Please Stop Calling Us Resilient.
Overnight between Sunday 28 February and Monday 1 March 2022, Murwillumbah, New South Wales, Australia experienced an extreme weather event the experts would describe as a rain bomb. The torrential rain lasted for days and the deluge made its way down from Brisbane, Queensland, through the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales, before heading south along the east coast of Australia. It caused the river in Murwillumbah to rise higher than the catastrophic flood of 2017, only five years after what had been described as a 1 in 100 year event and the worst local flood in history.
This is my town.
We stayed up late that Sunday night in Murwillumbah. Intermittently, different phones in our house buzzed with flood evacuation orders telling us who must evacuate NOW. We watched the river levels on the Australian Government Bureau of Meteorology site. Updates every hour or so telling us how fast the river was rising. Unsettling. Frightening. It was like 2017 but faster, more shocking.
Messages were conflicting. Alerts became more urgent. Different messages arrived via our telecommunications carriers, Telstra and Optus. Lying side by side, my partner received alerts only for the Gold Coast as I received alerts only for Murwillumbah. Confusion grew. We texted friends on the lower ground. Texted friends with businesses in the town. Are you okay? Where will you go? You’d better go now.
We’ll be okay. We’ve put stuff up. We made it through the 2017 flood. The water stopped at the top step. We’ve put things on the table. She’ll be right.
The town was scared but confident. We did this already five years ago. It won’t be as bad. We were okay. We offered help and encouraged friends to evacuate. We did not believe that we could have a repeat of 2017. We never believed it would be worse. The reality of climate change. Politicians changed the parameters of the flood situation at every press conference. 1 in 1000, 1 in 500, 1 in 5000. Facts made of fairy floss in water, melting before our eyes.
After a fitful sleep in the early hours before dawn, we rose at first light on Monday to more evacuation alerts for surrounding towns. The cane fields and grazing land around our house were no longer a green, tropical vista dotted with cattle and views of a racecourse; instead, an inland sea. Brown water as far as the eye could see. Cattle perched on tiny islands of high land. Houses on stilts as if floating away.
The rain fell. More flood evacuation orders. This time for Mullumbimby. My mother’s old family home on a street named in the evacuation order. I rang her. It’s okay. The house has never flooded before. We’ve been there since the 1940s. It’s on the high part of the road. We were unprepared. We lost touch with the tenant.
Facebook became a torrent of calls for help. People ringing the State Emergency Service put on hold. Calls to triple zero telling them to call State Emergency Services instead. People desperately calling for rescue via Facebook and our community pages. And, the rain still fell. It fell harder than I can remember. So loud. As scary as rain can be. Memories of 2017 creeping in, taking me back to the terror of that time five years earlier.
A python climbed up to my window sill and froze in position as I stayed alone in my house up the hill. The snake stayed there for 48 hours out of the maelstrom below. Cement lids burst off stormwater drains. Water erupted metres into the air, like a volcano spewing lava. Street kids cheered with giddy delight at the spectacle as parents shouted at them to stay away from the vortex of water sucking into the earth.
Two streets above the mud river rising, water started to flow out of the earth on the hill. It raged down the hill, under our house. Brown, smelly water mixed with river water, mixed with sewage. Raging down the streets, out the hill, through the town. Water falling, water rising. I waded out through the torrent to a stormwater drain to see what was happening. The power of the water almost pulled me off my feet. Some hours later, an anonymous man battled up the street through the torrent and replaced the cement lid on his way past.
The levee on the edge of town was breached. South Murwillumbah became inundated; Condong too and Murwillumbah East. Water began to flood the town from the Commercial Road end. Water lapped the levee wall at the town centre, not two inches from the top. As debris washed past, the water lapped over and the town held its breath. Like waiting for a tsunami to wash the heart away. The Return & Earn recycling depot floated down the river.
The water rained down torrentially for the full day and night. The river peaked at 6.51 metres at 3 pm, but high tides were still to come late in the evening and the next day. Already past the height that shop owners had prepared for, desperate attempts were made as night fell on Monday night to raise artworks and store stocks out of the predicted path of water. It is hard to say how much water rained down on us, but I stopped looking once we passed 400mm in 24 hours on Monday morning. Newspaper reports say there was more than 770mm, but official meteorology records have a gap in the rainfall data where weather monitoring stations were destroyed. Locals described the rain and floods as biblical.
Survivor guilt. Community guilt. Fatigue. Grief. Rage.
Pick your poison. If you don’t have one, you have the other — then the other, then the other.
We left our houses in a daze. News trickling in of areas flooded, landslides, people trapped, families in cars at a standstill on the motorway, disaster up and down the east coast. Communications were cut. My phone stopped working for days on end. The national broadband network was interrupted. I got some Wi-Fi on my laptop and helped people try to match up with each other. A group of fifty people hiding under the art gallery were cut off from the town by the road washed away during the torrent. They were seeking family, friends, food and help. A person took a photo of note where they wrote their names and I put it on a community Facebook page to start matching people up to their loved ones.
