In February the hills and valleys of the New South Wales northern rivers are green and lush and fertile in the late summer sun. There is brightness in the madly proliferating tropical flora, radiance in the golden hour of the evening.
In the towns the mud has gone, mostly, and the smell too has faded; a semblance of normality returned to the main streets. As the foliage has returned, the devastation of the 2022 floods is more hidden now; the scale of what happened. The people who are changed.
As the anniversary of the disaster approaches, along with the cyclone season, for those left in the flood’s wake the impact is still unfolding. When the flood waters receded a year ago, for many, the disaster was only beginning.
“You could hazard a guess that something like 15 to 20,000 people were impacted,” says Professor James Bennett Levy from the University of Sydney Centre for Rural Health. “I would say there’s been huge collective trauma as well as individual trauma.”
“If I am doing a community event,” says Naomi Vaotuua, recovery and resilience officer for the Red Cross, “I will literally have grown men crying in my arms because it’s a cloudy day and they thought they were doing alright but they have been triggered.”
Kerry Pritchard, coordinator of recovery Hub 2484 in Murwillumbah, says: “I guess what is surfacing now is more residual complex trauma. We feel like we are still very much in the middle of it, at the coalface of supporting people. That is both in terms of rebuilding in a physical sense and also healing from that traumatic event.”
The northern rivers floods were Australia’s biggest natural disaster since Cyclone Tracy in 1974. It was the second-costliest event in the world for insurers in 2022, and the most expensive disaster in Australian history. Many residents had found premiums unaffordable and had no insurance at all.
The Northern Rivers Reconstruction Corporation (NRRC), funded by the federal and NSW governments, is currently assessing over 6,000 flood-impacted residences for buyback, raising or retrofit.
A survey released this month by Southern Cross University revealed that nine months after the event, at the end of 2022, almost 52% of flood victims were living in the shells of homes that had flooded; 26% were living in temporary accommodation such as caravans, sheds or pods, or with friends or family; 18% were living in insecure accommodation such as tents or temporary rentals; and 4% were no longer living in the region.
The departure of thousands of locals is one of the things that broke the heart of city councillor and executive director of Resilient Lismore, Elly Bird. “They are disconnected from their community and the people they went through that experience with and disconnected from our recovery journey and support. They are probably having a hard time,” Bird says.
Hanabeth Luke, senior lecturer in science and engineering at Southern Cross University, and one of the researchers behind the survey, said she was “shocked to see the low, low levels of mental health. Twenty percent of people said they were coping with the stresses and challenges of recovery and 60% said they were not coping.”
It is the housing uncertainty causing mental health strain, Luke says; the stress of “not being able to move forward, making do without a clear plan”. People live in substandard dwellings while they wait on government assessments or insurance payouts, not knowing whether to fix a house or if they might get a buyback. People camp out in caravans outside dilapidated abandoned houses, houses they are still paying mortgages and rates for. Families squeeze into a single motel room where they are not allowed to cook or have their pets.
Up until last month, the Koori Kitchen was still serving around around 700 free meals a day at Browns Creek car park in Lismore, says Koori Mail general manager Naomi Moran. It was forced to close as the council wanted the car spaces back to help support local business recovery.
These things take their toll.
“What has been found is that the more you were likely to have been scared of injury or death, the higher the likelihood of PTSD,” says Bennett Levy. “Similarly, the more extensive the inundation the more likelihood of significant mental health issues. If we go back to the data we can say that the people who are displaced from home for more than six months are at very high risk of PTSD.”
Pritchard sees the data borne out in real life. “A year out and people are just worn down, they’re exhausted, they’re losing hope and just can’t see the light at the end of the tunnel. We’re seeing a lot of suicidal ideation.” People who have always worked hard and supported themselves find themselves having to ask for help, she says. “There are a lot of feelings of shame and impotency around that.”
Those who could afford insurance are now coming to the end of the 52 weeks of temporary accommodation paid for by their insurers. For those locals, there is anxiety about whether they will get into the 11 pod villages built by Resilience NSW across the region. The villages aim to house 1,800 people for up to three years. Another 300 people are still in emergency accommodation.
“We’re looking at a whole other cohort of people at risk of homelessness like we’ve never really seen before,” says Vaotuua.
Kim Shelley, manager of recovery support services at the Mullumbimby & District Neighbourhood Centre, says there has been a “huge increase” in domestic violence since the floods. “The growing concern for some of the women is that they are staying in relationships because of no alternative accommodation in the area,” Shelley says.
