‘Catastrophic Failure’: Fury Among NSW Northern Rivers Locals ‘Forgotten’ by Authorities
By Christopher Knaus and Susan Chenery
As the scale of the devastation around Mullumbimby emerges, locals are relying on each other in the absence of government help
In the small town of Ocean Shores, not far from Mullumbimby, Rosie Wild is grappling with the scale of all that she has lost.
Every room of her home has been ruined by the floods. Her furniture sits in piles out the front of her house, rendered useless by the damage, as does her fridge and other white goods.
Her walls and wooden floors still show no sign of drying out.
In the daytime, between the clean-up and her calls to the insurance company, there’s enough to keep Wild’s mind busy.
But in the evenings, when the distractions disappear, her mind has been wandering.
“It’s all a bit devastating and personally, in the day, I’m just being strong and just going and doing what I need to do,” she said.
“But in the evenings, it just dawns on you. It’s such a loss.”
The scale of the devastation in the areas around Mullumbimby is quickly becoming apparent.
It’s another disaster site in what are now being described as the worst floods in living memory.
The death toll rose to 16 on Friday, including six in NSW, after the body of a man in his 40s was found south of Murwillumbah, just north of Mullumbimby. Four more people have died in flood-ravaged Lismore and the estimated cost of claims across Queensland and NSW is now just over $1bn.
For Wild, as she grapples with what comes next, the $1,000 disaster payment offered by the federal government seems grossly inadequate.
“At the end of the day, it’s very, very disappointing,” she said. “After I’d done my entire clean-up, I went back to my partner’s house, and worked out that all I was going to get is $1,000 … I’ll probably have to go out and get another loan.”
The coordination of the response has also been lacking, she said, leaving locals to rely on one another.
It’s a frequent complaint in the area. There’s general goodwill towards the state emergency service and Australian Defence Force who are working in the region, tirelessly, to help.
But many who spoke to Guardian Australia are also clear on one thing: the state and federal government response in the area has been insufficient.
Locals have banded together and stepped in to fill gaps in the response, organising rescues, food and fuel drops, and beginning the arduous task of cleaning up.
Megan Whitaker, a resident of Lennox Head for 17 years, described the government response as a “catastrophic failure”.
It’s an opinion born of her own experience during the floods. Whitaker was trapped in Melbourne as the waters peaked, but received a desperate call from a friend, who was trapped with her husband on Tamar street in Ballina.
Her friend’s husband was passing in and out of consciousness.
Fearing for their safety, Whitaker called emergency services and urged them to rescue the pair.
The emergency services, she said, left her with little certainty as to whether they could help in time.
Lismore before and after the flood
Before and after aerial pictures show how floods swept through Queensland and NSW towns
She turned to local Facebook community groups, where she found a woman whose father lived in Tamar street. The father, a local surf lifesaver, pledged to take a dinghy to get to the pair.
“They managed to, after a number of hours, evacuate the husband, who needed medical attention,” Whittaker said. “But they didn’t have enough room to evacuate my friend and her dog. So I had to repeat the whole process about five or six hours later, when her battery was running low and the waters were potentially going to peak again. I had to once again call the SES, get through to NSW, post on a Facebook page.”
Her friend eventually got out and Whitaker has spent the days since acting as a conduit for communications between flood-affected residents and emergency services.
It’s not something that should be left up to her, she said.
“This has been a catastrophic failure of government to provide the services we pay for as taxpayers,” she said. “The impact of this is going to be so far reaching and for so long. I’m just so angry.”
Speaking on Friday, the NSW premier, Dominic Perrottet, said some mistakes are likely to be made during the response, but that it was too early to ascribe blame.
Perrotet said the government was “completely focused” on getting responders into flood hit areas but it could only be done where safe.
“Our focus right now is not on playing the blame game,” he said.
Other locals, like Celeste and Mark Mayne, feel completely forgotten.
The pair live on Bishops Creek road near Nimbin and Lismore, and were forced to flee when a landslide came perilously close to their home.
They sheltered at a neighbour’s while the flood waters receded, and then walked 4km, climbing through roads and washed away creeks to be met by their neighbour’s sister to drive to Nimbin for supplies.
On Thursday, Mark helped an elderly neighbour get to hospital, using his 4WD.
“It’s exhausting,” Celeste said. “I’m so stressed, PTSD, whenever it rains I’m in fear of landslides, the sound of thunder is terrifying as it sounds like a landslide.
“Yes, we do feel forgotten.”