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Success of Koori Mail flood response in Lismore prompts calls for First Nations first responders

When Lismore was hit with its biggest flood in recorded history, the national Indigenous newspaper the Koori Mail responded quickly to the needs of the community.

The newspaper’s general manager Naomi Moran said she was able to salvage laptops and hard drives, but the building and most of its contents were destroyed.

In the wake of the mud and wreckage, Ms Moran said they were forced to face the reality that for the first time in the organization’s 30-year history, they would not be able to print the next edition, and possibly several after that.

“We lost our building, we lost our first floor, we lost everything that the Koori Mail was for the past 30 years,” she said.

Floodwater reached just below the top storey of the Koori Mail building (the white building pictured).(ABC: Matt Coble)

Far from calling it a day, the organization pivoted and became a flood hub responding to the community’s needs for food, supplies, clothing and support.

“We came up with a strategy and some ideas around how we, as an Aboriginal organization – an independent organization and business in this region – could utilize all of our resources, our contacts in our networks, to support the local community,” she said .

A sign saying 'Koori Mail' at sunset
The Koori Mail newspaper has been at the forefront of the flood response in Lismore.(ABC North Coast: Leah White)

Government response an ‘absolute embarrassment’

In the days, weeks and months that followed, the Koori Mail team helped coordinate food, clothes, counseling and essential items for thousands of flood-affected residents relying on financial support from donations.

It was more than three months before the Koori Mail and the adjoining Koori Kitchen received any financial support from the government.

A woman serves food to people
The Koori Kitchen has been providing free hot meals to flood-affected residents since the February flood.(ABC News: Nakari Thorpe)

Ms Moran said while the financial assistance since June was appreciated, the newspaper had effectively been “doing the government’s job” for months.

“I think it’s an absolute embarrassment to the government,” she said.

“I think they have a lot to answer for, coming in the 11th hour, some months later, to support a community after we’ve all done the work.

“It’s actually been the community and the community groups that have carried this region through their time of crisis.”

A woman in a black leather jacket with black hair, big earings and red background
Naomi Moran says there is a strong case for First Nations first responders.(ABC: Matt Coble)

In a statement, Resilience NSW said:

“The first Recovery Centers were established by the New South Wales Government on 5 March 2022, providing food, access to accommodation and a range of other support services to any flood-affected community member.

“Recovery Centers and Recovery Assistance Points continue to operate across the Northern Rivers.

“Funding is currently available to non-government organizations (NGOs) across the Northern Rivers through a $13.3 million NGO funding package.”

Calls for First Nations first responders

When the NSW government’s independent flood inquiry held an Indigenous roundtable in Lismore in June, First Nations leaders called for government support to train and resource Indigenous communities to respond to natural disasters.

“We’ve been talking about things like a First Nations first responders unit,” Ms Moran said.

Three people sitting with notebooks in a room with big glass windows
Naomi Moran (centre) at an Indigenous roundtable hearing in Lismore with independent flood inquiry co-chairs Professor Mary O’Kane (left) and Michael Fuller (right).(ABC North Coast: Leah White)

“That’s probably the biggest seed that we can plant here today, is to take a look at what it means to support a group of Aboriginal communities, service providers and organizations to map out what it looks like to respond to our people immediately and safely in times of crises.”

The inquiry’s co-chair Michael Fuller told the Indigenous roundtable that training and resourcing communities to respond to natural disasters would be part of the report.

“The reality is communities will always do it better than government – ​​we see that in most disasters,” he said.

“But this point about training and resourcing communities – it’s not lost on us and it will be part of the report.”

That report was delivered to the state government on July 31 but has not yet been made publicly available.

Deputy Premier Paul Toole said the report would most likely be released “some time in the month of August”.

Doors closing for op shop and food bank

Aunty Rose Walker has been managing the mountains of donations through the free Koori Mail op shop, in the Koori Mail building, for almost five months.