I walked the streets on the first day. I hugged my colleague under her house as I saw a snake slither through thick mud out of her laundry. I did not tell her. I didn’t want to traumatise her further. Did you evacuate when we got the text to go? She did not get a text. She stayed in her house until darkness fell and a neighbour arrived with a kayak as the water was lapping at her front door a storey level up from the street. She trusted that she would get a warning. I did her laundry. I went to the chemist for her. I helped her to look back through her pile for items she might wish to salvage after the mud army threw all her mud-covered belongings on the road.
I wore my boots in the mud. I sat in the mud and water of my friend’s shop as we pulled out sodden tax records and stock. We laughed, we cried. We chortled hysterically when a broom got stuck in a sodden plaster wall. We ate food offered to us by the Hare Krishnas as we were covered in mud. We tried to eat without ingesting the filth. We breathed the fumes. We worked until our bodies ached. We built piles of debris as high as the awning on the street. People cried. People scavenged. Anger and sadness interchanged.
I worked in the donation hub handing out food, cleaning products, nappies, towels, everything. We accepted donations. We hugged shellshocked evacuees. We held the hands of children asking us why there were piles of furniture outside our shop too. We searched and searched through piles of donations to find the brand of nappy that their baby could use, the colour of a second-hand sheet that would make their child feel satisfied to be tucked into a strange bed. We organised hot food, snacks, tea, water.
I pulled up floorboards, carried belongings to the streets, comforted friends that had lost their lives. Helped people cope with placing their precious memories of lost loved ones on the street, now covered in flood debris and unsalvageable. Heartbreaking. There are no words for that feeling. I listened to stories of friends saved by jetski, friends saved by canoe, friends that waded out through the debris.
No one was prepared. Documents were abandoned. Medicines and scripts were forgotten. A week with no communication and failing infrastructure. Hours spent queuing as pharmacists tried to process scripts without staff, in flooded shops, with no technology. Electronic funds transfer payments were down. Automated teller machines ran out of money. I paid for people’s medicine in the line in the chemist with cash I had saved from birthday money. People cried and hugged. People swapped stories as they waited for their asthma puffers. People breathed in the mud particles as they dried out and faecal matter began swirling through the town with black mould spores.
I tried to get back to my day job. Our organisation’s warehouse went under. We lost our stock. I went to the warehouse to see the damage myself and cried for the loss of those around me. I walked to our post office. It was abandoned. Mud and rust in the post office box. The inside now piled on the street, like an apocalypse. Spiders ran from the piles and the water. They ran between my boots as I walked between the detritus of South Murwillumbah.
Spiders ran out from the piles in the donation centre as I searched for what people needed. Snakes and spiders climbing to higher ground and haunting my days as we are praised by the Prime Minister for our resilience.
I cried on the street as I wondered where our post would go now and what would become of our town. All facets of my small world were touched by the flood, yet my home was dry inside and I joined the masses explaining why everyone else had more of a reason to be impacted.
Everyone putting themselves on the scale of the right to break down, the right to accept help, the right to be sad. Flood survivors that have twice lost everything still refused the second tin of food because someone else might need it more, someone else will still be worse off.
Once the water recedes, things won’t look so bad. You’re so resilient. Aussies looking after Aussies. Things people say.
At night, every volunteer that I have asked cries. No one sleeps well anymore. We dream in fits and starts. I dream of snakes. I dream of spiders. I dream of piles of mud and not finding my family in a desperate hunt for help.
We are not okay. We are haunted. Whatever we do is not enough. We are waiting for someone to catch us all. Our souls are injured. The angels and helpers in Murwillumbah are broken but not going to give up. The evacuees are broken. They are shells of themselves. Young families that have lost EVERYTHING for the second time in five years.
We are all waiting to be able to hand over the organisation of the volunteer hubs, the donation centre, the cleaning teams to professionals, to the government. We would like a chance to sleep without terrible dreams. Kind people in the town have become entangled in the running of community volunteer hubs and do not know if they will be able to extricate themselves from the personal responsibility of doing so.
Please do not call us resilient as if we have a choice.
We just ARE. We just have to BE. We are human. We are a community that is picking up the pieces after we did it only five short years ago. We are TIRED. We are SAD. We are all full of love, as evidenced by not a single person trying to get more than another. People turning down help from the community.
Someone told me today that being soft is my superpower. I am soft and I am hardy, but please do not call me resilient.
What can you do? Contact your local members. Ask for change. Ask for help. Ask why different councils are receiving different funding packages when our mud is the same. Consider voting the Scott Morrison government out in the next Australian federal election. Look at your options and ask what the government will do for your electorate if this happens to you. Donate to local community-based charities that are getting goods to locals on the ground where they need them. Large charities are getting money but locals don’t have the infrastructure to apply for grants nor the accommodation to live in. Reach out. Offer help. Send love and gift cards so evacuees can buy new things that they need, not second-hand clothes that you know are stained.
Don’t be the person that donates the almost empty tube of Goanna arthritis cream that you find in the bottom of your bathroom cabinet. Don’t be that person.