Nearly a year on from the February 2022 flood event that devastated the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales, community organisations say people’s basic needs are still not being met – and the area’s problems are becoming more complex.
In Wardell, south-east of Lismore, Joel Orchard, the co-founder of Wardell Core – the town’s community hub and recovery centre – says people are surviving in conditions “well below livable standards”.
“There’s still people living at worst in tents, people that are definitely living in caravans, sheds, their laundries,” he said.
Orchard said basic needs such as accommodation, power and service connections remain a challenge.
“Although people have access to power, a lot of people are still plugged into a single power outlet out of their fuse boxes,” he said. “They haven’t been able to get a full electrical repair job for their home.
“There’s a lady in the street that has to unplug her hot water service to run her fridge because she can only run one or the other.”
The housing and homelessness crises across the Northern Rivers has been further exacerbated by subsequent flooding events throughout the year, which are estimated to have displaced an additional 1,300 people, according to new research.
The Northern Rivers Community Foundation (NRCF) this month released a community research paper, Housing and Homelessness in a Flood Recovery, which offers insights and solutions for the community and its decision-makers.
The research identifies four key issues: a long-term housing shortage, significant impacts of floods to the community, shortfalls in services and support, and socially detrimental outcomes for individuals.
Recommendations to address this include community land and housing trust models, fact sheets to assist with key decisions, community-driven recovery, and co-design disaster responses and recovery efforts.
Sam Henderson, the chief executive office of NRCF, said although housing was an issue nationwide, the Northern Rivers, “is a housing market failure”.
“There are a lot of empty houses when you’ve got people on the street,” he said. “There is not an efficient allocation of housing resources in the market. Economics has failed.
“Communities know what their problems are and they often know what the solutions are too, but there’s generally a resourcing, policy or some kind of other systemic issue that prevents it.”
When Orchard moved from Lismore to Wardell late last year because of housing insecurity and affordability, he described it as stepping “out of the frying pan into the fire”.
Wardell may not have experienced the extreme depths of flood water that occurred in Lismore, but Orchard said the effects were significantly more widespread.
“There’s a lot of vulnerable people in this community, there’s a high population of elderly people, lots of people who are living on their own. It’s been really difficult for them to tackle recovery.”
Orchard said Wardell did not initially have a community centre or service to support the town in a flood emergency and the town’s primary infrastructure was damaged. As a result, Orchard, his partner and a group of locals “stepped up” and started Wardell Core.
The distribution and donations hub has evolved into “a neighbourhood centre” and the only social support service available.
It also participated in the NRCF study.
Orchard said Wardell Core caters for 350 to 400 visitors per week, including local residents and the wider community.
He said people who didn’t previously visit their recovery centre frequently for support are now coming in “completely broken” and “at a loss”.
“They’re so deflated from this experience, they’ve run out of energy and patience to talk about how to get access to grants and funding and help,” he said.
“We’re training our volunteers in suicide awareness and some really heavy issues now because the need is there, and people in this community are having a really hard time.”
Wardell Core is about to close for one week over the Christmas and new year period – the first time the volunteer organisation has shut its doors since February.
“We’ve been working 100 hours a week since the flood,” he said. “I quite literally have volunteered full-time since the flood up until last week.”
The research, Henderson said , indicates a clear need for community-driven recovery, which will be critical in the long-term.
“What we’re hoping is they can use this [research] to back up, draw attention, and provide evidence when they apply for funding, to really help attract resources and support into the region for the recovery.”
In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is at 800-273-8255 or chat for support. You can also text HOME to 741741 to connect with a crisis text line counselor. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org