How much trauma can a community bear?
In the past several years, the Mid Coast local government area has lived through its worst drought in recorded history, the worst bushfires in recorded history, and the worst floods in recorded history, all occurring hard up against each other, with a good dose of a global pandemic thrown in the mix. We can all admit we have had enough of living through historic events.
As we watch the people of Lismore and other parts of the north coast and Queensland go through the trauma of their worst flood ever, our hearts go out to them - we understand their despair, anxiety and fear. We have been where they are now.
While the scope of the Black Summer bushfires was massive in our area, our floods weren't as huge as what has unfolded north. But for the people who did lose homes, property and/or their livelihoods, in both the fires and the floods, the issues are the same.
And those issues have a flow-on effect through the whole community - homelessness becomes a much larger issue as those already homeless are displaced by those who are newly homeless. Domestic violence services come under pressure because trauma exposes the cracks in people's lives. The inability to get tradespeople because of the amount of repairs and rebuilding needing doing. And more.
For those whose personal property was untouched by disaster, a lot of us have friends, family and coworkers whose lives were personally devastated.
Our community still bears the scars of the fires and the floods. Many of us, myself included, can't smell smoke without becoming alert and uneasy, and wondering what is happening where. To this day, I get a visceral shiver down my spine when I see footage of fire. While driving to work every day, you can't miss the sight of ridges of trees that were so badly burnt they have not grown back, more than two years later.
On November 8, 2019, the bushfires that had been burning around us turned into a full scale emergency. Our region was the focus of national media with footage of the devastating carnage on TV screens everywhere, and we received help from people all over Australia for weeks, by way of donations of money and physical goods. We were humbled and so grateful for the help.
Related: Lismore: homeless, angry and hurting
But one month later, the focus shifted. The fires on the South Coast of NSW became the emergency, and the media, the politicians, and people's thoughts, moved on. We were forgotten about. When we see documentaries on television or when there is media talk about the fires, it focuses on the South Coast. It felt like what we had been through was obliterated from memory.
The recovery period started, and we were warned it could take years. But just as we were starting to catch our breath, COVID hit. We did not have time to emotionally and psychologically recover from the fires, before fear and anxiety ramped up over a deadly disease.
One year after COVID grabbed the national headlines and multiple lockdowns caused so much disruption, we were again hit with a disaster in the form of a flood. There was no warning, it came overnight, just as people are now reporting from the ground in Lismore.
Herds of cattle, in their hundreds, washed down the Manning River. Some went out to sea, and miraculously came ashore on beaches.
A whole house floated down the river - a video I took of the house being swept away from Mondrook poached by national and even global media.
Many buildings became uninhabitable, businesses closed down. Some moved to other locations in town, because they can't bear the thought of it happening to them again. People are still living in emergency accommodation one year later, while waiting for somewhere permanent to live.
Again we received help. The Sikhs returned with donations of goods, and the army came to town to help us clean up.
More recovery, more reporters using the word 'unprecedented', and more talk about resilience.
Resilience has become the catch word of the day. Programs and funding have come out of the woodwork to 'create resilient communities'.
May I suggest we were already resilient? We bounced back from drought, fires, floods and COVID. Not without casualties and scars, it is true, and many of us are tired, dead tired. Counsellors are leaving their profession, exhausted from bearing the weight of people's grief. Journalists, too, are seeing a decline in their numbers, with some having had enough of reporting on disaster and trauma.
However, as much as we think we are resilient, we wonder how big does a disaster have to be before resilience will suffer?
How many of us are having conversations about Lismore? We hear reports back from people from our region who have gone up to the Northern Rivers to help that what we see in the media is nothing compared to the utter devastation that has happened to Lismore.
Related: Floods 'Black Summer all over again'
We are told the entire town is obliterated. We wonder how a whole town of that size can recover from what amounts to annihilation. Is it possible? How do you provide somewhere to live for thousands of displaced people, when homelessness is already a big issue in regional and rural areas up and down the coast?
To be honest, there is guilt about being grateful that we dodged a bullet this time around - the predicted major flood warnings did not come to pass, the Manning River thankfully only reached minor flood levels.
What we are also feeling is sadness and compassion for Lismore and its people. We know what a hard task they have in front of them, and the issues they will face.
They will, like us, depend on each other as a community, and that is how they will recover.
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