The east coast of Australia, no stranger to natural disasters, is once again bracing itself for heavy rains, flooding, and ongoing evacuations.
As yet another devastating storm makes its way south through Queensland toward the northern rivers of NSW, volunteer-led rescue and recovery efforts have been left to face familiar frustrations: After five weeks of pleading for government support, they’re still coordinating state officials – and even equipping them with tools and supplies.
Chai West, a Byron shire local who has been helping with recovery efforts across the region, told VICE that even the sight of heavy rain on Tuesday was enough to trigger anxiety and reaffirm feelings of abandonment.
“Police are coming to our depot [in Mullumbimby], asking for supplies, petrol, chainsaws, trailers. They are asking us to source, pay and supply them with stuff. Where’s the support? Where’s the money? They even came to us for defibrillators which we paid for and distributed ourselves,” West said.
“The cracks that we saw in the system from the beginning are now bursting with water.”
A spokesperson for NSW Police told VICE that officers on the ground across the region deny the claim. Instead, she suggested the response to the state’s police presence – which has seen them “conducting welfare checks, clearing debris from properties, assisting residents with heavy lifting” – in the region has been “welcomed”, and the community response to their efforts has been “appreciative”.
But West is one of a handful of volunteers who hung back in Mullumbimby after officials issued an evacuation order for the town on Tuesday morning. They are sleeping on air mattresses in the community’s makeshift civic centre, on-hand to assist if anyone happens to have found themselves stuck nearby.
As the floodwaters that levelled their communities nearly five weeks ago seemed to be behind them, flood victims from across the northern rivers of NSW and Queensland’s south-east were just beginning to get back on their feet. But now, as yet another low pressure system rolls through the region, they feel like they’ve been “pushed back to square one”.
Close to 15,000 people have been forced to leave their homes after state officials issued evacuation orders for residents of Lismore late on Monday evening, before extending the warning to those living in Mullumbimby, Billinudgel, and Tumbulgum early on Tuesday morning.
Low-lying parts of Mullumbimby and Lismore have already started to see moderate flooding, after yet another foreboding low pressure system arrived over the region early on Tuesday morning and dumped as much as 270 millimetres of rain. The same storm caused flooding in Queensland's Southern Downs yesterday and killed two people.
About 70 kilometres south of Byron Bay, in the town of Woodburn, floodwaters have yet to breach the levee. But locals there say they aren’t hopeful either.
One of them is Freddy Fiori, a 31-year-old chef who has taken the lead on the town’s volunteer-run relief centre. She told VICE that it currently looks like the main road that runs through Woodburn will be cut off by the end of the day.
In Lismore, officials have already mobilised Australian Defence Force personnel to prepare for the worst. There, troops have started laying roadside sandbags to protect store fronts across the CBD, should waters breach the city’s levee as it is expected to, later on Tuesday.
Matters are only expected to get worse.
Neil Bennett, duty forecaster at the Bureau of Meteorology, told reporters at a press conference on Tuesday morning that the entire region is set to be up against it as the low pressure system begins to thicken and build momentum into the south.
“We’re looking at some locally intense falls with embedded thunderstorms mixed in with that also. We’re looking at six hourly rainfall totals between 80 to 140 millimetres possible. It could even reach up to 200 millimetres in the coastal areas and ranges,” Bennett said.
Returning floodwaters have already started to trigger locals, too, many of whom have only just begun to get their lives back on track. The Tweed Mayor, Chris Cherry, said swathes of the region’s residents will likely find themselves stuck.
“If you can imagine it's nearly five weeks since the last event so after five weeks people have.... managed to clear the flood mud out of their homes. They've managed to set themselves back up, get some white goods again, and now this is happening again, it's just so incredibly hard for people,” he said.
The task hasn’t been made any easier by state and federal government officials, who have been slow to make their presences known across the region, and even slower to approve and distribute support payments.
According to one report in The Guardian, the NSW government has approved less than 400 disaster relief grants for business owners across the region, despite having received more than 8,000 applications since the grants were first made available almost a month ago.
For the thousands more who don’t own businesses, monetary support ran dry weeks ago. Thousands have fled to motels, unsure where they’ll go next. Others have packed their lives into caravans. But all of them have the same gameplan: find higher, drier ground while they still can.
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