Gary Shallala-Hudson’s Lismore home is a ruin.
Wooden floorboards sag with deeply-held water. Mould grips the corners of stained walls. A dark line a few inches from the ceiling indicates the high water mark. Gary surveys the damage as he boils a kettle from a single power point a helpful electrician managed to save for him.
“I had plans for renovating. Here were going to be floor-to-ceiling bookshelves,” he says, pointing to a void in the ceiling spilling out insulation.
Gary in his empty living room. The 28 February floodwaters reached the air conditioner unit in the background.
Gary’s staying in an acquaintance’s spare room. He says he’s applied for a mobile home offered by the NSW government, one of many stop-gap measures introduced by authorities in the wake of two devastating floods in the Northern Rivers region on 28 February and 30 March. It hasn’t come yet.
“I’ve got a couple of inflatable mattresses, and with some gas, a barbecue, a small fridge, I’ve got the makings of a small kitchen,” he says. “So I could go camping in here.”
Electricians help set up Gary with one working power socket, which he uses for this makeshift kitchen.
Twenty years ago, Gary endured a period of homelessness. He couch-surfed and moved often, before settling in Lismore in 2007. By 2013, he had taken out a mortgage on a two-storey weatherboard home near the centre of town, well above the flood level.
“I thought it was a huge achievement, I thought I’d never need to be homeless again,” he says.
“Now I’m homeless with a mortgage. Never saw that coming.”
Video produced by Gavin Blyth and Fintan McDonnell.
More than 4,000 houses were left uninhabitable across the Northern Rivers region after the floods. Of the 21,170 properties assessed by the NSW State Emergency Service (SES), a further 10,849 were damaged, and 8108 were inundated.
The Insurance Council of Australia says more than 196,000 claims have been lodged since February this year across flood-affected northern NSW and south east Queensland, all adding up to more than $3.34 billion worth of claims. The majority are still to be processed.
The federal and NSW governments have committed more than $3 billion combined towards recovery efforts, including relief payments for housing, farmers, the arts, Indigenous communities, and small businesses.
Gary says he has contents insurance, but he wasn’t insured for floods and has not received a payout. He’s received $20,000 from the state’s Back Home grant for uninsured victims of flood, $1,000 from the Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payment, $1,000 from his bank, and $500 from the Red Cross.
Gary with one of his hand-made guitars that he was able to save from the flood.
While he’s grateful for the relief he’s received so far, he says many in his position are caught in a bind; do they repair the damage and wait for the next flood, or pack up and move?
“I could rebuild the kitchen, re-panel everything, and then find out I’ve wasted all that time and money,” he says. “I’ve paid off half this house, and the redraw is the only resource I’ve got to recover from all this.”
“We’re never going to be able to raise these houses high enough for the kind of floods we’re going to be expecting from now on.”
A child’s doll among rubbish outside houses inundated by floods. Source: AAP / DARREN ENGLAND/AAPIMAGE
Lismore’s housing crisis
Lismore and the Northern Rivers region were in the midst of a homelessness crisis before the floods hit.
By June 2021, advocacy group Homelessness NSW reported more than 300 people sleeping rough in Tweed Heads, Byron Bay and Lismore and 250 people across the NSW North Coast were on the priority housing waiting list. The private rental market vacancy rate was 0.5 per cent.
Gary works as a peer worker with Social Futures, a homelessness service provider with four offices in Lismore. Those offices were also wiped out in the flood.
Social Futures’s CEO, Tony Davies, is a close friend of Gary’s. He says the organisation relied heavily on private rental markets to provide accommodation to vulnerable people.
“Before the floods, our homelessness service was absolutely at capacity. We’ve got hardly any accommodation we can put people into in the best of times,” he says.
“The flood has taken thousands of homes out of circulation – that creates incredible new demand for housing and support services.”
Tony and Gary playing some of Gary’s hand-made guitars.
Tony, a self-described “guitar tragic”, has been cleaning and re-stringing Gary’s handmade guitars – his most prized possessions – after they were damaged in floodwaters. He’s also provided some furniture to Gary as he tries to make his home liveable.
“Much of Gary’s life possessions had to be thrown out the window and put on the kerb to be picked up. That’s the story of thousands of people across the Northern Rivers,” he says.
“People on lower and moderate incomes are going to be affected first by climate change. We’re now seeing that here in the Northern Rivers.”
The Winsome in North Lismore, originally a pub, dates back to 1925.
Soup kitchen’s facilities destroyed
The Winsome sits near the junction of Leycester Creek and the Wilsons River. Housed in a grand former hotel, it was a hub of support services for the city’s most vulnerable; providing up to 75 meals a day, accommodation, in-house GP’s, financial counselling, and legal aid. Every Wednesday a choir performed on the music stage in the front room.