“I wouldn’t be able to tell you how many people have come through here, but it would have been a lot,” she said.

The Bundjalung woman said without access to the free items, many flood affected residents – both Indigenous and non-Indigenous – would have been in dire straits.

A woman in a pink jumper with black and gray hair in an op shop
Aunty Rose Walker has been volunteering in the Koori Mail op shop since early March.(ABC North Coast: Leah White)

“You’ll see a bit of tears because it’s still affecting them inside… losing everything,” she said.

“Just to let them know that whatever they need, whatever we can provide for you, it’s here. Please, we are willing to give.”

Aunty Rose Walker has been a friendly face and a fixture in the op shop since early March, but after months of volunteering she’s preparing to take a step back.

A young girl in a pink jumper trying on a colorful hat in an op shop.
Aunty Rose Walker estimates thousands have been through the Koori Mail op shop since the February flood.(ABC North Coast: Leah White)

Ms Moran said there was additional funding to keep the Koori Kitchen running but they would look to wind up the op shop and adjoining supply bank at the end of August.

“Our volunteers are so exhausted,” she said.

“They’ve been with us side-by-side every single day. The expectation for us to have them continue on for, you know, another few months, we can’t ask that of them.”

Koori Kitchen future uncertain

What started as a box of produce in a tent beside the Koori Mail building quickly grew into a free food kitchen, supplying close to 2,000 meals per day to flood victims.

A white marquee with tables and chairs and people around
The Koori Kitchen is still providing hundreds of meals to flood-affected residents on the Northern Rivers.(ABC: Matt Coble)

The Koori Kitchen has been run by Chelsea Claydon and chef Izzy Walton who say that even five months on demand for the service is still high.

“We’re still doing 600 to 800 meals a day,” Ms Claydon said.

Next to the Koori Kitchen is the “Koori Coles”, where flood victims can stock up on free essential items.

Both have been made possible by donations, and more recently state government funding, but it’s unclear how long that will last.

Two women standing together, one blonde one black hair, produces and shelves behind them.
Chelsea Claydon (left) and Izzy Walton (right) have been running the Koori Kitchen in Lismore.(ABC: Matt Coble)

“I think we need to raise more money basically in order to keep feeding these numbers,” Ms Claydon said.

Ms Walton said the free meals were still an essential service in a town where few shops were open and people were struggling financially.

“A lot of them still don’t have cooking facilities at home, heating facilities at home, so I think it would be really difficult if we had to shut up shop,” she said.

Rekindling response above and beyond

Across town, Aboriginal health service Rekindling the Spirit has been on the ground since day one providing essential care to flood victims at a time when many of the region’s medical services were down.

Two women, both wearing masks, at a reception desk with Australian and Aboriginal flags in the foreground.
Georgina Cohen (right) is the CEO of Aboriginal health service Rekindling the Spirit.(ABC: Matt Coble)

CEO Georgina Cohen said of the three Lismore-based offices, one went under, the other was high and dry and the third, opposite the square Lismore Square, had water lapping at the street gutters.

“There was what seemed like hundreds of boats coming in… and staff were helping whoever was in need,” she said.

“On the Tuesday our power was restored and we were able to reopen the medical service.

A view out to a flooded street.
Floodwater reached the gutters around Rekindling the Spirit’s office on the corner of Uralba and Diadem St in Lismore.(Supplied: Georgina Cohen)

“The staff that were not flooded, and not affected with people staying with them after the floods, were able to come in and support any and every client, with appointments, with GPs via telehealth.”

The Koori Mail team and volunteers received the national NAIDOC award for innovation, recognizing their “coordination and leadership” post flood.

Ms Moran said she hopes lessons are learned from the Koori Mail’s flood response.

“What you see here is a community that can absolutely self-determine what it looks like to look after our people,” Ms Moran said.

Watch this story on 7.30 on ABC TV and ABC iview.

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