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Community Connections

Lismore floods: ‘We escaped with our lives’

After her Lismore flat was flooded in February, independent disability carer Lauren De Groot is living in a borrowed caravan with her young daughter, Freya. Her losses are mounting up. Just last year she lost her house in a fire. What is it like on the ground in north-eastern New South Wales at the moment, especially for a single mum who has lost all her worldly possessions?

Please tell us who you are, and a bit about your background.

My name is Lauren de Groot. I am the solo parent to my three-year-old, Freya. We lived in Lismore CBD prior to the February flood. Both myself and daughter were born in Lismore base hospital.

I was an independent disability support worker and had recently (previous three months) started running a preschool art class at home. In addition, I like to read, sew and we created a self-sufficient recycled garden on our rooftop. The Monday after the flood I was about to start a new job with an online bulk food store.

You’ve had an incredibly rough 12–18 months. Going back to 2021, what has happened to you and your daughter?

When our previous rental was sold in mid-2019, we moved to a granny flat in Jiggi (near Nimbin) for about six weeks. Just prior to Christmas 2020, we moved to a one-bedroom apartment in Lismore CBD. In the middle of the night on January 11, 2021, I awoke for seemingly no reason.

By a stroke of luck, or perhaps survival instinct, I wandered into the kitchen only to find the entire room ablaze. I bolted back to our shared bedroom, grabbed Freya and rushed out the front door and down our balcony steps onto wet grass, screaming my neighbour and landlord’s name. I remember watching one of our two cats running in panic behind us. The other had been on the bed at my feet and was nowhere to be seen. But I didn’t have time to ponder his whereabouts.

Moments after my feet touched the grass the gas bottle in the kitchen exploded and the entire house was engulfed in flames. We escaped with our lives.

We then spent three months couch surfing until we found another rental property in Lismore CBD. This apartment was flooded a few weeks ago.

We heard you on the ABC’s Radio National describing how terrifying it was when your rental property flooded, and you survived only because of a kayak.

On Saturday, 26 February it became glaringly obvious Lismore and surrounds were going to flood. My landlord assured me the previous 2017 flood had not come anywhere near our upstairs apartment.

He didn’t specifically tell us to stay, but I had spent three months couch surfing after the fire and did not have any desire to camp out in someone’s living room again, despite numerous offers extended by friends well into the night.

By 4am, the water was lapping at our feet. Fighting a swirling current that threatened to suck me into the chaos just outside the gates, I swam out into the driveway to grab the kayak before it floated over the fence. We watched cars, large appliances and trees smash into each other and the surrounding buildings. And still, the water continued to rise. I dashed between rooms trying to lift our precious possessions I had just spent the past year slowly buying post fire.

Eventually I carried my daughter out to the kayak that I had tied to the clothesline with the longest electrical cord I could find. I put on her flotation device for the pool and we both donned bike helmets in case the electrical cord snapped, and we were thrust into the raging flood water.

When I had rescued the kayak an hour earlier, I naively assumed we might use it once the flood risk had died down, perhaps to evacuate and visit some dry friends when the cabin fever inevitably set in after a few days trapped inside without power or water. Instead, it became our life saver. We sat in that kayak for six hours surrounded by a torrent, frantically calling the SES and then eventually my closest friends and family to say my goodbyes.

I listened as friends choked out tearful pleas that we make it out alive and I remember asking my own Mum which fate she thought crueller – drowning my daughter myself so that she may die in my arms or the possibility of being separated and her dying alone and afraid, if the kayak was to be sucked into the current once the water rose higher than my makeshift tether.

As my daughter slept, I scaled the neighbours’ roof, waved flashlights at passing helicopters and wrote a giant ‘HELP’ on a spare sheet from the cupboard. In between my panicked calls, both parents and several friends called the SES and 000 on our behalf. I pleaded with them to just take my daughter on a boat; she’s little – surely, she could sit in someone else’s arms. I was told “good luck” as I screamed “but we’re going to die” into the phone.

In between calls to emergency services, my parents were frantically trying to borrow a boat and eventually a neighbour loaned his. For two hours, my Dad navigated countless roadblocks and was able to get to Lismore – a trip that normally takes 35 minutes.

The sound of him screaming “LAUREN!” as he approached what remained of our apartment building is something I will never forget. As a parent, you never lose the desire to protect your children from harm and it is painful to acknowledge the trauma we collectively experienced that night. Just as I thought I would lose my daughter, my parents thought they were going to lose theirs.

You mentioned that it took you a long time to find the rental property, which was then flooded. How long did it take, and where were you before that? 

My daughter and I couch surfed for approximately three months before we found the now-flooded Lismore apartment. We’ve sadly had experience with domestic abuse and this experience only further fuelled my determination to find a safe, long-term home for my daughter.

I was only able to secure it because I offered to pay a substantial amount of rent in advance. I am grateful my relentless phone calls asking about the status of my application did not deter my landlord and I strived to be a wonderful tenant for the duration of our stay. Had this flood not occurred, I had no plans to leave. My daughter was on a shortlist for a wonderful school just a block down the street.

In terms of your personal possessions, what have you lost? And how can you quantify how it’s impacted you and your daughter mentally and emotionally? 

Unfortunately, it is the same, if not worse than our 2021 disaster. I have lost all of our material possessions, including appliances and kitchenware. Nothing was salvageable and even if it had been, I had nowhere to put it. We spent a week cleaning the apartment and then I was forced to vacate.

The loss of the possessions is difficult, and I am feeling defeated in the face of such a vast material loss, particularly so soon after the fire. I had not even been able to afford to replace everything from that first disaster so in a way having so little was a silver lining. Many wonderful friends and strangers were able to wash clothing for us though.

