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‘It just doesn’t work’

My latest for The Guardian. This story is just one of hundreds, if not thousands, in the region I call home. Thank you, Anna, for everything you gave for The Guardian’s rental crisis series

Months before thousands of people were left homeless because of unprecedented flooding, rental prices in New South Wales’s northern rivers were surging, largely driven by a pandemic-induced influx of families and young professionals from Sydney and Melbourne.

Anna Glanzen, 40, lives in Mullumbimby.

Her story

I’ve been living in this area for six-and-a-half years; I’m originally from Sweden and came to Australia 20 years ago. I’m a bush school mentor for kids and for many years I ran my own business. I earned enough to get by and loved it.

I’ve since chosen to homeschool my eight-year-old son and work one day a week in Brunswick Heads. We have our close community of friends and other homeschoolers nearby and my son’s father lives within an hour’s drive.

Until four weeks ago, we were living on a lemon myrtle farm near Lismore. We were given seven weeks’ notice to leave because the owners decided to sell – and then the floods hit, making finding a home near impossible. Before that, we were in a granny flat in Pearces Creek, where we were for 18 months. They didn’t want to rent any more due to fears of Covid.

I’m so sad for everyone who lost everything they own in the floods. I have been in friends’ homes cleaning up the aftermath with them; I’ve seen the devastation. My son and I didn’t lose our stuff – the water stopped below our hill – but it makes me feel guilty, trying to find a home when others have nothing. Our belongings are now in storage, but others have to start completely over. My heart aches knowing this. There’s so much grief and so many tears have been shed.

Every time we move into a new house, my son asks, “Do we get to stay in this forever, or is this just for a short time?” And I have to say, “I just don’t know.”

The budget

We need something of our own. And we have a cat, so pets need to be allowed – I promised my son that we would never leave our cat with someone else. My budget, $350 a week, is really pushing it, but could work if I live close to Brunswick and save on petrol.

I have been looking for a home for more than six months. It feels like there are a lot of people who have been escaping the towns and who are trying to move up here. All the prices for those who are already established here have gone up.

People would rather take a tenant with lots of money than a single parent. So many mums and dads I know have nowhere to go – how can you take $450-500 out of your budget for rent if your income [from Centrelink support] is $1,000 a fortnight? And then pay for food and petrol? It just doesn’t work.

The properties

People are getting ridiculous about what they are renting out. My budget’s always been tight but what I can afford has definitely changed. In the last couple of years it’s gone from being possible to impossible. You turn up to viewings and there are 50 people there. You wait your turn to see a tiny place that is dark and smelly. The demand is such that landlords can get away with it.

The flood means there are no rentals around. Even friends with bigger budgets can’t find anything and prices have actually gone up since the floods.

I saw a three-bedroom home in Lismore advertised for $1,300 a week. I looked at a granny flat in South Golden Beach that was $400 a week for a tiny little place with an unplumbed kitchen. The bathroom sink doubled as the kitchen sink.

In Lismore, one landlord wanted $360 a week for a dark granny flat at the back of a block, without a yard. It smelled like rotten fish. How bad was it when it hadn’t been spruced up for a viewing? And it still had a queue of people standing out the front. Sadly, I think it was completely flooded.

There was a great place in South Golden, but it was $450 and I couldn’t bring a cat. It had a mini kitchen and it was fresh, with a little patio out the front and one bedroom. There was also a great little container home on shared land in Wooyung for $350, but, same again – I couldn’t bring a cat.

The result

Through friends, I have found a small plot of land to rent in Mullumbimby and have been gifted a camper trailer for six months. A very kind property owner is charging me a minimal amount each week.

There’s no electricity and no water, so we’ll be living off-grid. I am building an outdoor shower and toilet and the camper is luckily quite big, with a kitchen and a bedroom. There’s even space for a sofa, which is amazing because my son loves curling up and reading a book.