Chris Trew first spoke to the Guardian in those shellshocked days after the flood last year. For five nights, Chris, his wife and two children, three dogs, two cats and a snake slept in two cars.
Several weeks after the flood they got back into the house, “basically because we [had] nowhere else to go”, Chris says. “We got the shower just about going and the toilet. But no kitchen, no ceilings, no electric. It was very difficult. Every time the wind blew we got covered in dust. So we bought a camper van and lived in that on the driveway until we got one room with windows sorted and temporary extension leads. But they were only 30 amp, so we kept blowing the fuse all the time. You get the kettle on and the microwave and it might pop. You can’t run heaters off it.”
And then Chris got a serious spinal injury. “I was in incredible pain, I was absolutely shot to bits.” He is waiting on an operation and wincing in pain as he speaks.
Two weeks ago he was visited by the NRRC assessors. There is for Chris Trew a fragile hope. He is waiting on final confirmation for buyback. “They reckon we are all go,” he says.
But, he adds, “So many people are in strife. People’s mental health is not that great. I know of two people who have committed suicide recently.”
Standing outside her trashed house in gumboots in the days after the flood, Gemma Martin was stoic when she talked to the Guardian, joking even. It had been such a pretty house. But in the year since, the stoicism has been tested.
“I sort of went into it with a heightened sort of survival mode thing and then crashed later on.”
Bennett Levy explains: “In the first six months people are very activated and focused to see if they can recover their houses. There are basic security issues in the first few months – food, accommodation, money. Between six months and the longer term PTSD issues come to the fore and they recognise that they are having all kinds of anxiety symptoms.”
Martin’s relationship with the father of her children broke down after the flood. He moved back into their house while she was able to rent a granny flat from friends. “We couldn’t afford to pay two rents and a mortgage.”
She received an insurance payout in December and bought a caravan to put in the backyard “so that the kids don’t have to sleep inside because they were getting sick staying with their dad, infections, sinus infections.”
Like many others, she lies awake at night and worries: “What if I did this, or what if we did that?” Martin says.
“We just don’t know what’s going to happen. I don’t know how much to fix my house because if it’s going to get bulldozed in a couple of years then I’m not going to put too much effort in, but I have to make it safe. If they [the NRRC] just reached out and said they were still working on their system and they might have an answer by March or whatever, it would be OK, I wouldn’t be looking into the great abyss.”
The frustration and need is evident. Facing these concurrent crises, the government response for many feels too long and too far away. However, Tony Davis, CEO of the nonprofit Social Futures, says: “I think it’s important to acknowledge that the government has really committed to resourcing recovery and to getting measures in place because they didn’t in [the floods] of 2017. We can see there’s resourcing now but unfortunately it’s still not coming close to meeting the need.”
At Chinderah, south of Tweed Heads, eight of the 14 caravan parks were wiped out when the Tweed River broke its banks on 28 February. The majority of the residents were pensioners over 60, and less than a quarter of them were insured.
“You are talking about people who were already vulnerable and they are forgotten people. They are all elderly, struggling with PTSD and don’t know where to start,” says Kay Redman, a volunteer at the community hub. “There’s a lot of people living in their cars that are just homeless.”
Andrea Grogan, 59, has finally got her slab replaced, and her new home – an expanding shipping container – has just been delivered. She was not insured and it was the cheapest dwelling she could find. Even then she still had to buy a trailer to put it on. She got a $20,000 government grant and has borrowed money from family. Up until December she lived in her old 1970s caravan, which had been condemned after the flooding. “It had mould. I had a four-pronged power pack and I could run a little bar fridge, a light and a kettle or toaster but I couldn’t do more than that because it tripped my power,” Grogan says.
When it was demolished in December, Grogan was able rent a cabin in the park while she waited for the container home to arrive. “At the moment I am paying rent on the cabin as well as on my site which is basically the whole of my pension.”
She is concerned about other residents. There is shoddy work being done on people’s homes, she claims. “It just really takes its toll. We have already been battered from losing everything and a lot of people just aren’t able to get up and fight.”
In the shimmering beauty of a northern rivers afternoon, empty husks of houses stand with their lawns neatly mowed, caravan and tents outside.
It is the strength of these communities that will prevail. The community hubs that were formed when people came together as water poured through their towns. Who reached out to each other and showed the absolute best of humanity. And who a year later are needed more than ever. On a January day of steamy inland swamp heat in Lismore, Elly Bird says: “We get people in here looking for all sorts of help. We see the whole spectrum in all its complexity.”