One year on from the 2022 QLD and NSW floods
In the early months of 2022, eastern Australia endured three intense weather systems that led to record rains and flooding. By the end of the first week in March, Southern Queensland and parts of New South Wales had each received more than a year’s worth of rainfall. Images of swirling floodwaters and the devastation that followed captured worldwide attention. The floods are one of the most devastating in the nation's history.
Twelve months on, we take a moment to acknowledge what many communities endured in the early months of 2022. We were fortunate to speak to some of the residents and business owners from the worst impacted parts of the NSW Northern Rivers region. They shared how they are travelling with their recovery and what words of advice they have for when the next disaster strikes.
Resilient Lismore’s mantra for recovery from the 2022 QLD and NSW Floods
Elly Bird Lismore City Councillor is no stranger to disasters in her region. Elly is the CEO of Resilient Lismore, which started as Lismore Helping Hands. The organisation is a grassroots, community-led group that emerged to coordinate volunteers after the major flood in Lismore in March 2017.
She recalls how on the eve of February 28, 2022, she along with many others in the community had been keeping a watch on flood levels and sharing the alerts. No one believed that water would go beyond 12 metres – what the community referred to as a “normal” flood, where most homes would not be threatened.
Elly went to bed, only to wake an hour later to find out that the water had reached a dangerous 13.5 metres.
The community support in the week leading up to the flood, as information, weather and flood alerts were shared, continued over many months after the floodwaters peaked.
The focus shifted to community rebuild tasks, the support delivered with the mantra to provide “safe, secure, warm” accommodation, especially for the more vulnerable members as winter temperatures started to drop.
An initiative that emerged from this mantra was the ‘Two Rooms Project’. Elly described how it came about: “Sure we have a devastating housing crisis here but we do have houses – they’re just damaged. So we decided to build at least two rooms to provide some security and privacy. The Two Rooms Project was part of that mission, to line the walls of two rooms in flood impacted homes”, Elly said.
The Two Rooms Project works by using donations to supply the walls, and then tasking volunteers under the guidance of skilled tradespeople to install them.
Launched in August 2022, work has been completed on 80 homes, with more on the books for completion in the near future.
Should you find yourself in a similar situation….
Elly’s advice is simple: “It sounds silly but get used to being good at holding lots of parties. Events are not just great for knowing about how to organise things where there is little infrastructure… but also bring the community together to develop those relationships which are so important when disasters happen,” said Elly.
Business recovery goes beyond the gates
Chris Connors, CEO of Sunshine Sugar’s local sugar mills and refinery, looks at the impact of the Northern Rivers floods through a business owner’s lens. He described its effect as catastrophic, with extensive damage costs across three of its locations, leaving a big impact on the broader community.
“We had $27 million in Condong, $14 million at Harwood Mill, and $6 million at the Refinery. With the damage of the Refinery, the income generating part of the business, causing $14 million loss each month…but one of the biggest impacts was on our people,” he said.
For six weeks, there was no work for a large part of the workforce across all three sites. Sunshine Sugar focused on looking after their people but “they returned the favour by looking after the workplace when they returned.”
In September 2022, Sunshine Sugar, a major employer in the region, received $12 million in Anchor Program funding. This scheme was designed to help businesses that employ more than 200 people get back on their feet quickly, increase resilience to natural disasters and help people return to their jobs.
Chris reiterated the importance of the program funding that went beyond infrastructure repair: “The funding helped replace some of the equipment damaged and also enabled us to increase cane payments to local growers.”
Advice for businesses
Chris outlined how looking at business diversification was important to try and lessen the impact of varying sugar prices and big floods but planning and being prepared was still key.
“You just have to have a plan, where you need to think about it how you can keep things operating to still deliver not just for the business but also for the community,” Chris said.
The importance of an Indigenous voice at the table
Just 30 kilometres away from Lismore on the state’s coast Chris Binge, the CEO of Jali Land Council manages Cabbage Tree Island. During the 2022 Northern Rivers floods, the island was completely inundated and all of the residents had to evacuate. All members of the community had their lives turned upside down.
Twelve months on, the impact is still very evident, particularly on the young and community elders who are feeling very displaced. Chris explained that while many families were together in nearby temporary accommodation, they weren’t on Country: “We are our Country and our Country is us,” Chris said.
The impact on Cabbage Tree Island also had additional community ramifications, as it is the location of the first established Aboriginal corporation.
“The Cabbage Tree Island community plays an important role for Aboriginal people around the country, as it is one of the first Aboriginal corporations to be created and it happened here on this island – that history tells you how grounded the people of Cabbage Tree are…there is a sense of pride as they are leading the way for Aboriginal people.”
Advice for Indigenous communities
When asked what advice he would give other communities he stressed the importance of having Indigenous voices at the table across all stages of disaster response and recovery. He was also hopeful that the past 12 months have enabled some important learning experiences.
“I’m hoping that the last 12 months will provide lessons not just for the people of Cabbage Tree but for Indigenous communities around the country.”