I’m so grateful and relieved. This has potential. My plan is to save and build my own tiny home on wheels, so that we can drive away from any more floods. It’s OK to rough it for a while if it means I am building towards something that is ours. That’s the dream: knowing that our home can’t be taken away from us.

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Portfolio, Uncategorized

Rattled and stalked

My latest for Primer, interviewing Ellis Gunn about her experience of being stalked…

It was in a park in Adelaide, cherry blossoms catching in her hair, that Ellis Gunn’s world came tumbling down. The poet and furniture restorer had just dropped her son at school and was walking home when she heard someone call her name.

It was him. Again. A man who had approached her twice before and who had left her with a peculiar, uneasy feeling each time.  Perhaps it was his overfamiliarity with her, or his intensity.

Now, on this spring morning the man had cycled up beside her, and once again struck up conversation. Within a few moments, Gunn’s unease returned with sickening force; it was clear this man knew where she lived, her daily routine – even that she was a vegetarian.

Fear, like “rattling stones of panic” settled in her stomach. “On the surface he was behaving so casually, so normally… on the inside, I was freaking out.”

That morning, as the pair left the park, the man calmly cycled away. But later, he would show up again and again – at her house, at an auction house she liked to visit – and message her via email and Facebook.

Eventually, Gunn approached the police and later confronted the man himself, telling him to leave her alone. He did, leaving both relief and chaos in his wake.

Years have passed since that morning in the park – her three children have all left school – but its shadows have stayed close, demanding attention, nudging her to ask what exactly the “point of all that” was.

The result is her book Rattled, which is released this month and rewrites the story of Gunn’s life, piecing together previously unconnected episodes – an abusive former marriage, being harassed in a bar, along with being stalked – to uncover a thread of misogyny that will be familiar to many women.

**

Today, the Ellis Gunn who speaks to me on the phone from Adelaide couldn’t be further from the terrified woman she describes in Rattled. The gentle lull of her Scottish accent is calming to listen to, even over the phone.

“As women, we’re always told to look at ourselves when we’re harassed or when something goes wrong,” she reflects. Her own reaction to being stalked was to first doubt (“I tried to convince myself I was getting things out of proportion…reading things into it,” she writes), then, blame, herself (“Why on earth had I been so friendly?”).

Once she finally accepted that the man (who she refers to in Rattled only as The Man) was in fact following her, she became engulfed in uncontrollable, all-consuming fear – the kind of fear that gnawed away in the dead of night and left her trembling on sunny street corners.

Everything she knew to be safe and dependable – her home, her neighbourhood, her daily commute – became terrifyingly entangled in a psychologically exhausting game of cat-and-mouse.

“This idea that a stranger could just suddenly decide to follow me and there was nothing I could do about it and the police weren’t able to do anything about it – it changed my worldview,” she says now. “It just felt like I was living in a very unsafe world that I hadn’t fully understood.”

Should she have reported the man to the police sooner? Gunn reasons that unless you’re certain something suspect is going on its hard to tell someone to leave you alone the first time you meet them.

Instead, her advice to anyone being stalked is underpinned by the complexity of the problem.

Not only are there many kinds of stalker and stalking, but state and territory divisions make the process of prosecuting stalkers more fraught still, as police don’t automatically share details of criminal histories. Britain, Scotland in particular, has resource centres dedicated to stalking. Australia has nothing comparable.

In the absence of adequate government support, Gunn advises women to trust their gut. “Listen to that voice that says I don’t like this, I’m uncomfortable here, especially when it’s a stranger or somebody you don’t know well. If you’re thinking something’s not right here, then it probably isn’t.”

Besides addressing the failures around stalking legislation and support for stalkers’ victims, Gunn believes we need to unpick the social culture that allows this behaviour to happen.

In subtle ways, patriarchal culture is telling men that they’re entitled to sex and respect and adoration, explains Gunn.

