On the sidewalk in front of the local music shop in the town of Mullumbimby, Australia, two women in short overalls and t-shirts wipe down ukuleles and violins and place them carefully atop their canvas cases to dry. A parade of a hundred or more instruments — drums, tambourines, cellos, xylophones — line the sidewalk and back alley taking advantage of today’s robustly sunny weather.
Flood volunteers, like many of the clean-up workers in the local stores, the women stop occasionally to talk to locals who manoeuvre their way around the instruments with great care. As important as clearing out the moisture and the mould, hearing is healing. Everyone has a story — their own or someone else’s.
Someone’s 70-year-old neighbour nearly drowned, clinging alone and terrified on the roof of her house for hours when the storm first hit and the town lost power and phone service.
Some families are sleeping on concrete floors, refusing to leave their homes. Hundreds of other newly homeless adults and children are sleeping on donated and makeshift mattresses in the local community hall. Nobody has been able to reach others stranded in a damaged road — by either phone or vehicle.
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A woman in the coin laundry lost her home and her wallet and is using the laundry to clean her few remaining clothes at the invitation of the owner. She urgently needs underwear.
The laundry only had water about a foot and a half up the wall. I look around at the wall to floor industrial size washers and dryers and worry about the electrics, but they only lost two machines and the rest are humming with life as locals try to rejuvenate their remaining wardrobe. Many homes have lost power — and those that do have it, it’s often not safe to use.
WiFi, mobile phones and all payments platforms are also down here and in every store and petrol station from here through to the main town of Byron Bay central it’s cash only. For any stores lucky enough to have stock left to trade, it’s a tough hustle with clothing or hardware competing in a cash-starved town with basic food and medicine. But the open stores are a hopeful sign, a signal that some things were preserved in this record flooding disaster. And they provide a kind of entertainment for the newly homeless.
The rainstorm may have past, but in its wake is layers of mud and dust
“The worst part is afterwards,” my neighbour tells me. After the rain comes the mould and damp, gastro and skin infections along with a plague of mosquitos and leeches, she says matter of factly. “Boil all your water and avoid breathing the dust — it’s toxic.” A farmer’s daughter, she’s seen flooding and rain damage many times.
“Never like this,” she says. “I spoke to someone who has been living here 70 years yesterday, they’ve never seen flooding like this in all their days.”
“We thought the last one was bad four years ago,” the music store owner quietly admits. “That one was the worst in 40 years. But this one’s worse.”
He has only been back in the store since yesterday — he was marooned some miles up the road where most of his neighbours lost their homes and many are still unable to leave.
Almost a third of his store stock has been damaged — hundreds of thousands of dollars lost forever in the rising flood waters. Last night at 2am, after spending the evening cleaning out the store, he discovered he was not insured for flooding.
The music store is iconic. Even a blow-in from Sydney like me knows that. I’ve been local for a pandemic year. Long enough to know even through lockdowns that the storekeepers and their teams are the beating heart of this town.
During COVID-19, many of them wore their own hearts on their windows, walls and sidewalk signs. “No masks, we don’t ask,” or “All welcome” during vaccination checking periods.
When the government introduced face masks, few wore them. When that requirement was lifted, the masks came out everywhere. They came off again when the mask mandate returned. Nobody tells Mullumites what to do.
But the pandemic is yesterday’s news and when the community needs help, this town excels. There’s a steady bustle of movement around town that’s almost cheerful. Nobody has handed out instructions; people instinctively know what to do, what to say, who to speak to.
“They’re in the swing of it,” my friend tells me, as if this organised operation is something people do here regularly. I feel a kind of outsider’s awe.
When I ask how I can help, the team at the local community centre send me inside for a mop and bucket. “Grab some clean-up equipment and find someone who needs help.” Before I get a foot inside, the woman running the inside operation steps into my path eyeing me suspiciously.
“They told me to grab some cleaning equipment,” I say, hesitantly. It did seem a little random. I motion inside, but she’s not letting me past the door. I peer over her shoulder and see a hall brimming with organised piles of stock. Mattresses, Blankets, pillows, clothing shoes on one side. Medical supplies, bottled water, toiletries, toys and games on the other. And cleaning equipment to her right. Hours of work. Thousands of contributions. Hundreds of families are still sleeping in the community spaces, their homes gutted and unsafe. Any army of local volunteers are at work inside the houses, mopping, cleaning and gutting them so they are safe to inhabit.
The supervisor looks concerned. Is it me? Maybe I don’t look like I can swing a mop. I still feel like a tourist in a foreign city. One that doesn’t speak my language. My clothes feel too clean. Everyone’s in their oldest clothes, cleaning clothes, and gumboots. I dressed to feel better about the day, but am I wearing my privilege?
After the deluge
It’s my first day back in town — two days after the deluge, when the water at the base of my street stops looking like a fast-moving river. Everyone here seems to already have at least a day’s work behind them.
I brave the trip into town in my little VW beetle; an inappropriate car for the weather, or the roads I’ve discovered. It’s already nursing a cracked front wind shield and smells of damp. The small wheels and low suspension are no match for a slippery backroad. But it’s a retro convertible and I have had my fun weaving my way around these magnificent hills, so busy looking up at the mountains I fail to notice the cavernous potholes. Those potholes appear everywhere after the rain, like melted honey comb.
We were lucky to be on a hill and our house is fine. Buying high was no accident. After retreating from Sydney after the recent bushfires with one eye on climate change, I was taking few chances with the weather.
I’ve found it hard to fit in here — especially in the pandemic. And even harder to understand what motivates the community. The true locals. All this comes rushing up at me as I stare into the community hall organiser’s face.