On the morning of 28 February, the Wilsons river next door rose more than 14 metres. Water completely inundated the building’s first floor, wiping out kitchen facilities, doctors’ consulting rooms, and furniture in the front room. The first floor was spared, keeping the Winsome’s accommodation rooms and wrap-around balcony relatively dry.
Mieke Bell inside the gutted ground flood of the Winsome and Lismore Soup Kitchen.
Mieke Bell, a volunteer of 32 years at the Winsome and its president, says most of their 18 residents were evacuated the previous day, but most of their facilities were destroyed.
“Our balcony actually became a safe haven. Survivors were able to be rescued and brought here by people with tinnies, before they were transferred to other boats that took them across the river,” she says.
SES rescuers used the Winsome’s balcony as a drop-off point for flood survivors on the morning of 28 February. Credit: Tony Batchelor
Mieke says a crew of tradespeople were in the middle of dismantling damaged walls – “which had turned to mush,” she says – when the second floor hit on 30 March and rose half-way up the ground floor. Close to two months later, repairs are slow-going.
“There’s a lot of goodwill to get this place together again, but it’s going to be some time,” she says.
‘Doesn’t feel like home’
Thousands evacuated the town after the first flood on 28 February and returned to find their homes damaged or inundated. Many stayed at the evacuation centre at Southern Cross University’s Lismore campus, before being sorted into temporary accommodation by late March by the NSW Department of Communities and Justice.
Many residents were sent to caravan parks and boarding houses, some far away as Yamba, 95km away, and the state government announced 2,000 temporary modular homes to be setup in temporary accommodation sites in the region. Other displaced residents moved into tents or spare rooms of friends and acquaintances.
Mieke says while her organisation is currently unable to provide its services directly, it’s gathering donations and organising volunteers to help people in the community get back into their homes.
“People have been sleeping rough, they still are sleeping rough in Lismore,” she says.
Mieke says Lismore needs more tradespeople to travel into the region to help repair the damage, but says finding accommodation for them is frustrated by the lack of housing.
“It’s overwhelming. I had this strong sense of people displaced, this feeling that this doesn’t feel like my home anymore,” she says.
William Gallagher and his dog Shelby were moved to a caravan park in Ballina after his home was completely inundated.
Life in a caravan park
William Gallagher, 66, has lived in Lismore for 21 years. Social Futures identified him at risk of homelessness, and found him accommodation in North Lismore. He moved in a week before the 28 February flood.
“I paid a fortnight’s rent to live there, and I didn’t even get to stay the fortnight,” he says.
On that morning, he woke up to find water around his ankles, and he gathered what little possessions he could find and escaped to the attic, along with his companion dog, Shelby. The water rose higher, and William called out for help as his attic filled up with water.
“I yelled out at a bloke on a canoe. He said the SES were just around the corner, and he’d go and get them,” he says.
“The SES boat turned up and I just grabbed my dog and we climb straight out the window, straight into the boat. As we left, I turned around and looked at my house – it was all underwater. If that bloke was half a minute later, I doubt my dog and I would’ve made it.”
William stayed in the Southern Cross University evacuation centre for weeks, before he was assigned a caravan in a caravan park in Ballina. He’s since found a new home in Ballina, but says there’s “not a chance in hell” of moving back to Lismore.
“Floods aren’t getting smaller, they’re getting bigger. Lismore’s going to be an undersea city. Why would you stay there?” he says.
“A lot of people stay there because they’ve got an emotional attachment to the place. You’ve got to be able to live, and you can’t live underwater.”
A Lismore resident speaks at a NSW flood inquiry meeting in Lismore in early May. Source: AAP / JASON O’BRIEN/AAPIMAGE
The future of Lismore
The NSW government has commissioned an independent inquiry into the 2022 Northern Rivers floods, led by engineer and scientist Professor Mary O’Kane and former NSW Police Commissioner Mick Fuller, to investigate the causes, preparations and recovery plans in place for future floods in the region. It’s begun holding town hall meetings with Northern Rivers residents and will deliver its final report by September.
In April, the Northern Rivers Reconstruction Corporation was established to manage the rebuilding of the seven affected local government areas – Lismore, Byron Bay, the Clarence Valley, Ballina, the Richmond Valley, Tweed, and Kyogle.
Gary says he’s heard talk in town of relocation, and land swaps for residents caught in the new flood zone – similar to a scheme in Queensland that saw part of the town of Grantham in the Lockyer valley moved to higher ground.
“The Lismore CBD would be great for that kind of thing, but I think we’re in for months and months of going back and forth between councils and governments. None of us really know where we stand,” he says.
“We’ve been good at rebuilding in the past, but it’s a small city where everybody’s traumatised. I don’t know how that’s going to work out. It’s going to be a very, very long haul.”
In 2017, Insight met older women at risk of homelessness, as the number of women accessing homelessness support was rising at a faster rate than for men.