Mentally, I waver between strength and exhaustion. The community response was wonderful but fleeting after the fire. I know a sole occupant disaster versus the loss of an entire town cannot be compared, but I still feel a need to act swiftly to secure all the assistance that comes our way before it is inevitably revoked – as we have already seen with some charity organisations exhausting their allocation of funding well before each flood-affected person is offered assistance.

This ‘hustling’ as my friends affectionately refer to it, is exhausting. On top of the mental load of sole motherhood, I am now responsible for finding us a new couch or bed to sleep in every few days, attempting to navigate the ridiculous and often contradictory red tape that stands between so many of us and much-needed funds. In fact, the entire process is demoralising and defeatist.

I wave my opinions around like a petulant child on national television whenever I am invited, so that the Northern Rivers community may stay prevalent in conversation across the country and people realise we still need help – a lot of it! I can’t even begin to describe the impact this latest trauma has had on our emotional states. I may not be able to put words to those feelings for some time. Even 14 months later, I still haven’t managed to access the appropriate therapeutic support I really needed after the fire. We are living in a donated caravan in a caravan park and I cannot lock the doors for fear of the van spontaneously catching fire. So, I stay awake all night to ensure no one breaks in.

Likewise, I fear cooking and the gas stove. I fear the rain that pummels the soft top roof at night, the wind that threatens to tip the van on its side. I wonder how I might pull her out if it does. I cannot relax, cannot imagine a future where something else doesn’t threaten her wonderful existence. I realise all this, and I fight with myself constantly to allow her the freedom she needs and deserves despite my constant anxiety. It feels like an uphill battle but I know I cannot give up.

What are your experiences trying to access services? 

I booked this caravan park because it was a requirement to have short-term accommodation booked for everyone in the affected household in order to access government rental support. I have since been denied that support on the basis that my apartment still looks habitable. Ironically, that payment was denied on the very day I couldn’t go into Lismore to take more photos of its empty shell as the region was experiencing its second flood event.

Thankfully, the wonderful owners of The Crystal Castle in Mullumbimby (who donated the van we are living in) have also offered the use of their private land for the caravan. Prior to this incredibly generous offer, I had no plan for our immediate future short of couch surfing – again.

If you think about not just your own situation, but also that of other single mums in your region, what do you want to say?

Unfortunately, my experience is far from being an isolated case. For many, seeking secure long-term housing is the most immediate challenge. People need appropriate government support in order to avoid reliance on unsafe ex-partners or sleeping rough with their children.

We need urgent housing solutions. Women and children are being shunted from one short-term stay to the next.

They are fighting disempowering red tape in order to access basic funding that is quickly being eaten up by mounting displacement costs like petrol; the loss of work; extortionate temporary accommodation prices; loans to replace flood damaged cars and other possessions. Our children are scared and confused, unable to return home or to school.

Obscenely, flood victims were placed into housing arrangements far away from their support networks in the region, so holidaymakers could enjoy this area over Easter. Once the national spotlight and immediate crisis intervention inevitably dwindles, what will become of these women and their children?

Over 2,000 homes have been condemned in the Lismore region. Many like me were already facing displacement prior to the flood, as long-term rentals became harder and harder to find. If you did happen to find a rental that allows a solo parent accessing income support payments, you were likely to be paying close to double the price from five years ago.

How will women who were already living on the poverty line scrape up enough for bond and a month’s rent, in addition to replacing all their essential household goods? Where are the alternative policies to negative gearing and supporting short term investment properties which could help them?

Mental health and wellbeing support will be needed for a long time. This means funding for long-term trauma counselling and specialist community services case workers and ongoing support groups.

We understand the evacuation centre seems supremely unsafe for women and kids. How do you reflect on this? 

Both local and federal governments were (and continue to be) negligent and inhumane in their lack of private, independent, self-contained accommodation options for two of the most vulnerable groups of people in society – women and children – in the wake of the February floods in Lismore and surrounding areas.

At no time would I have even remotely considered taking my three-year-old to an evacuation centre, purely because of the safety risk. As a single mother of a young child, I know the statistics and I ponder the risks every single day. I don’t want her to be exposed to violence, substance abuse, paedophilia. All of which there is potential for in a public space that hosts hundreds of evacuees.

Everyone deserves a roof over their head, especially after a natural disaster. But considerations must be made in the interest of our most vulnerable members of society. Single women and young children are two of these groups.

Proper emergency management in the future would ensure safe spaces for women and children. Preparations and responses must include making places safe for those who have experienced domestic violence or sexual assault.  It simply MUST be provided. A separate emergency centre perhaps?

Looking to the future for you and your daughter, what’s your ideal solution? (We read about you wanting to build a tiny home!)

In an ideal world, I would love to provide my daughter with the kind of security that every child deserves – a safe, long-term place to call home. I don’t (yet) have the funds but I have a plan to build a tiny eco-friendly home as a safe haven for both of us. I want to create a safe haven for other solo parents to come and stay, with particular focus on providing support for those fleeing domestic violence.

Is there anything else you want to add? 

Just immense gratitude for anyone who has previously called or found me on Facebook and sent messages of support, or positive feedback after my appearances in the media.

This article was first published on BroadAgenda on 13 April 2022. Photos: provided.

Words by Ginger Gorman, the Editor of BroadAgenda. Ginger is a fearless and multi-award-winning social justice journalist and feminist. Her book Troll Hunting came out in 2019, and she is the gender editor at HerCanberra.

Ginger hosts the popular "Seriously Social" podcast for the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. Follow her on Twitter.

BroadAgenda is Australia’s leading research-based gender equality media platform, published by the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation.

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