Debbie’s devastation drags on Coping with natural disaster
Long after the media attention moves on, those affected by the cyclone still have an arduous task ahead. This is one woman’s tale of living with chaos after the initial threat passes
THEY say insurance is for peace of mind. For me it’s been the opposite. Since March 30, when Cyclone Debbie’s tail dumped 38cm on our property in one day, sending a roaring cascade of mud and water through our bedroom, life has been a roller-coaster of emotions.
At first there is the adrenaline rush: Change the flow, stop the flood, shovel mud and rocks, block the gaping hole in the side of the house.
Then comes resignation and determination. We shift debris at our Blue Knob property, about 10 minutes north of Nimbin in New South Wales. We also clean floors, assess damage and pile wreckage.
The insurance company is prompt. After the mudslide on Thursday, a man turns up on Monday to tally contents damage. A structural assessor follows a few days later.
Both are reassuring with a clear plan: claim for damage, bring in a storage pod for undamaged items, lift wooden floors, dry out foundations, rebuild damaged walls and floors. Simple. The timeframe is two–six weeks.
That was 15 weeks ago.
At first we understand the slow progress. Half of Lismore has gone under. People have lost not just homes and possessions, but businesses and livelihoods.
We are patient. Our road, wrecked in the deluge, is treacherous in the wet. And it pours for days.
The insurance company moves us into a hotel in Lismore. Two rooms with microwave and fridge and a balcony looking down on the concrete car park. At least we are out of the mud.
Frustration strikes after a few weeks. Our claim, contracted out, is approved. Goods can be bought with vouchers from a list of preferred sellers. But what if there are things not available from the list?
Calls to the insurance company are wasted. A series of operators, put on to deal with the volume of inquiries, can’t answer.
Anguish, anger and arguments. My husband eventually finds a real person at the disaster recovery centre who organises cash for the things we can’t access off the list.
My gut and head are in revolt. My stomach is in constant turmoil and a rainbow serpent has started wandering across my field of vision, the first sign of a migraine.
In the following weeks we move hotels, into a single room with no cooking facilities. Then we move back.
A pod is dropped off to store undamaged furniture but, after weeks of sunshine, it arrives on a rainy day and is left 700 metres from our home, down a steep hill.
Seven weeks after the disaster, we go home to check progress and get into the garden. Our wooden floating floors have been lifted, leaving stinking mud on the concrete underneath. All the furniture that survived the mudslide is pushed against one wall, growing mould in the damp. The hole in the bedroom wall is still covered by the tarp we put up, though it has been pushed aside, probably by the bush rats that
‘‘ In the following weeks we move hotels, into a single room with no cooking facilities. "
greet us from the bathroom. I sit amid the debris and howl. I trusted the insurance company to know what they were doing, trusted they had a plan, trusted that our home would be cared for and mended.
No one seems to be co-ordinating. No one seems to care. In all this time, we are the ones doing the chasing and checking. Our claim has been contracted out, not to one but to multiple arms: the financiers, the builder, the disaster recovery and clean up, the pod people, the plasterer, the painter.
I fall into a hole. Getting up for work is hard and talking to people is harder. I suck myself down, feeling grumpy and disconnected. Sitting in cafes to get out of the hotel, I suddenly burst into tears.
Desperate, distressed and raw, I run. I head to my friend’s farm. I cook and read and play with her grandkids. I walk the hills.
My husband calls. They have to test for asbestos. There’ll be no work for a few weeks while the testing is done.
It’s another blow. I come back, feeling overwhelmed.
Life goes past in a blur. “Sanity” is escaping to Brisbane most weekends.
My husband asks the insurance company to put us up in an Airbnb, cheaper than the hotel and in a small town near Lismore, with a green outlook and space to cook a little.
At first they say no. As the weeks go on they agree. Fifteen weeks on, we inch closer to being in our home. Floors are clean for the new wood, walls are cut and removed ready for new boards. The gaping hole in the bedroom remains.
The mudslide took out our bedroom furniture, outdoor furniture and what was on the veranda; the long delays and poor organisation took out much of the rest. We have nothing left.
Instead of paying for six weeks accommodation, the insurance company has had to cover 15 weeks and counting.
Better co-ordination might have saved many of our household possessions and stopped this money bleed.
Escaping to Brisbane, the project manager on our build calls.
Floodwater tears through the Lismore central business district.