“I got a text message at quarter to 1am saying ‘get out, evacuate now, this is life threatening’.
“I was awake, but a lot of people are asleep at quarter to 1. I heard the sirens for the levee overtopping at about quarter to 3, but no one’s going to hear that over the rain if you’re not awake and listening for it.”
Ella Buckland is a social welfare advocate and campaigner who lives in Lismore, NSW. Last week, with little warning, floodwaters rose rapidly to 14 metres above sea level, swamping the town. She, like so many others, lost her home. She is currently fundraising to build it back.
While the Wilson’s River levee, a manmade structure designed to hold back floodwaters, overtopped, spilling across the town in five years ago, Buckland told The Latch that no one in the area was prepared this time around. She said that locals had been told that the flood would peak at around 11 metres, similar to what happened in the same area in 2017. Buckland however had followed the updates and knew the situation was going to be much worse.
“Everyone else was caught unawares. All my neighbors were pulled off their roofs. I spent all of Sunday night or Monday morning from about 2am sending texts to friends in Lismore trying to tell them to get out because their houses were going to go underwater.
“They kept saying that ‘it’s going to be like in 2017’ and ‘the house will be fine’ and I was like ‘this isn’t 2017, this is going to be heaps worse’.”
She recalls that the situation changed “really quickly” between midnight and 2am, catching residents off guard.
“My neighbors, they were looking at the road at 4am and they could see the road. At six, the water was coming into their home,” she said.
In the eight days since the water rendered two-thirds of the town uninhabitable, and likely to be demolished, residents have been crying out for support, furious about what they see as their abandonment by the state.
Even before the levee broke, Buckland said that no emergency personnel was on hand to direct the evacuation.
“I thought for sure that I would see SES, police, fireies coming down the street and banging on doors. I kept going back and forth [from the house to high ground] and not once did I see anyone out on the road telling people to get out,” she said.
An update on the #LismoreFloods; still no ADF. Only civilians helping. Everyone confused. Disease starting to affect people. No accommodation for homeless. 3hr++ wait on hold to insurance agencies. No fuel. Food low. We need organisation and help.
— Ella Buckland (@ellaNbuckland) March 7, 2022
The SES, which responded to over 1000 call outs on Monday, over 400 in Lismore alone, could not act fast enough to save those forced onto their roofs and into their attics by the rising water.
Eddie Lloyd, another Lismore resident, told The Latch that the water went “right through” her partner’s house, where she was staying at the time with her eight-year-old son.
“We had to get rescued by a local in his tinny because the SES was just too overwhelmed,” she said.
“I think I called them early on the Monday morning and I got a call back on Wednesday, asking if I’d been rescued yet. They only had two boats to rescue people so our mates and friends in Noth Lismore were just taking the task upon themselves and getting in their tinnies and rescuing people from rooftops and attics throughout the day.
“It was pretty horrific for them on the front line, hearing people screaming in their attics and people cutting their way out. My son’s friend’s dad used an axe to cut the roof out. Another friend used a knife. The stories are just horrific, absolutely horrific”.
To make matters worse, both Lloyd and her partner have now contracted COVID, which is spreading rapidly in the Lismore area, particularly at the evacuation centre where more than 1000 people took shelter last week.
Lloyd has set up a North Lismore flood appeal donation page and is currently fundraising for the “heroes” she said saved lives in the disaster.
Our place today pic.twitter.com/xZJ9lawaL4
— Eddie Lloyd (@worldzonfire) March 4, 2022
While NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet has since visited the town, giving a press conference from Lismore on Saturday in which he said that he was “not going to spare a dollar” in flood recovery efforts, for many, the damage has already been done.
Prior to the floods, Lismore, like much of the Northern Rivers region, was experiencing a rental crisis. Median house prices in the region have grown by 30% over the past five years, with houses in Byron Shire doubling in that time.
This is why the comments from the chief of the government’s disaster relief agency, Shane Stone, in which he appeared to blame residents for their problems, hit so hard.
“You’ve got people who want to live among the gum trees — what do you think is going to happen? Their house falls in the river and they say it’s the government’s fault,” Stone reportedly said.
“A lot of people who live down on the flood plain live there because it is the most affordable place to live,” Lloyd explained. “It’s not always people’s choice to live on a floodplain you know. It’s just really insulting and offensive for that kind of narrative to be going around”.
While the anger continues to build in the community, there have been incredible stories of mateship and comradery emerging during this time of disaster. Something Lloyd would expect nothing less from a community she describes as “the most incredibly tight-knit, resilient, beautiful community that you’ll ever come across,” her voice breaking as she does.
