By Michael Were - NSW General Manager, Lifeline Direct
Today makes one year since the day that changed everything for so many in the Northern Rivers. The words ‘unprecedented’, ‘devastation’ and ‘catastrophic’ have become commonplace to describe the amount of water that fell from the sky, into the catchment areas, and then flowed into the Lismore CBD and other towns throughout the Northern Rivers.
Today I am sitting back in my office overlooking the busy Bruxner Highway on the edge of the Lismore CBD. Today, the passing vehicles are cars, plenty of them, as opposed to the flotilla of rescue boats and civilian tinnies that passed the same window on the first floor of Lifeline’s regional office twelve months ago.
As I drove to work this morning and stopped at the only set of traffic lights in town I looked up, trying to remember that the waters were lapping up against the red stoplight metres above me. Whenever I drive down Ballina Rd, and pass the blue pedestrian underpass, the vision of boat-after-boat dropping up rescued residents is with me.
I still find myself suffering with a sense of survivor’s guilt – caught in this chasm of acknowledging the thankfulness of living 10 minutes out of town on a hill and away from the floodplain, and always asking myself if I have done enough, personally and professionally, for those in my community that have lost so much.
As I step out of the newly painted office onto the balcony and look back down to street level of our building, I see the last task of my building reconstruction project – the gardens, landscaping, and front entry concreting still to go. It’s been a monumental effort to get Lifeline back-from-the-brink. The building was completely gutted out, all contents thrown on the street for the army to collect, nothing salvageable. In the spirit of ‘building back better’ we have remodelled the floor plan and built a final product better than the day it flooded. The fact that we can now have double the amount of crisis supporters on any one shift, underscores our deep commitment to remain as part of the Lismore fabric, but also reflects the mental health challenges and the number of people in crisis calling Lifeline. In the month following the floods, calls to Lifeline doubled from residents in the Northern Rivers. The number today still hovers at approximately 50% more than pre-flood.
Today I also make calls about removing the caravans in our back carpark. They have served us well and allowed us to continue our critically important services while the building under reconstruction. There is something in that – 12 months ago we were making calls to establish a temporary facility, and today we are finalising its’ decommission.
Physical reconstruction is just one part of the story. There are so many not in their own homes. In caravans themselves, in emergency accommodation pod villages or in informal situations with family, friends or acquaintances. Many await answers from Government and insurers in relation to buy backs, land swaps, relocations or insurance claims. The question of why live on a flood plain is not a simple physical question. It is much bigger than that – an existential question of affordability, identity, community, safety, history all wrapped up in the answer of why Lismore is what it is today.
Over the past 12 months I was plunged into spaces that I was never prepared for. I’ve had the privilege to advocate to all layers of Government on behalf of the community and for Lifeline. I’ve campaigned for additional funding; I’ve been on speed dial with Government ministers. I’ve had a few too many 5 minutes-of-fame in the media for my liking.
Running one of the largest Community Distribution Centres with no warning, no planning and no funding was without a doubt one of the hardest projects I have ever been a part of. 50,000 unique visits over 4 months; in excess of $2.5million in donated items distributed to the community, countless hours of voluntary contribution from the community. Throw in the stress of the situation, the crisis and emotional distress of so many, some days it felt like I was about to tread on a landmine with every step.
I still get stomach churns thinking about it. Knowing it was impossible to meet the needs of every person, could be easily used as a reason not to try. The 99% of things that worked were great; it’s easy to dwell on the 1% of things that went wrong and let that overshadow everything. And unfortunately for my own wellbeing, there have been days where I dwelt on the 1% for far too long.
Many in our local community have asked why we are marking this anniversary. We need to move on they say. It is not a day to celebrate, but it is a day to acknowledge, perhaps commemorate. We’re all different in the way we cope with change, trauma, crisis.
Lifeline’s experience in other disasters is that the real toll is not in the months after, but the years following. When the adrenaline has worn off, and in the silence of our own reflections, do we start to process what has happened. And in those moments, Lifeline is there to ensure that no person in the Northern Rivers or Australia faces their darkest moment alone.
That commitment to be there for the Northern Rivers is something that we as an organisation cannot do by ourselves. It will take the whole of Australia, to not forget what happened a year ago. Commemoration activities also bring the media spotlight back on Lismore and surrounds. It’s important, we need Australia not to forget us.
There are some simple ways that you might consider supporting Lismore and the Northern Rivers today:
- Give Generously - lifelinenorthernnswappeal.raisely.com. The cost of providing Crisis Support is significant.
- Become a crisis supporter. Whether that is training to be a volunteer Crisis Supporter in your local area, or volunteering in one of our retail op shops right across the country. northernnsw.lifeline.org.au/northernnsw/get-involved/become-a-crisis-supporter within the Northern Rivers, or lifeline.org.au to find the location closer to you.
- Gain new skills in mental health awareness or suicide prevention. Lifeline provides an incredible amount of training in the community that helps everyone contribute to a suicide safer community. northernnsw.lifeline.org.au/northernnsw/training or lifeline.org.au to find a location closer to you.
- Donate some unwanted high-quality items to your local Lifeline store.
Michael Were is the General Manager, NSW for Lifeline Direct Limited, the organisation who delivers Lifeline's suite of services across the Northern Rivers, New England North West, Hunter, Central Coast and Sydney's Eastern Suburbs. Michael resides in Lismore.