HOW CAN A community rebuild after being submerged under mud?
I live in the sleepy holiday town of Evans Head, and set up the Resilient Evans Head group at the end of last year to bring the community together to plan disaster scenarios. Too late.
Rebuilding and reinventing itself is something Lismore has achieved many times. The people of Lismore pride themselves in being resilient to flood. Shops and houses are designed to take quite a lot of water., and the surrounding areas have seen the odd flood.
Nobody envisaged a flood like this.
My neighbour ran a shop in downtown Lismore for many years. She spent 10 hours on Sunday, February 27, packing up her wares and storing them high across the street. That evening, proud messages were posted on social media about how well-prepared Lismore’s centre was for this one.
All lost. Tears cried during this flood will flow forever.
“I can’t do it again,” she says, close to tears. Many businesses in Lismore were barely holding on due to the pandemic, and this flood will wash them right out of existence.
The terrible truth is that this was predictable.
Lismore a low priority
That Sunday I wrote to the State MP for Resilience and Emergency Services, Stephanie Cooke, to enquire how our communities could be best supported to respond to the imminent flooding event across our region. Just three months before the National Disaster Recovery and Resilience Agency had omitted Lismore from its priority areas for flood mitigation funding.
I also called the Recovery Support Officer from the National Recovery and Resilience Agency to ask how I could help them prepare for the flood. She said they were not on alert, but “anticipating some rain tonight”. I was informed that the relevant committee had decided that there was a moderate flood risk, that it was just a matter of “sitting and waiting as there are no evacuation orders in place”.
Their next call was planned for 9am Monday, by which time Lismore was under 5 metres of dirty flood water. From the calls I made it was abundantly clear there was no agency working to prepare for the catastrophe – they were waiting to respond once an emergency was called.
On Monday I was on call in my Marine Rescue gear with a 4WD ute full of blankets, water, food, a first aid kit and other emergency supplies. My Unit Commander said that we would likely be needed in Woodburn soon, and he was not wrong.
I watched helplessly on TV and on Facebook the long list of people needing to be rescued from roof tops, the terrible stories of people trapped inside their lofts. I watched an elderly group of people being rescued by young men in a tinny.
I texted a friend, Anita, my doula when my son was born. She and her husband Joel were bringing up their son in a house close to the river, the only affordable homes for so many young people. They had built up their beautiful home two extra levels (flood insurance).
“It’s all gone.” She said.
Crowd-funded flood rescue
Another friend called, frantic about her mother trapped in the house at her flooded farm near Casino. The SES number was completely blocked – their Lismore base was under water. I called 000 and was told help was on the way, but she was rescued by her daughter’s friends several hours later, and a community rescue effort quickly escalated to community-funded helicopters doing rescues, drops and welfare checks.
Friends arrived at our house, refugees from the flood as waters began to rise in Woodburn, Coraki, Broadwater and Wardell. The community rescue effort was phenomenal. Our wonderful volunteer emergency services were horrendously overwhelmed.
Feeling helpless, I wrote.
The idea of our seasons and weather changing is understandably confusing to many. Some places are getting drier, while others will get more wet. In my view, what is most important is not how much rain falls, but how it falls, and when. In my 11 years at Southern Cross University, I’ve taught climate systems and hydrology to thousands of science students.
This year our weather systems are in a la nīna phase (the opposite of el nino when we are hot and dry). In a nutshell, this means that the Pacific Ocean is very warm along our coasts. Warmer water means more evaporation and therefore more rain.
Climate disruption means more extreme events more often. I knew a flood was very likely this year, but this Lismore flood is more than two meters above anything recorded before.
In this region, we’ve all experienced the East Coast lows that churn away, drop lots of rain and stick around for days – they are worse when the water is warm. I was sitting out in the surf a few weeks back and a friend exclaimed how lovely and warm the water was. I tried to smile, but in fact, I felt dread – because the water is not supposed to be this warm here and I knew instinctively that there was high risk of a turbo-charged weather system forming.
