That which Runs Deep
During June, Mona explores how the issues rural Australian women care about have been dealt with in the Federal budget. This week, Crystal Corocher shares her observations about the human cost of natural disasters as climate change and the social crises facing us become more and more pressing. As she visits her home town in the Northern Rivers after it was ravaged by floods in 2022, she writes of how concerned we should be that this has become the new normal and the wariness that is needed in the wake of new budget promises.
There is an acrid smell whenever flood water subsides. It is the dying of things and the struggling to survive of others. This smell denotes the next phase of the catastrophe. The clean-up. The mending.
Like an open wound on the landscape, mud clings to trees and the displacement from the usual flow of life is evident on every torrent-scarred building.
Visiting home one year after the 2022 floods on the Northern Rivers, the thing that stands out to me is how this time, that scarring is also evident on people. When speaking about what has occurred and what is yet to be done, brows furrow deeply, eyes are tired; hearts are strained here.
Floods are a routine part of life in many areas of the North Coast, but as we know, there was nothing routine about what happened in February 2022. While the impact of climate change, infrastructure development and other potential anomalies are debated in the press and across councils, the day-to-day task of recalibrating life remains for residents. Even for the fortunate ones whose homes were unaffected, access to services, jobs, school, and activities are requiring ongoing hours of labour and patience to reclaim some semblance of normality.
Perhaps most concerning is access to homes.
The words ‘housing crisis’ are batted around so frequently in the media that we risk being desensitised to what those words actually mean. Housing – crisis. Shortage of rental accommodation and affordable property was an issue in the area before the floods and one year on, it remains a primary concern for the community. The median rent for a three-bedroom home in Woodburn is now $550 per week, up 25% over the past 12 months. With precious few options available, those listings pose a financial barrier to locals whose income has not increased to the same extent in the same period of time. Further to that, as businesses have been forced into extensive repair periods and widespread closures, job opportunities have decreased, further exacerbating the access and affordability issues.
There is a sentiment of disappointment here in the larger businesses that have ceased trade in the area. Bigger players, often with the backing of multinational or franchised models have packed up for good, while the smaller, often family run operations, are battling to remain. The longer term fallout from this is likely to be a further blow to employment opportunities for the region. So, a question to keep pressuring government at all levels continues to be – What will be done to improve housing affordability and long-term housing security?
A pattern emerged when I asked friends if they and their loved ones had found somewhere secure to be as the rebuilding phase continues. What I discovered all too often was if not themselves, then someone they know had been displaced with no known long-term solution. Oftentimes, this was the case for families who had been in rental accommodation prior to the floods and who have now discovered that, in an attempt to recoup lost income, landlords have increased rent once the repairs are adequate to relet the premises. This is a further complexity in the scope of locals finding affordable housing with a long-term outlook.
To be clear, this doesn’t make landlords the bad guys, and rarely was that inferred. More so, there seems to be an overall sense of disillusionment as to how the very fabric of this community - the people who have called this place home - will be able to continue to do so.
The sellers’ market hype that has reached such insanity that a garage space - yes, a garage - can be sold off for nearly 400K as a home in St. Kilda, demonstrates the scarcity of affordable homes in parts of the country that haven’t been smashed by an environmental disaster in the last ten minutes (accurate at time of writing, but with climate change – ‘eh, this could be inaccurate tomorrow), so what about the multiple areas that have?
Let me not take the shine off anyone who is clinking glasses after a recent real estate sale, because it is clear that there are many, many winners here. But at what point do we acknowledge the true cost of gentrification? The wave of homelessness and housing displacement that is an undercurrent to this bubble.
As this issue is being magnified on the Northern Rivers in the wake of the flood event, we can convince ourselves that the relocation of communities, and all that entails, with no clear end date, is a mere symptom of a disaster or - concede that it is a disaster in itself.
As property prices increase nationwide, compensatory measures are likely to fall short in providing a model for residents to relocate. And even if these measures were to prove successful, it doesn’t begin to take into account the secondary trauma of displacement that is compounding the healing process for so many – the human cost that can’t be measured in dollars, and won’t be remedied by promises.
What residents need is decisive and creative long-term strategies that take into account the uniqueness of the community here and the desire people have to continue living here; the dollar value of any funding commitment will only ever be part of the solution. Deliverability of support post disaster and the preparedness for climate disasters should be under much tougher scrutiny. As a new budget is handed down, the touting of millions of dollars can only be meaningful if the strategies and systems to deliver effective on-the-ground services can happen at greater-than-glacial speed. ‘Red tape’ was referenced as one of the greatest stressors to each of the affected residents I spoke to and fellow community members’ access to services remains an ongoing concern for many.
It is heartening though to see the cumulative effort of people power taking shape in every town now. With every sports club that welcomes back kids eager to play; with every community organisation that rallies and sustains; with every house that hums along with a daily routine that doesn’t involve a hefty schedule of painting, plastering and refurnishing, progress is being made. And a community that has been pushed to the absolute brink, shares these wins with one another.
Businesses are welcoming customers again and, like the vegetation that defiantly blooms darts of new life from the silt, there’s even new businesses opening their doors and chancing new beginnings. The intangible elements of this area run deep but are summed up as efficiently as possible in the word community. And that’s what people are trying to save now. That dying of things and the struggling to survive of others is much more than grass and trees this time; it is happening in ways that can’t yet be measured.
Crystal Corocher is an author, editor and lover of stories. She is proud to be an Australia Reads Ambassador and brings a bookish background that spans literacy education, library management and curation, in-house publishing experience and more. Crystal provides mentorship and manuscript assessment services to writers, as well as publishing her own children's books. Her non-fiction, short fiction and poetry feature in anthologies and on the Mona Blog.