All over the region, locals have been pitching in, with at least 200 airdrops of food delivered by 14 donated helicopters as others offer their diggers, dump trucks, and bobcats to remove the piles of water-logged belongings that line the streets in the town centre. Even the Hemsworth brothers have been helping out.
One of the shining lights of the whole operation has been the ever-present Sikh volunteers, who drove 34 hours from Melbourne to Lismore to give out free food to the community.
Often appearing in times of national distress, the group, Sikh Volunteers Australia, told The Latch that they are giving out around 1,500 meals per day to people in need in Lismore.
“We were hearing the news about the floods in this area and because our service provides freshly cooked food, which is always required whenever something like this happens, we decided we should go there and serve the community for a few days,” Manpreet Singh said.
Food van is serving lunch in Lismore Town pic.twitter.com/v09xk5G8AZ
— Sikh Volunteers Australia (@AustraliaSikh) March 5, 2022
While it’s inspiring and humanity-affirming, Buckland said it’s not really the job of the community to be saving itself. That should really be the work of emergency services, which are yet to arrive in sufficient numbers on the scene.
“Where’s the compensation? These people are coming in and volunteering their time and providing all this food to the community, for free. Why is it okay that they’re doing that for free? It’s not okay to expect people to do stuff for free,” she said.
“We live in a capitalist society. There needs to be compensation for goods and services. It’s like the government’s taking an ‘oh, we’ll just let everyone do it for free, because it’s nice and they want to help’, but it’s a huge cost to the community”.
Buckland said that she would expect to see experts and professionals on the streets, going door to door and talking to people, asking them what they need and if they’ve done the basics like turning their power off. So far, she said, none of that is happening.
“Even when you saw that footage of all those people with boats, saving people’s lives, if they hadn’t done that, the death toll would be in the 1000s I reckon. Where’s the f*cking government? Why are these people risking their lives to go out on jet skis in a massive river, trying to save people with live electrical wires all over the place?”
Despite the flood hitting over a week ago, chaos and confusion seem to reign across the town, according to the people who live there and in spite of what the government is saying.
“No one knows what’s happening. Like, someone should know! Someone should know what’s happening,” Buckland said.
The Elephant in the Room
The floodwaters have been described as a “natural disaster of unprecedented proportions” by a government terrified of linking the reality on the ground to the threat they’ve spent close to a decade ignoring.
“There’s not one mentioned by [Lismore mayor Steve Krieg], by the premier, Perrottet, who came down yesterday, by the local federal member, Kevin Hogan, by the Prime Minister, Scott Morrison, not one of them has said the words climate change,” Lloyd said.
“It’s dangerously irresponsible not to even be at the first point of acceptance of that because any kind of measure that doesn’t look out from that prism, that this is a climate disaster, that we are in a climate emergency, any solution that’s not coming from that prism is not going to adequately address and mitigate any future events.”
The flooding could not have come at a more appropriate time, as the UN released its third IPCC report into the effects of man-made climate change at almost the exact same time that the Lismore levee broke.
The 2,600-page report lays out in excruciating detail just how bad climate change has become with the certainty that it will get worse over the coming years.
The Climate Council, Australia’s leading independent, community-powered and science-based charity said in a statement today that “worsening disaster after disaster — with fewer reprieves between — is our reality.”
“If we don’t start talking about why this is happening then we won’t be able to respond appropriately to this disaster over the coming months and years. Nor can we adequately prepare for those on the way,” the statement continues. “This is climate change.”
Even as Morrison claims that the situation is “unimaginable” and like “nothing in living memory,” he has failed to acknowledge the role that his government and his policies have played in creating it, beyond its lack of preparedness.
This is the second “one in 100 year” flood in NSW in two years. 16 people have been killed, and many more are missing. Prior to that, we had the Black Summer bushfires setting new records and opening-eyes to just how bad our environment will become.
While the people of Lismore, the Northern Rivers, and beyond work to rebuild, many are fearful that this is simply the world we now live in.
“We just need the government to sit up and start addressing climate change and treating it seriously,” Lloyd said. “Finding real solutions for people. We’ve got thousands of climate refugees here in Lismore, and this is only going to get worse.
“We’re at the beginning. We’re at the beginning of this and it’s going to impact everybody sooner or later. The PM has a nice little buffer, the one-percenters around have a little buffer, but it is coming to everybody’s front door sooner or later”.