The resulting culture of self-blame, of “just putting up with it” can only be eroded by awareness, she says. Her message to young women is to question things, to talk. She wants those conversations to be put the centre of sex education in schools. Awareness, awareness, awareness.

Towards the end of Rattled, Ellis reveals she has been diagnosed with stage four cancer – a diagnosis, she believes, that was not helped by her abuse. A newly milder course of chemo is keeping her alive for as long as possible. She’s taking things day by day, learning to accept. “This is just something I’m going to have to deal with,” she says. She is good at ‘dealing with’.

There is a sense, now that her story is public, that it is only a natural step in a journey that began decades ago. As a poet, Ellis has subtly jabbed away at the system for many years, taking aim at husbands who expect their wives to (in phonetic Scottish) “gie um hiz conjuggles” of an evening. And, while things have improved at breakneck speed, this week’s news of a British newspaper comparing a female MP’s leg movements in parliament to Basic Instinct has her dumbfounded.

“Still? Really?” she asks with a weariness that brings to mind social media posts featuring older feminists holding up posters with the words ‘“I can’t believe we’re still protesting this shit”.

Yes, she’s wary about entering the public fray – Twitter pile-ons and online abuse are part of the territory, she suspects – and anxious about The Man coming across Rattled and how he might react. But to finally speak and be heard, well, that’s something as worth fighting for as it is novel.

“Women have been encouraged to keep silent about this abuse for so long, it is empowering to suddenly be able to speak out about it and have people listen,” she says. “It’s not like I’ve never moaned about the patriarchy before.”

If you know someone who is being stalked or threatened please contact 1800 737 732.

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Portfolio

They did it themselves


There are too many to count and certainly too many to mention: when floods hit northern NSW, thousands of women and men suddenly found themselves in roles they didn’t expect.

They became rescuers, helicopter coordinators, accommodation hunters and food deliverers. They became the mud army, mobilised to leave thousands of homes as liveable as they were before waters rose on the 1st of March.

And they became part of the Koori Mail crew, flooded out of their Lismore HQ but fighting for Aboriginal communities and futures.

Some of these women generously gave us their time amidst the aftermath and exhaustion. Here are their extraordinary stories…

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Kate Noller and Pauline Allin rescued horses and livestock from the floods PHOTO Natalie Grono

THE ANIMAL RESCUERS: Kate Noller, 35, from Byron Bay and Pauline Allin, 37, from Broken Head 

It began with a single horse trapped in rising flood waters in Woodburn.

“A friend posted a heart-wrenching video of a horse that was drowning,” recalls Pauline Allin, who works in marketing and as a horse carer, of the moment she realised this was no ordinary flood. By the next day, she was coordinating a rescue boat helmed by friends including Kate Noller, the owner of Zephyr Horses.

They didn’t find the horse. Battling the sheer scale of the inundation, the trip showed them the enormity of what they were facing.

“It was very dangerous. We were capable, but the reason we had to mobilise was that we realised no help was coming, we had to do it ourselves,” says Kate. “We were not prepared on that first day for what we were going to see … we came back mentally shattered”.

It was the first of scores of missions into NSW’s decimated Northern Rivers region, where the pair have become instrumental in leading vets and farmers in the unfathomable task of rescuing many thousands of horses and cows.

They reunited a newborn calf with its mother four days after being separated and dropped hay where they could. But for every rescue, they watched, helpless, as hundreds more animals drowned. One farmer estimates that 70 per cent of all livestock in the region has perished in the flood.

The pair’s GoFundMe page has now raised more than $140,000, and their goal is to establish a taskforce to help avoid such deadly outcomes in future floods.

“We can’t prevent the rain,” says Kate, “but we are able to make sure that there are systems in place to prevent this from happening again.”

THE TECH HERO: Alisha Williams, 30, from Brisbane created a digital platform to coordinate the recovery.

It took Alisha Williams four-and-a-half hours to write the software that became central to coordinating housing and donations in the aftermath of northern NSW’s floods.

