could help with emergency housing, household goods, food, clothing, grant information, personal support, and services such as Police, RFS and SES.
This broad response enabled the development of what Maddy calls a ‘template’ that has already caught the attention of organisations, including councils, responsible for managing disasters.
Rather than rescuing stricken residents, a specialised job done by the SES, the team worked to identify the immediate needs of flood affected residents, mostly food, dry clothing and personal items, and set up a distribution centre outside the devastated Lincraft shop in Keen Street.
The volunteers would work twelve hours a day for eight days straight, supported by donations from businesses and individuals, many from outside Lismore. A key helper was the ‘Baked Relief’ group from Bangalow whose members kept up a ready supply of home cooked meals and snacks. The group, which, like Helping Hands, hadn’t existed before the Northern Rivers flooded, also helped affected communities such as Billinudgel, Mullumbimby and Murwillumbah.
The welfare team soon engaged in doorknocking flood-affected properties to identify and, if necessary, assist, people in difficult circumstances, including the elderly and the disabled.
Brought-in members of the Rural Fire Service helped to improve public safety, kindly leaving behind a stock of barely used sleeping bags and pillows when they returned home. These were distributed to needy people in Lismore and surrounding areas.
Lorraine Tasker is a fine example of asking a busy person if you want something done. A grandmother of twenty, she was with the ‘Lincraft group’ when a need arose to keep donated food cool.
“I asked around, and next thing these blokes are coming down the road carrying a fridge that had been washed into the street. There was no electricity to run it, but we had plenty of donated ice, so we created the biggest Esky you can imagine!”
Lorraine also realised the importance of checking up on older Aboriginal people whom she thought might need help, and her home visits proved invaluable.
Helping Hands also set up a Hub at the long-disused South Lismore Train Station, a convenient location for many residents of low lying parts of the city.
“The Hub saw well over a thousand community members through its doors and more than 900 volunteers offer their help,” Maddy said.
“At its peak, there were often more than 200 people here, whether ready to offer help or to ask for assistance. More than 700 ‘needs’ were ‘met’ since the Hub opened, and two hundred of those were completed in late April by the 800 visiting volunteers from the Philippines based Church of Christ (Iglesia Ni Cristo) on the Gold Coast.
Such is the power of social media that people travelled from Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne to offer their time, skills and donations to help Lismore get back on its feet. Key support came from Gasfield Free Northern Rivers supporters and activists who ran the Bentley Blockade.
“The logistics of running the Hub were intense and their experience was critical to its success,” Maddy said.
“A huge thanks to the hundreds of volunteers that have put their helping hands up to assist the community. The journey is not over, we understand many still need help and it’s important that as a community we continue to support each other,” she added.