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Comms down: NSW Floods

I once spent a rainy weekend learning how to report from a hostile zone. 

On the evening the course began, a dozen of us sat around a camp table in a converted shed deep in the Kangaroo Valley, its concrete floor spattered with human blood from squashed leeches. The lights suddenly cut and firecrackers exploded behind us. When we eventually switched the lights back on, one of our number had disappeared – ‘kidnapped’ at the hands of our instructors. 

It was the beginning of a weekend designed to shock, if not convince. We self-consciously fumbled our way through exercises simulating hostage situations, being shot at, dodging improvised explosive devices and midnight dashes through hostile territory. It was all fabulously incongruous with the Porsche parked in the muddy driveway, Sydney a short, easy drive away.  

I did, however, come away with one important lesson: always assume a communications black-out. In war zones and natural disasters, more often than not, the reality on the ground is that phone signal, internet and 3,4 or 5G have been wiped out. I put the theory into practice just weeks later as I reported from flood-hit Dungog after 2015’s massive east coast low. Not only was it almost impossible to reach by road, but no electricity, phones and internet made getting any information in or out doubly tricky.

And here, right now, in NSW’s Northern Rivers, that lesson again rings true. On Monday morning, as reports of Lismore residents screaming from their rooftops for help started reaching the media, Facebook lit up with scores of messages of concerned family and friends pleading for news of their loved ones. People dropped what they were doing to reach the addresses that steadily landed on community pages, updates putting worried minds at ease. But by Tuesday evening, the internet had largely petered out.

SES and emergency services, not to mention community groups, live on social media. But with internet knocked out and patchy phone signals across much of the region, there is no way to remotely check where floods have inundated, which roads are washed away and to connect with communities in danger; there is no way to know who needs what, where and when. 

Beside the urgency of the immediate need – whole towns devastated, thousands without homes and clean water – a comms black-out poses an added layer of chaos across the region, even for those who now face nothing more inconvenient than canned fruit and muddy gardens. 

We are all hugely and overwhelmingly dependent on one thing: the internet. Without it, the systems we’ve created to make life easier end up, well, making life harder.

Where there are shops still open, no internet means no payments by card. Which in turns means a run on ATMs. Non-retail businesses that depend on the internet – most, that is – have gone AWOL. At the pharmacy, e-prescriptions can’t be processed. At the doctor, the Medicare system can’t be accessed. School is closed and NSW’s online remote learning modules sit untouched. Thousands need and want to help, without knowing where to direct that energy. 

We’ve gone from the crisis of the pandemic, which gave us virtual hyper-connectivity, to another that removes that connectivity and replaces it with a strange and quietly unnerving befuddlement. We can’t busy ourselves with work, distract ourselves with Netflix, get bills paid. But we also can’t search for information about donations and fundraising. We can’t check if the motorway has reopened, where fuel is available or which supermarket hasn’t shut its doors because of empty shelves. We can’t WhatsApp relatives overseas – or friends down the road – to let them know we’re safe and dry. As one neighbour said, it is the first time in twenty years that he has not had the internet at his fingertips. 

Instead, the radio plays, non-stop. The local radio station does what it can to deliver vital information. A blind Jack Russell has been found and taken to a shelter in Ocean Shores. St Finbarr’s Church is collecting bedding and nappies. If nothing else, climate change poses a case for saving local news outlets – we saw it with the bushfires, and we see it again, now, as the region depends on radio to deliver news that matters.

And, things turn physical. Neighbours are dropping in on each other to check they are ok, having real conversations. Cafes are feeding cashless locals on trust. Where fuel is available, groups of friends are driving cars and boats to affected areas and taking help to those in need instead of waiting for word to reach them. IRL, the community is taking initiative, bound by its isolation. Where small pockets of 4G are available, word-of-mouth spreads and cars collect, their occupants tapping on laptops in car parks and on curb sides, doing what can’t be done in person – or put off by a mega flood. 

Because what natural disasters show us in scary focus is that we have put all of our chips on the internet being there. Just always being there, dependable and wondrous and super convenient. Until comms are down, that is.

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