The 28th of February is a date that few in the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales will ever forget, and one that none will want to relive.
12 months ago today, residents in communities like Lismore, Mullumbimby, Woodburn, and Wardell were either awoken by flood sirens or hadn’t slept as flood water rose to two metres above their highest recorded levels.
In the devastation that followed, four people lost their lives and more than 3,000 homes were damaged or destroyed as a month of torrential rain lifted the Wilsons River to 14.4 metres. Many had to climb into their attics to escape the waters. Others had to literally swim for their lives.
As the water rose, people jumped in their own boats and went out looking for neighbours in need. This makeshift “tinnie army” has been credited for keeping the death toll mercifully low.
It’s one of the nation’s biggest and costliest disasters and, experts have warned, it’s one that we are likely to see again and again as the climate deteriorates and we remain unprepared for such disasters. The government has been under constant criticism from the local communities for mismanagement before, during, and after the disaster. SES crews simply did not have enough equipment or capacity to deal with the demand while many flood warning gauges that were supposed to give early alerts were later found to be not working.
In the flooding capital of Australia, the town is gathering on Tuesday for the first anniversary of the devastation. It’s an event that will “provide the community with the opportunity to reflect, commemorate, and heal” and it kicks off three weeks of community gatherings, including a music festival and a celebrity cricket match.
Both NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet and the Opposition Leader, Chris Minns, are expected to attend the commemorative event tonight where many are struggling to get their work and livelihoods back on track. The Prime Minister too has also paid tribute to the “resilience and spirit of the affected communities.”
In the worst of times, the people of Lismore showed the very best of their character.
When streets turned into rivers, people took their own boats and went house to house, looking for neighbours to help. pic.twitter.com/63O89jArq5
— Anthony Albanese (@AlboMP) February 27, 2023
Lismore Mayor, Steve Krieg, has said that the feeling in the town is “still quite emotional, and very raw, 12 months on.”
“Today’s going to be a very hard day for the community. We hope that everyone rallies around each other. And we’ll get through today and look towards the future and rebuilding,” Krieg told ABC News Breakfast.
Krieg, who is also a business owner in Lismore, lamented the fact that government support and the need to get people into proper housing is still being hampered by a lack of resources and beurocracy.
“The fact we have thousands of people living in temporary accommodation, they’re paying mortgages on houses that are unliveable,” he said. “The businesses they worked in were so badly affected as well. There’s so much strain and stress on people in the northern rivers region”.
NSW, unlike Queensland, did not announce its scheme to help buyback, raise, or retrofit the houses of affected residents until October last year — some eight months after the floods. The $700 million package of support has so far only offered one voluntary buyback, with a “handful” to follow in the coming week.
Close to 8,000 people were forced into temporary accommodation last year and many are still there, stuck in the limbo of waiting for their insurance company or government staff to assess the damage to their property. Others have been unable to find a new place to rent or buy and have been forced to simply move away from the area.
Many are waiting on the Northern Rivers Reconstruction Corporation, which is spearheading the response and the rebuild. On the ‘Resilient Lismore’ community Facebook page, many locals are expressing their frustrations about the slow pace of progress from the organisation while others say that they feel abandoned and forgotten about.
One resident, Mark O’Toole, who was rescued from the roof of his home in Bungawalbin, told the ABC that “the flood was the easy part.”
“It’s living with what the floods left us with — that’s really hard”.
The Albanese government has defended its record on the recovery of the Northern Rivers, with Emergency Management Minister Murray Watt telling the ABC that the government has been “keeping the commitments that we’ve made.”
“I think that all Australians are thinking of the survivors, the emergency personnel, the ADF and all the community members who helped out a year ago through those terrible events”.