“It’s just we have so little cleaning equipment,” the Civic Hall duty officer explains.
“Oh, I say,” relieved it’s not me.
“Why don’t you walk around and see if you can find someone that needs help, then come back for the equipment?” she says.
I check the white board signs outside. To the left is a list of addresses that need support or cleaning. To the right is the day’s menu of requests — and an even bigger list of what they don’t need. “No more bedding, clothes or hot food.”
It’s good news, yet I am disappointed — my car is filled with blankets, pillows, kid’s pyjamas and toys.
I wander the main street peering into stores — trying to find someone who needs a hand. Most people are sweeping and sorting. Half of their goods are on the street. The local charity shop has stripped its contents bare and teams of people are sweeping inches of mud off the concrete floors and into the gutters where it will eventually turn to dust.
“Do you need any help?” I ask one of the sweepers. “We’re good for now,” they say.
“We already have a lot of help,” they say in the clothing store next door. The same in the linen store. The bookstore is gutted, every book is turned out on the sidewalk. Even in this emergency the books are thoughtfully arranged in case someone wants to rescue it. Nothing is wasted here.
I ask the local charity shop if they mind if I take a few photos for a story I am writing to bring attention to the impacts of flooding on retailers. “The media don’t care about us here,” one of the women says. I tell her Mullumbimby has been in the news a bit; my friends have been messaging me, when they can get a text through. She looks surprised. Then she asks my name and introduces herself and her friend by their first names. I wonder if it’s because I have crossed some invisible trust line and whether that is a good or a bad sign.
I drive around the streets to see how the residents have fared.
Just outside of town, leading up to Mullum’s famous ‘Love’ sign, the Paddock salad store and café are bolted closed. There’s no sign of activity on the property, where local lettuces, pumpkins and cucumbers once supplied the town. Sunflowers too. I hope the woman who runs the Paddock is okay, and not trapped somewhere in her home. She feels like a friend now. I remember she was opening a new shed behind the shop in March. We were dreaming of holding some speaking events there about sustainable living. Now she will be rebuilding her store for months, if she even has the will to keep it. Even before the flood, heavy rains had washed out most of her lettuce stock for weeks.
All the homes in this street have turned out the insides of their houses onto the pavements. Mattresses, sofas, toys, children’s car seats, carpets and play equipment condemned to a premature gave. It’s like the world’s biggest rubbish day; a scene from a third world country. I wonder about how the council will deal with all the toxic waste.
Young men in ragged singlets and shorts weave their way cheerfully around the rubbish, moving between houses. It’s day three and as many of the houses have been gutted, repair work is going on so residents can safely move back in.
‘For Sale’ signs hang forlornly off the front of a couple of houses. In more optimistic times, these properties would have cashed in on the race to regional living. Now they are swamp sites, with risk stamped across them. One has a sold sticker plastered across it and I imagine the real estate agent and the buyer’s lawyer engaged in heated dispute about taking possession of a damaged property.
Beauty in the chaos
The next day, I come back to town to try again. On the whiteboard, beneath the words “what we really need” are the words “gumboots, gumboots, gumboots and children’s asprin”.
A man with a whiteboard eraser is already taking things off the list to his left. A host of scribes are busily scribbling new support information on another sign.
I have those things. All of them. I race home to collect the supplies before the board changes again. This time I am allowed into the hall to distribute my supplies. It’s a storehouse worthy of a war effort. I resist the urge to take a social snap. I watch the hum of industry inside, there are dozens of workers moving around the piles of supplies like actors on an Opera stage. I feel a rush of envy. There is so much beauty in the chaos. These people will be connected by this experience for the rest of their lives.
I stop at the pool shop to test my pool water — which my friend said with its green tinge looks like an infection risk. The store manager is selling pool chemicals to a tanned local.
“I was in Lismore helping three people clear out their house,” the local says. Longing for connection, I venture in.
“How bad was it? Overall, I mean,” the journalist in me stirs.
“It’s … just so devastating … it’s too traumatic to talk about it,” he says, looking down at the floor. “All the shops have gone. All of them. And most of the houses. There’s no food and all communication is down.”
After a few minutes silence, all of us staring into the blank space of the store, we slip back into pool talk. “You’re looking good,” says the pool store manager pulling out the PH reading and handing him a bag of chemicals. “Thank you,” says the tanned man with a wink as he leaves the store.
Cheerfulness, like grumpiness, is currency here.
Outside the store, a tired looking young mother sits in her car outside the council office. The car is packed with bedding and clothing. The song Don’t Worry, Be Happy song blares from her car stereo. She sings along with her son. I wonder how many times she’s played it today. We catch each other’s eye and smile. I have a daughter and I understand the desire to keep children’s anxiety at bay during these times.
Mullumbimby is the biggest little town in Australia — at least that’s what the sign boasts when you drive in. Population 3600 and swelling as a result of people like me moving here from the suburbs of Sydney and Melbourne. The wreckage affects every resident and business owner. Nobody’s lives will be the same.
Driving home, I resolve to return to see what the community sign says they need tomorrow. And the day after that. Until the sign disappears.
The clean up effort will take months. Some damage can’t be fixed.
“This flood effort is a marathon not a sprint,” a local community leader posted on his Facebook page at the start of the flooding — back when we had internet connection and power.
For the first time since I moved here, I think I can be part of this community. But I need to keep showing up and one day I’ll make the right kind of contribution.
The flood has nearly killed the town, but I’ve never seen it more alive.
Mullumbimby is the kind of town you want to be part of when there’s a crisis. And with climate change hot on COVID-19’s heels, there will be many more of these. Here and across the country.