Rebuilding. And thriving.

Mother Nature really came out swinging this week. For so many communities up and down the east coast of Australia there was not really much that could be done. Mother Nature decided to show us she was the boss, and she did so with all her power.

The Northern NSW town that we grew up in – Lismore – copped some of her power with the river breaking its banks, the water topping the flood levee and the CBD and the surrounding regions becoming inundated with water. It all happened incredibly quickly.

The community of Lismore is fascinatingly wonderful. And I have written about this place before. Being the town I grew up in, at age 18 I was very ready to leave. And leave I did. But after 16 years, I returned and I feel so very blessed to be able to work in, and for, the community now. When I drive in to the Lismore CBD each day I feel comforted. It feels that I am in the right place.

To highlight the community’s character, when I stated to a colleague recently my love for Lismore, he remarked “I like that it is the only Australian town where you can see a drag queen in glitter heels and a farmer in RM Williams boots walking down the Main Street".

It does have a reputation for flooding though. Geographically it is shaped like a basin. Or less affectionately, a hole. Stuff gets trapped in there. Heat. Fog. Copious amounts of muddy water.

I wasn't yet around for the great flood of 1974, but shortly after our arrival to the town we saw the flood of 1987. It coincided with the birth of my sister Trudy. She literally arrived in a flood. Neither the flood, nor Trudy brought me much joy at the time.

And there were other floods growing up, where my recollections are limited to family friends having "holidays" at our house high on the hill or coming over to use our washing machine and dryer whilst we sat and watched the pools of water in the valley from the verandah.

I am incredibly ashamed to admit that during my late teens and early 20s (the floods of the early 2000's) I would visit the flood as a ‘tourist’, driving down town to have a good sticky beak and check out how much damage Mother Nature caused. I hate to think the additional pain this self-absorbed behaviour caused and how it would have hampered recovery efforts. I’m pretty disgusted about that now.

I’m also disgusted at how cranky I got one time when I tried to travel home from Brisbane and fifteen minutes from home, I encountered flood waters. I had to turn around and add an hour or so to my journey. A pretty minor inconvenience for some pretty major anger.

Luckily, I've wised up to responding to natural disasters a little bit with age. It may have been the Brisbane flood of 2011 when I lived in an apartment on the Brisbane river. There’s no underestimating what it feels like to have no control at all over what’s about to happen to your home and everything you own and very little warning or preparation to do something about it.

But these feelings of insecurity and lack of control were totally diminished by the tremendous community support we were shown at that time. Little could have prepared me for the way strangers, community groups, the Army, other organisations and who knows who else turned up in the street to assist in the immediate aftermath of the flood.

But my flood stories are incomparable though to the ones I have been hearing this week, from our elders in the community. The people calling in to the local radio. My friend’s Dad interviewed for a newspaper article. The conversations you have with people about town. This is where some real community beauty lies. Stories of experience. People who have responded well in the past and will do so again this time round. Who can set an example for the rest of us. Stories that will continue to encourage our community resilience.

Because this weekend’s flood was a big one. And this time round I'm feeling pretty amazed and pretty damn devastated. Things were different this time round. We were already sitting on pretty damp ground in the lead up to this, but on Thursday morning I drove to work on a a clear, dry road. By Friday morning that road was under 1.5 metres of water for kilometres. Even more seasoned flood-affected community members felt unprepared. And we can see the effects of this now. Homes and businesses gone.

And again I'm hardly personally affected. My home is out of the Lismore area and which despite warnings was unaffected. My Lismore CBD office is on the second floor. It'll probably be a bit wet and smell for some time, but we'll still be able to do our jobs.

But it still hurts to see the places where I buy my coffee and my bread roll suffer. And this community in pain. My heart breaks. 

The other thing that has happened is that the areas most affected by Mother Nature’s force, are those that are also most likely to be affected by other aspects of disadvantage.

Socio-Economic Indexes for Areas (SEIFA) is a product developed by the ABS that ranks areas in Australia according to relative socio-economic advantage and disadvantage, Lismore City's SEIFA score for 2011 is 953 (a ranking of 66 in NSW). Within the local government area, the five areas with the lowest IRSED index scores (i.e. the areas of highest disadvantage in the Lismore City), were: Nimbin and District (860.0); Lismore - Girards Hill (871.2); South Lismore (872.5); Lismore (907.4); North Lismore (921.5). The areas which have experienced significant flooding.

In addition this community experiences high levels of unemployment. In 2011, 8.2% of the Lismore labour force was classed as unemployed compared to 6.1% in regional Australia, 5.9% in NSW and 5.6% across Australia (ABS, 2012). The five areas with the highest unemployment rates were: South Lismore (15.7%), Nimbin and district (15.6%), Lismore-Girards Hill (15.4%), North Lismore (14.0%) and Lismore (13.0%). Again, all areas that were inundated with water. 

And to add to the levels of disadvantage, no insurance company will insure a home or business that resides in a flood-prone area. 

So for people who were less likely than others to be having an easy time of things, Mother Nature just made things even tougher. 

Like most parts of life, in a crisis some of us behave worse than others. There’s people running into the danger that others need to be rescued from. And there’s been reports of looting occurring in flooded businesses and properties. For some people, it seems that they can’t help but voice their own sentiments about what should or should not have been done in the lead up to the event. And we really have to wonder whether right this minute any of these things are helpful?

But one of the beautiful characteristics of human beings is that because our sense of community is so deep and powerful within us, we have the capacity to respond almost unthinkingly to the needs of others when they are suddenly in our face. And the more acute the need, the more reflexive our response. Most of us can really rise to the occasion in a crisis. Responding not just satisfactorily, but brilliantly.

We’re not being heroic. We’re just being social creatures. We know – viscerally rather than cognitively – that we are all connected to each other; part of each other; bound by our common humanity. I don’t need to know the person in the next suburb over, or the lady with the awesome haircut who makes my morning coffee, to share his or her pain.

And over the weekend, we have started to see people band together in time of a disaster. We can see that the vein of generosity is rich within us, needing only to be tapped. People are putting on free barbeques in the park. Others are turning up to the CBD with mops and brooms and buckets in tow. Mothers are organising collections of children’s clothes and toys to be delivered wherever they can.

When we feel that we belong to a community that shows us hospitality and generosity it can assist in these post-flood weeks to reduce the feelings of uncertainty and despair. With a sense of collective hope and resilience we can continue to learn from past disasters and better prepare for future ones. And we can adapt to the challenges and rebuild. Like we have done before.

Communities survive by us continuing to engage with and attend to them. And here’s a wonderful opportunity. No one is a position to do nothing. We can all contribute in some way. Already people are offering free services and goods to assist with the clean up. We can all make the choice to support a local flood-affected business get back on its feet by giving them our business. We can donate to charities that support local people. For those of you who have been affected by the water, please don’t be too shy to ask for help. And all of us can check in on our loved ones regularly. To see that they’re traveling okay.

This is the stuff of not just rebuilding. But thriving.

For information on providing psychological first aid for flood-affected people the APS has this excellent information sheet. 



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