Flood-ravaged communities split amid backlash to temporary pod housing plan

A North Coast flood victim says it is “demoralising” to hear communities are protesting against the installation of temporary housing pods.

Lismore City Council has rejected a state government request to put the pods on sporting fields at Hepburn Park and plans to use a site in the hinterland village of Tregeagle have sparked a community backlash.

In the Byron Shire, residents voiced their opposition as work began to prepare a pod site in Station Street at Mullumbimby.

Denise Lowe has been living in a 3×3-metre room at a youth camp in Evans Head for the past four months after the home she shared with her son in Coraki was flooded.

She has repeatedly applied for a bigger temporary pod but says an administrative error meant they were only assigned a one-bedroom pod.

Ms Lowe said she was still waiting for a two-bedroom structure.

“Where I am at the moment, there are still 70 of us, from all over, that have nowhere to go,” she said.

“You can’t rebuild your life from here.

“I’m hardly seeing my son because understandably he doesn’t want to share a room with his mum anymore, so he’s spending most of his time at his dad’s.”

Ms Lowe said it was depressing to hear about people opposing potential pod sites.

“It made me feel like me, and everyone else who doesn’t have a home, like we’d been forgotten about or we don’t matter,” she said.

“Like we’re less essential than people being able to walk their dog in the most convenient location for them.

“Remember the community spirit of the flood, and remember the people that they felt so sorry for then are still in a bad place.”

This pod at Wollongbar could provide a home for up to two years for flood victims.(ABC North Coast: Emma Rennie)

‘Just not the option’

The NSW government has twice asked the Lismore City Council to allow pods to be installed on Hepburn Park at Goonellabah.

That request was rejected at this week’s council meeting after opposition from local sporting groups.

Far North Coast Hockey secretary Clint Mallett said the proposed site was a poor choice.

“We empathise with the situation that some people are in — it’s a sad thing for some people, but this has got to be looked at for all the community,” he said.

“To take away this space that’s used by hockey, soccer, cricket, Oz Tag, touch football, it’s just not the option.”

Three helicopters at rest on an oval.
Helicopters at Goonellabah’s Hepburn Park during a 2015 emergency.(ABC North Coast: Bruce MacKenzie)

Mr Mallett said the sporting fields were also important during emergencies.

“That’s where the helicopters land, that’s where the fuel trucks come, it’s a point where you can actually set up a base for emergency support,” he said.

“Fill it full of houses — well, that’s all gone.

“You can’t land a helicopter on the roof of a house.”

No suitable land

Lismore City Council general manager John Walker said it was difficult to find suitable land.

“We have worked tirelessly since the floods to identify all potential sites in Lismore that may be used,” he said.

“There were four sites identified and this is the only one that satisfied the requirements.”

A handmade sign protesting against a proposed temporary housing development on an oval.
The Tregeagle community says the pod site is unsuitable because it is home to koalas and too far away from services.(ABC North Coast: Hannah Ross)

At nearby Tregeagle residents protested against plans to use the local oval during the pod rollout.

Resident Christine Gibson said driving trucks onto the oval to drop off pods would destroy the only public green space in the village.

“They are going to bulldoze Tregeagle Oval, they are going to actually take all the surface off it, fill it with gravel and tar it,” she said.

“They’re going to [drive] semitrailers onto it, between koala native habitat trees, and they’re going to bring pods here to store them temporarily.

“They’ve made provision for it to be a village after they’ve finished with it as a storage facility.”

Two blonde, bespectacled women standing outside a brick house. One holds a document.
Tregeagle sisters Christine Gibson and Kerry Green say Resilience NSW never contacted them directly about the pod site next door.(ABC North Coast: Hannah Ross)

‘Time is running out’

Resilience NSW said it was up to the Lismore City Council to find a suitable sites for a pod village.

The disaster recovery agency said about 1,300 people were still in emergency accommodation after the floods, more than 400 of whom were from the Lismore area.

Spokesman Dominic Lane said existing pod villages at the Southern Cross University and Wollongbar were being filled as soon as each new pod was connected to utilities.

He said another site was desperately needed.

“We’re happy to explore all options with council but time is running out,” Mr Lane said.

“We need to make a decision soon, because people are getting impatient and obviously we will start to look at other areas to move to.

“We are trying to keep people as close as we can to where they were before they were so affected by the floods.”

A sign reading "I am love I am" wrapped around a construction site.
The proposed pod site on Station St In Mullumbimby.(Supplied: Byron Shire Council)

Meanwhile in Byron…

Preliminary work has begun on a site at Station Street in Mullumbimby despite concerns from nearby residents.

Steve Bellerby from the Mullumbimby Residents Association said the area was inundated during the recent floods.

He said there were fears that situation could be exacerbated during future flood events after a significant amount of fill was trucked onto the site.

Mr Bellerby said he recently met with Northern Rivers Reconstruction Corporation head David Witherdin to discuss the situation.

“[Mr Witherdin] said that it’s not an ideal site, but they’ve worked hard to ensure that it’s not going to adversely affect other houses in the area,” Mr Bellerby said.

“We haven’t seen that flood study as yet, but we take his word for it. 

“He’s quite confident that it’s going to be quite a successful site in the long term.”

A teenager puts his hand on his mum's shoulder. They are sitting in a cramped, dark room.
Ms Lowe and Josh are still in emergency accommodation in Evans Head after their Coraki rental property was flooded.(ABC North Coast: Leah White)

Ms Lowe said it was important to acknowledge that many people were still displaced in the wake of the record-breaking floods.

“Especially now that Lismore is coming back and the supermarket is open again, everyone seems to think that it’s all pretty much done and dusted,” she said.

“There are still so many of us still living scattered all around the Northern Rivers, and some of us even in Queensland.”

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