New South Wales communities are bracing for a months-long cleanup job that could run into the billions of dollars, as thousands of flood victims across the state return home to assess the damage.
Twenty-thousand people are still stranded and fresh evacuation warnings were in place Thursday evening for the Moree area, which was experiencing the worst flood in over a decade.
As floodwaters drop, the state’s mammoth recovery effort has begun, with insurance companies predicting the bill could top $1 billion.
Olivia Tape lives in Port Macquarie with her daughter. After the water dropped she started the Mud Army, so the community could easily organise the cleanup.
“There’s a lot of people who have lost everything,” Ms Tape said.
“There are people whose house foundations have shifted. And a lot of people just aren’t insured.”
She said the reality was that many people’s homes just aren’t liveable anymore – and they have nowhere to go.
Sludge has destroyed walls, sewage has covered carpets and residents are facing astronomical cleanup bills.
The community has come together, with neighbours who have lost everything helping each other, businesses sending their staff to help out instead of coming in to work, and restaurants feeding volunteers for free.
“They’ve just rallied together to look after each other. They just want to help,” Ms Tape said.
It’s not clear yet how many houses have been destroyed in the floods, but thousands are returning home to devastation.
NSW SES Commissioner Carlene York said there were a number of areas around Taree, Kempsey and Port Macquarie where water had receded to safe levels, allowing the long road back to begin.
“There are many supplies being loaded onto helicopters and our boats to go out to those communities, and restocking some of those supermarkets, which is good news,” Ms York said.
“Today, we’re really about the resupply, we’re really about making those areas in Grafton and looking after those people that have been evacuated overnight, making sure they’re safe and looked after.”
A spokesperson for Resilience NSW, which will lead the cleanup, told The New Daily crews had been mobilised to these areas.
“Early recovery has commenced with equipment and crews mobilised for the cleanup,” the spokesperson said.
Cleanup assistance will be provided to flood-affected residents, businesses, primary producers, and councils – regardless of insurance status, the spokesperson said.
“The priority of the clean-up teams will be ensuring roads are accessible, making places safe for people to return, assisting with washout, and removing bulk waste to provide initial relief,” they said.
Premier Gladys Berejiklian said authorities were hoping more people would be able to return to their homes in the coming days.
“We appreciate it will be a very challenging time for people today and tomorrow as they go back to their homes and their properties,” Ms Berejiklian said.
Communities help each other out
Al Vos runs Al’s Bakehouse in Wauchope, which sits just 18 kilometres inland from Port Macquarie.
After the floods, he set out to feed the families that had been cut off from vital supplies.
“There was a couple of 100 families cut off in King Creek,” Mr Vos told The New Daily.
“We were asked if we would bake some bread, and my instant answer was, ‘How many, when and where?’
“They said 200, and it was a done deal.”
The loaves were delivered by the SES on boats to the isolated families.
Mr Vos employs 11 people, and said one of them had to canoe to work, while an apprentice dodged branches and sludge when driving in on Thursday morning.
“I know of about four homes lost but we don’t know how many exactly. There’s still information coming out and people still stranded,” he said.
“But the community is helping each other out and that’s a good feeling.”
Residents in flooded areas are being warned against complacency, and to stay clear of floodwaters that were not only unsafe but could contain debris and harmful contamination.
Acting Director of Environmental Health Dr Adi Vyas said returning home would be distressing for many people.
“We want to remind people of the need to be safe when cleaning up their home to protect their health,” Dr Vyas said.
Dr Vyas said it was critical that people cleaning up after flood damage always wear protective gear, including gloves and face masks, and be mindful about drinking their water.
“Start drying out your property when safe – remove carpets, mattresses and other wet furniture; check behind fridges and cupboards and wall and floor cavities as mould or mildew can develop,” Dr Vyas said.