Community reigns supreme in the Northern Rivers floods

The Lismore Library pictured during the recent floods (left) and during the clean-up, after the waters receded (right). Photo: Parkway Drive/Facebook.

Sunny Grace reports on the incredible community spirit which has seen Northern Rivers residents look after each other where the federal government has failed.

Four weeks after the biggest flood in the recorded history of the Northern Rivers, the army is still on the streets and choppers buzz overhead. My son and I take our first foray into Mullumbimby to go to the community food market. Driving into town the damp and devastation is still obvious. Mud residue lines the streets. Outside the old church, appliances and furniture line the yard in hope of restitution.

At the markets a local character, the self-appointed replacement of Mr Beautiful (although there was only one Beautiful), is shaking his pineapple maracas and wishing everyone a fabulous day. Walking through the market I overhear snippets of conversation drifting through the air along with the slight waft of marijuana (medicinal I’m sure). A young girl tells her friends there were horses in her house during the floods. Another talks of being stuck at Wilsons Creek where the road is so badly damaged council must close it. Since the flood, local teens on dirt bikes have been ferrying supplies to isolated residents.

People are enjoying some semblance of normality with sun streaming through as the mud dries on the ground below. There is a sense of relief with people gathering to share stories of courage, survival and hope, although the market stall owners struggle with online payments due to continued limited telecommunication coverage.

After the market, we stop in town and see volunteers at the town hall sorting donations and work teams. There is still much work to be done to get these towns back into shape. We visit our friends who own Baker & Daughters bakery in town. Bec tells me the night of the rain bomb her husband and staff worked hard turning bags of flour into sandbags to shore up the front of the shop, along with boards of wood. They spent from 4am to 9pm in the bakery while the rain came down in sheets and the water rose to over waist height. They shovelled the water out, but it just kept coming. Their house was taking in water too, so Bec called their daughters who thought she was being a bit melodramatic until they walked outside and realised they would need to kayak to the bakery.  

Drone footage of flooding in Mullumbimby on Monday, 28 February, 2022. Video: Orion Image Originals/YouTube.

While telling me this story, her eyes widen; the trauma is physically visible. Besides the flood itself, she shares details of the aftermath. She tells me of people finally managing to get into town only to discover there is no internet, no cash, no food and no petrol. Their cars underwater or un-drivable.

Bec helps as many as she can, giving them cash and food. They consider themselves lucky to be trading again – although the cool room and their beautiful tiled floor need replacing and her application for the government assistance is still pending because they need more photographic evidence. She did explain she was knee deep in water the whole time, bailing it out with buckets, so it was not really the time for selfies.

Bec and I share a hug before she returns to the makeshift counter at the entrance to the store, initially introduced for Covid restrictions and now due to lack of flooring. A constant queue of people wait for coffee, bread, the best sausage rolls and comfort in a town still coming to terms with the shared devastation. She greets the next customer with a smile and “Now, who can I help next?”

The community bond reigns supreme in a town often ridiculed for its alternative views. When the government failed to provide the help needed in the immediate aftermath, locals banded together to problem solve, despite possible ideological differences.

It is this we will remember come election day; this we will remember next time the federal government lets us down. The only good outcome from this deluge is that communities can and do rally together out of necessity when they have been abandoned by their leaders.

They have done it before, they can do it again. Sadly, they might just need to do it again, with forecasts of heavy rainfall and a possible repeat of the flooding this week.

Maybe one day they won’t need these leaders anymore. Or is that just the hippy kid in me wishing for the utopian ideal? I hope not. I hope we continue to keep the community spirit alive by sharing our stories and our bread.

I will donate my fee for this article to the flood relief. If you want to donate too, here is a link with good advice about ways to help: https://www.nsw.gov.au/floods/donations-support.

For those in Northern Rivers interested in becoming a volunteer, visit https://www.ccrnetwork.org.

Sunny Grace is a writer, producer and director who divides her time between the NSW Northern Rivers and Sydney. Her website is located at sunnygrace.com.au.

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