‘It’s Like Prison’: What Life Looks Like Inside A Flood Evacuation Centre

And they’re “the lucky ones”.
Potsi, only nickname given, salvages what she can from her van which is also her home on March 02, 2022 in Lismore, Australia.
Potsi, only nickname given, salvages what she can from her van which is also her home in Lismore, Australia. Dan Peled / Getty Images

A fortnight ago, catastrophic floodwaters tore through swathes of towns across the northern rivers of NSW. In some towns, like Mullumbimby, a meaningful state government presence – connecting victims with welfare liaisons – wasn’t established until about day six.

For others, it was day 12. But for towns like Murwillumbah, which sits about 50 kilometres north-west of Byron Bay, recovery efforts are still being led by community volunteer hubs, aided by the “brawn” of Australian Defence Force troops who take direction from local volunteers.


In towns like Murwillumbah, civilian-led efforts have, for the most part, been able to fill the gaps left by local, state and federal government agencies. A military-grade operation established there by locals has found a way to meet all sorts of needs: gutting sodden homes, managing the ensuing mould that has already rendered many of them condemned, undertaking welfare checks, clearing roads, retrieving and stock-taking bodies.

But they haven’t been able to step into every hole left by various levels of government. And the immediate displacement of hundreds of the town’s residents offered itself as a stark reminder last week, when hundreds of them piled into the town’s evacuation centre, without social workers, qualified welfare management, or even security.

“It was like prison,” Danny Armstrong, a Murwillumbah resident, told VICE. “It was a community-style, ‘all walks of life’ kind of prison setup with no security. Which felt highly volatile, because a lot of the rough sleepers we have in town, would be sat by the entry, and it was just a chaotic melting pot.”

“You’d be talking, and they’d have dingos, they’d have pitbulls, all kinds of stuff right there at the front door, ready to kick off at any moment. You’ve got people who are smoking weed, you’ve got people who have just come back from up the road after scoring a point of ice,” he said.


It’s one of many issues that locals are trying to tackle without qualifications or expertise, and have had to kick to the bottom of the list to address more urgent challenges, like safeguarding homes from ongoing landslides and matching displaced people with accommodation.

Locals in Murwillumbah say that those who were able to make it to the town's evacuation centre were among “the lucky ones”. But other organisations are trying to step in to address them.

Among them is Society, a foundation based in the Byron shire founded by local philanthropist Leah Rettenmaier. The operation has mobilised funds quickly to keep civilian recovery workers moving, like tradespeople and earth movers, as residents start to feel the burn of taking weeks off work to help out.

Sophie Marsh, a staffer at the foundation, told VICE that they’re assessing flood-torn communities with a multi-pronged approach that is prioritising some of the challenges that local civilian-led recovery efforts might not be able to get to. High on their list, she said, is assessing the immediate needs of flood victims who might be in danger, and connecting them with mental health support or qualified social workers.

“So, what you need to understand is that a lot of these towns are really small, and everyone knows each other. That means that victims of domestic violence, or sexual assault, might have been put in a position where they’re sleeping four or so beds up from their aggressor in these evac centres,” Marsh said.


“It’s hard to even capture what that might be like for those people. There is no security – it’s all civilian-run and -led. It’s a giant gap. We have a crisis response, with a melting pot of communities, which have been organised in a very specific way, are now being forced into [these situations].”

In Lismore, evacuation workers have been at odds with some similar challenges over the last two weeks. One worker there told VICE that they’ve been having conversations about trying to get prescriptions for some of their community members, who might be suffering drug and alcohol withdrawals, and having “violent” outbursts as a result.

The volunteer told VICE that it’s things like this that government leaders aren’t mindful of “at the best of times”.

Meanwhile, others - like Marsh - are hopeful that the government will find a way into these communities and meet some of these needs, even if she has no reason to be.

“I’m hoping that, with the government stepping in and putting some of these services in place [in towns like Mullumbimby], things will start to dissipate. But also, it’s like: it’s been two weeks, and we haven’t seen a drastic change.”

Marsh and a handful of other response workers who spoke to VICE reached a similar consensus on the government’s failure to meet the needs of vulnerable members of these communities across the region: it’s really only one part of a hurricane of other social issues that have had towns like Murwillumbah, Coraki, Mullumbimby, Woodburn and Lismore in a headlock for years.


For them, the experiences faced by flood victims in evacuation centres across the region are only a symptom of decades-long housing and mental health crises which, if these last two weeks have been anything to go by, are only expected to worsen without government intervention.

Back in Murwillumbah, residents don’t share Marsh’s hope.

Armstrong told VICE that the government has only in recent days set up a services centre at the town’s community centre, where they have yet to come close to meeting even the most basic needs of residents, let alone the peripheral welfare and social support services they are crying out for.

He showed VICE images from within the centre, where government representatives are stationed under harsh, cold light fixtures, dressed in brand new clothes “still with the tags on them”, handing out state government literature, like pamphlets and other merchandise, in lieu of “meaningful” support services.

“What are you going to do with a showbag, a couple of pens, and some pamphlets? How does that help you if you don’t have any internet, no phone, no computer? What, are you gonna do, fuckin’ write on the back of your pamphlet?”

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