FloodsRecovery2022.com began as a way to support friends affected by the Queensland emergency, but when floods then ripped through NSW, the e-commerce business owner saw an urgent need for accurately connecting those who need help with those offering help. Learning the size of the task, she drove to Byron Bay, basing herself close to where the need was greatest, and started collecting a team of volunteers who now help her with every element of the job.

Her “bare bones” interface answered an enormous need: Within 72 hours, her site had 20,000 followers, with posts garnering 15,000 views each. It led to families being housed, counsellors being linked to victims and homes being cleared and cleaned.

“When you’re here and you see people in these communities, you see how much people desperately need each other,” she says.

She knows that need won’t dissipate with the flood waters – “because it doesn’t feel like anything’s under control yet” – but, like all of the helpers she has met, she suddenly finds herself far from her home and her business, working intensely with strangers.

“Midway through conversations with volunteers,” she says, “we stop and say ‘Isn’t this surreal, how did this happen?’”

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Sarah Black bushbashed her way to flood victims PHOTO Natalie Grono

THE PARAMEDIC: Sarah Black, 40, from Federal spent hours trekking through the bush to reach injured flood survivors 

When the emergency call came in, there was little Mullumbimby ambulance station officers could do to get help to Upper Wilson’s Creek.

A massive landslide had careened through Shafiqa Irwin’s home, crushing her ankles. The only road in was cut off by torrential flood waters and a fallen tree.

“I knew she was up there with some horrific injuries, I knew I had to try,” says paramedic Sarah Black, who monitored flood levels then, with her boyfriend, drove as far as she could before hiking through bush, skirting floodwater by following the ridgeline. More than three hours after they set off – and 13 hours after the accident – they reached the destroyed home and the cabin Shafiqa had been taken to.

“They didn’t expect us to turn up and they didn’t know anyone was coming. It was pretty good to see the look on their faces,” Sarah says of the moment she arrived. Even with a satellite phone, communications were severely impacted and a helicopter was unable to land. They left by road the following day when the water had subsided, and Shafiqa is now recovering at Gold Coast University Hospital.

Sarah is no stranger to working through natural disasters but says this flood is “beyond anything” she has seen. Mullumbimby has pulled together unlike ever before and, on her day off, Sarah and 30 other paramedics worked to help three colleagues who lost homes in Woodburn.

“The community response has been phenomenal,” she says. “It has blown me away.”

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Meditation teacher Jacqui Lewis marshalled the community to deliver aid PHOTO Natalie Grono

THE COMMUNITY CONNECTOR: Jacqui Lewis, 41, from Mullumbimby Creek marshalled volunteers to deliver aid.

“It was absolute carnage left, right and centre,” Jacqui Lewis recalls of the flood disaster that swept through her region. “What I was seeing was so horrific and there was no help coming. To say the stress levels were high would be a total understatement.”

On top of lost homes and injuries, there was no fresh water, electricity and potentially life-saving phones and internet.

With a team of volunteers, The Broad Place meditation teacher and mentor swiftly set up a triage system at Mullumbimby Civic Centre, working out how to dispatch help. It was ad hoc but effective: they organised helicopters, rescue teams, clean water and supplies. They raised many thousands of dollars and, critically, reconnected communities with communications.

She fought for media attention and reached out to Elon Musk via Instagram, eventually securing a donation of 100 Starlink satellite internet systems – an offer that was then stymied by bureaucratic red tape.

It seems a stretch from her usual role, but to Jacqui, the work is a “giant extrapolation” of her skills at a unique moment that has come to define the local spirit. “This community is like a big, beautiful protective web,” she says. “People go out of their way to help others. That’s rare in modern society.”

Her focus has now shifted to ensuring a failure of governmental leadership and crisis services in disasters is never repeated. “The Australian people have been so let down.”

This story originally appeared on Primer.

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Blog

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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