One of the elders, Uncle Gilbert Laurie, saw this happening. Last Wednesday when I contacted him to cancel my campaign launch due to heavy rain, he was the first to warn it was going to flood.
Luke takes to tinny
By Tuesday, I was soaked to the waist, crewing a tinny along the Evans Head – Woodburn Road, loaded with supplies to deliver to my children’s preschool in Woodburn. It had become an evacuation centre on a small island surrounded by brown waters and flooded homes. We picked up mostly elderly people and delivered them to the safety of Evans Head, where the teachers had set up an ad-hoc evacuation centre at the school.
When the Evans River itself began to flood I was stranded in town overnight.
On Wednesday, I was invited to attend a meeting at the school hall where my children sing and the town votes and saw the trauma and shock on people’s faces. Dogs sat outside tents growling at each other. Exhausted pople, many of whom I know, sprawled across a sea of mattresses.
In one of the units I teach at Southern Cross University, my Regenerative Agriculture students develop a resilience plan and some do focus on community plans, not just farm plans. But this was next-level. I needed to prepare my students better.
Slightly frantic, I googled for some sort of guide of what to do – what do you need to think about in these circumstances? Nothing useful. So I sat with some key players at the school and created a mind-map of a management plan to care for the evacuees. It was simple enough and seemed to work.
In the library where my husband Kieran works, representatives of key agencies came together to discuss a plan for moving, housing and feeding people. None of us had been through anything of this scale, and we were all just doing our best. The senior police officer in charge had lost his home.
I shared photocopies of the mind-map, and was asked to create another plan for the food distribution team. We began to organise an army of volunteers to cook and care for our displaced friends, and I felt the team settle. We put put one foot in front of the other.
Climate adaption plan
What does adapting to climate disruption in Page look like? Over the last few days I’ve ironed out an outline of a draft plan and published it on my campaign website.
Hydrology is the study of how water flows, a fairly predictable science. Why don’t we have a modelling system in place that could have provided a range of likely flood scenarios? Here’s my six-point outline of actions to better prepare us for further climate disruption:
#1: Improved modelling to provide a range of likely flood scenarios with risk assessment and communication processes to support planning and evacuation.
#2: Well-funded, connected and decentralised emergency services and resilience agencies that work alongside local communities to improve our capacity to prepare and respond, to be able to better support us during fires, floods and droughts. More interagency training would be a great thing and a paid emergency response team is a sensible idea.
#3: Support for local action and community resilience building efforts. This is essential to being better prepared when disaster strikes and so we can recover more quickly.
#4: Financial incentives for farmers to build resilience into their lands and water through nature-based solutions, so they can pass on healthy, productive farms to the next generation.
#5: Build climate-resilient infrastructure, from our transport systems and housing development to public buildings and systems of energy supply. Decentralised energy and microgrids make communities less vulnerable to broadscale power cuts.
#6: Legislate for a framework to get to Net Zero. This can be done by passing the Climate Change Bills which include strong targets and sector-specific support and planning for farmers and rural industries.
We need an ambitious and sensible plan to phase out coal and gas, rather than waiting for the rug to be pulled out from another coal project, devastating workers and leaving them with no transition plan. We need to stop throwing public funds at these industries to the tune of $10.3 billion in one year. Should we be instead taking a levy from these industries for a Resilient Future Fund?
As the flood waters begin to recede from the homes of my friends and colleagues, I hope that we can work together across industries and stakeholders to be the best prepared we can for an uncertain future. I hope a strategic and intelligent plan can be put together to build resilient communities for the future we will face.
What will this look like for Lismore? I don’t know. What I do know is that big ideas can happen when you bring locals around the table. I believe that Lismore has the capacity to come up with its own intelligent solutions, which may or may not involve just building a bigger levy wall.
In the midst of utter devastation, our Northern Rivers communities provide a strong example of how important and possible it is to work together and help each other. I sincerely hope that Australia as a nation can do the same.
More from Hanabeth, @hanabethluke, https://www.hanabethluke.com.au