Flood victims in the Australian tourist town of Byron Bay are being kicked out of crisis accommodation to make way for holiday goers—even as the region continues to be ravaged by flash floods and heavy rain—according to a letter seen by VICE World News.
The letter, sent on March 29 by the New South Wales Department of Communities and Justice (DCJ) and addressed to temporary residents at a holiday park in Byron, gave disaster victims until April 4 to “check out” of their emergency accommodation so that the resort can honour bookings made before the floods. The letter was signed by Paul Vevers, Deputy Secretary of NSW Department of Communities and Justice.
“We are writing to you as you are staying in emergency accommodation arranged by the Department of Communities and Justice (DCJ) in response to the February-March flooding,” the letter reads. “Unfortunately, the accommodation you are staying in is soon to become unavailable over the Easter period as there are prior bookings in place, some made many months ago.”
On March 30, the streets of Byron Bay flooded and the levees at nearby Lismore, the region’s most flood-affected city, spilled over for the second time in a month. One recipient of the DCJ notice is originally from Lismore, but was forced to seek emergency accommodation in Byron after their house was inundated in late February.
The letter goes on to note that, due to the unprecedented flooding and the subsequent shortage of housing options in the area, the flood victims will be relocated to “equivalent accommodation” across state lines, either at Gold Coast Airport, 60 kilometres north, or Brisbane, more than 120 kilometres north.
“We understand this is another disruption during this stressful time, and we will make every effort to make this transition as smooth as possible,” the letter states. “We will book you in to that alternative accommodation for the period of 4 April to 30 April… We anticipate being able to move you back to hotel accommodation in the Northern Rivers at the end of April.”
The letter did offer an alternative for victims however, stating that they could apply for a support payment system which would help cover the cost of a rental property. Every adult being moved will also receive a $250 food voucher to assist with groceries and supplies.
In a statement to VICE World News, Vevers said his department acknowledges the significant trauma experienced by people in flood-affected communities, but added that hotels in the area have had advanced bookings for many months, and in some cases years, for the holiday period.
“We are doing everything we can to minimise distress to those who are displaced from the floods and assisting them to rebuild their lives,” he said, also pointing to the fuel and food vouchers being given to victims and apologising “for the inconvenience.”
He also emphasised that they “will ensure households are moved back closer to their communities once the holiday period is over.”
VICE World News understands that people across the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales have been issued similar letters in recent days.
April is typically a busy time for Byron Bay, as tourists and holidaymakers swarm to the coastal town for school holidays, the Easter long weekend and Bluesfest, a world-famous music festival that has been known to attract the likes of Hollywood actors Matt Damon, Jason Momoa and Chris Hemsworth.
When Australia’s east coast was devastated by some of the worst floods the country has ever seen at the end of February, Byron Bay—which in recent years has become Australia’s most expensive major housing market—was also one of the few towns in the area that emerged almost completely unscathed.
Meanwhile, thousands of residents from surrounding towns, villages and cities have been rendered homeless and displaced by the ongoing natural disaster. Most of those are currently living in tents, cars, volunteer-run evacuation centres and emergency accommodation. Many have nowhere else to go.
The situation on the ground has rapidly spiralled into a humanitarian crisis, with concerns about a brewing mental health epidemic among those worst impacted.
The Australian and NSW governments’ response to the flood crisis has been widely condemned by media, government officials and locals in the flood-hit regions, many of whom have been forced to take rescue and relief efforts into their own hands. Defence Force personnel weren’t deployed to many disaster-hit areas until six days after the levees burst—by which point at least a dozen people had died and thousands more had lost their homes.
Chai West, a Byron shire resident who has been helping with recovery efforts across the region, told VICE this week that police were asking locals to “source, pay and supply them with stuff,” including petrol, chainsaws, trailers and defibrillators.
“Where’s the support?” said West. “Where’s the money?”
NSW Police denied the claim—but a lack of financial support for disaster relief and flood victims more broadly has been a widespread point of criticism. Since 2019, the Australian government has been sitting on the $4.7 billion “Emergency Response Fund,” which remained largely untouched in the weeks after the floods. It was only this week, after much delay, that the government finally announced that it would dip into the pool and spend $150 million on relief efforts for the current financial year.
Meanwhile, for many, things on the ground have only gotten worse. Less than two weeks after the floods hit the Northern Rivers, government data suggested that, of the 9,200 homes assessed in the region, 5,500 were damaged and 2,834 were not habitable. Then, earlier this week, torrential rains swept back through the disaster zones, swamping the region and submerging streets, neighbourhoods and communities that were already on their knees.
At the time of writing the latest flood waters are still receding, and the cost of the ongoing catastrophe is still being counted. But with the river reaching a height of 11.4 metres in Lismore on Wednesday night, and with more than 20 flood warnings still in place across the state, Eastern Australia’s disaster-induced homelessness crisis looks set to worsen.
As a result, dozens, maybe hundreds more people are likely to be driven into the region’s rapidly depleting stock of crisis and emergency accommodation over the coming days, weeks and months.
Just not in Byron Bay during the holiday season, it seems.
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UPDATE: This story has been updated to include a response from the DCJ.