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Thursday, October 6, 2022

Flood-affected Lismore residents with nowhere to go return to homes deemed uninhabitable | NSW and Queensland floods 2022

Residents in Lismore have been left with no choice but to move back into their houses that have been deemed uninhabitable, with some sleeping on swags in mouldy rooms without electricity, as they are unable to find safe accommodation three weeks after floods devastated the town.

In South Lismore – a low-lying part of the town that bore the brunt of historic flooding this year and an area well known for attracting residents seeking affordable housing – Guardian Australia spoke with multiple residents who had evacuated town following the floods but had returned to their homes in recent days.

The State Emergency Service had deemed more than 3,600 homes across the New South Wales northern rivers region as uninhabitable and on Friday some residents were living in homes that had been as assessed as such.

In one case, a homeowner had returned to their property which had been condemned for demolition after being assessed as structurally unsound, and had warning tape erected at its entrance, however they did not want to be interviewed.

Some homes in South Lismore were swept off their foundations, but they remained intact, despite needing renovations and structural repairs.

A flood affected property, marked to be containing asbestos, in South Lismore.
A flood affected property, marked to be containing asbestos, in South Lismore. Photograph: David Maurice Smith/Oculi

Stories of residents living in unsafe housing follow revelations in Guardian Australia that motor homes intended for Lismore residents whose houses were inundated in the floods were lying empty because linen and water sources had not been organised, while housing “pods” promised by the NSW government were yet to materialise.

On Crown Street, the Lee family’s home was deemed uninhabitable after flooding rose to about chest height on its elevated top floor. The family of four hosted four neighbours on the Sunday that waters rose, and all eight had to be rescued by a friend who had a boat on Monday 28 February.

After evacuating, brothers Ryan and Evan have slept at a variety of places, including at their grandparents’ home and on friends’ couches. Their parents also leaned on family and friends for accommodation.

The Lee family home on Crown Street, South Lismore.
The Lee family home on Crown Street, South Lismore. Photograph: David Maurice Smith/Oculi

While they were able to rely on people who opened their homes to them, countless other residents also required temporary accommodation.

And so on Monday, after weeks of living in cramped conditions with other flood evacuees, the Lee family made the difficult decision to return to their home, despite its status as uninhabitable.

“There was nowhere else left to go, that is the only reason why we’re back here,” said Evan, a 20-year-old student, who was sleeping on an old fold-out camping bed made of steel, less than a metre from his mother, who was sleeping on a blow-up mattress.

Ryan, a 21-year-old labourer, was sleeping on a swag in the next room, while their father, Andy, was sleeping at his brother’s house due to a back problem.

While water was running, the Lees were unsure if it was safe, so were drinking bottled water. The house relied on a portable generator for electricity, and its mountain of flood-ruined possessions in the front yard was yet to be collected.

Ryan Lee stands next to the swag he is sleeping on at the family home
Ryan Lee stands next to the swag he is sleeping on. Photograph: Elias Visontay/The Guardian

“I’ve got no idea when it will collected, but hopefully it’s within the next week because it’s starting to smell pretty bad,” Ryan said.

Outside, the smell of dried dirt and sewage lingered. Inside, water damage and mould was evident. It was hot inside the rooms, and flood damage left it largely unprotected from the elements.

The family had been told it would take more than six months for their home to be rebuilt and safe for them to move back in.

Despite this, Andy said one benefit of the fact they had returned to the home was that they could protect against looters looking to steal donated goods, such as fridges and washing machines, that had already arrived at some homes.

The family were desperate for more secure medium-term accommodation and frustrated at the current options available to them. They had attempted to apply for one of the 40 mobile homes the state government delivered to Lismore for flood-affected victims, but had not heard back from the government.

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Regardless, the mobile units were not large enough to accommodate all four of them for multiple months.

The kitchen in the Lee family’s flood-damaged home in South Lismore
The kitchen in the Lee family’s flood-damaged South Lismore home. Photograph: Elias Visontay/The Guardian

“We’d prefer to live in a house somewhere together as a family, even if it’s in a different town up the coast. Anywhere really,” Ryan said.

Along their street and those intersecting, the story was similar. Piles of possessions remained uncollected at most homes, and stories of families forced to return were common.

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Looking over the pile of ruined possessions in his front yard, Andy noted that the house was not tied down to the bricks that elevate it, and only sat on them, and was concerned about its future safety. However, he counted the family as fortunate, as they had an insurance policy in place.

“We really are some of the lucky ones in a way,” he said.

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