Looking at the shock and rebuild after droughts, fires and floods
By Deb Gray
After much consideration and research, I discovered nothing compared to how this felt to live through. No matter how prepared our producers are for extreme weather conditions, they are never really prepared for the personal and mental toll it takes to put these plans into action and then begin the actual recovery process.
I cannot tell you how it feels to prepare your livelihood for these conditions. For the last five years, most producers have had to continuously borrow against everything they have worked for, to extend the overdraft and just “get through another year” to hand-feed stock or to truck in water to irrigate crops. The financial struggle of this keeps us awake at night. Wondering if it will ever rain. No amount of preparation was enough for the inevitable five year question “when will it rain?” predicament.
As vegetation increases and dries out due to the lack of rain, and back burning is no longer allowed to clear this up, we all knew what would happen eventually and in the summer of 2019/2020, it happened. Now whilst I do not even like the word “unprecedented” anymore, it is the only word to use in this situation. Temperatures increased, and no rain fell. It was only a matter of time, and in November 2019, we started preparing for the worst. The two years previous we watched our stock numbers slowly decrease due to the drought and made the financial decision not to continue to feed them, and most of our numbers had to go. Croppers had to stop sowing as many hectares as possible due to the cost of trucking water and this reflects our annual income. Whilst debt increases, income goes down, it’s now beginning to take a mental toll on most of us.
A bushfire plan
We all know what is coming next… fire. Once we had to hand over our bushfire plan to our rural volunteer fire chief, we knew the worst was going to happen. The mental anguish of “is this going to hit us or not?” is now answering the following question: rain is well and truly out the window.
Some producers and growers were hit suddenly with no way of preparing for anything, while others sat and waited for weeks on end with the stress of anticipation on their mind. Sleepless nights… along with days of clearing out rubbish that we all accumulate over the years, trying to build containment lines to protect what we can, filling gutters with water, mind you, that is now a precious commodity knowing that it will probably evaporate before it saves anything.
Moving all our stock in the hopes that we can protect them. Down low by the creek so they have water and what little grass is available. Doing as much as we can to prepare for the devastation that may or may not hit us is such a frightening experience. Stress levels rise, arguments between partners start as you are both navigating through uncharted territory. No one can prepare you for what is going to happen or what you can do to recover. Or what you will be left to recover with.
When you are told to evacuate your place of work, home, and life, leaving behind everything you have worked hard for, it is such an empty feeling. You do not know if you will see any of this again. You imagine your cows burning to death or suffocating as the fire jumps the valleys and sucks all the oxygen out of the air; imagine them gasping for air until they pass out and perish. Your home burning to the ground, your fences, your sheds, all your tools and equipment that you have spent the last 20 years building up being turned to ash. Nothing can prepare you for that. Leaving all your gates unlocked so if the worst happens volunteers (because you are too far away from any town that you only have volunteers and neighbours) can access your property and try to save what they can, you are now not only vulnerable to fire ripping everything apart but also thieves who sometimes thrive on these situations.
The effects on family
You make it out and go and see family, loved ones who put you up for a period of time all the while listening and watching the news and the worst part, waiting—waiting for the inevitable. Imagine putting your kids to bed and telling them you will see them soon, knowing that at any point in time, you will have to leave to go and either help save your place or see the devastation. No kid needs to witness that. Your kids are safe, but they have no idea if Mum and Dad will be. The effect of that lasts forever. Imagine receiving a text message from your energy provider saying that power has been disturbed to your premises and you know exactly what has happened. The fires have now hit your property. If it has taken out the power line, you know it’s already destroyed your fences on its way in. Straight away, you start thinking about the damage that will now unfold. If it’s hit the power line, it’s not far from the house, if it’s near the house, there goes all my sheds and gear. After that, if it is not contained, there goes all our stock.
The unbearable waiting period
No one sleeps, no one talks and the strain between the two people trying to work together is bound so tightly one of you can snap at any point and then no one will be on the same page. As soon as the roads are open you head back. You hope to god you will see your kids, family, and friends again. You hope that once the area has been cleared for you to return that you won’t be in that position. But no guarantees with fire. These beasts have a mind of their own. Imagine driving in and seeing 50% of your property destroyed and still smoking. Ground so hot it melts the soles of your farm boots. Imagine weather so hot and dry in the high 30’s with no breeze and just fire smouldering around you. Imagine not being able to breath and just seeing devastation all around you. You are in a good position though, the house and sheds are safe except for the hay shed, luckily though it was empty as we had no financial means left to fill it again after the 5 years of drought. Imagine seeing the last of the paddocks you were resting for 3 months through the last of the drought, nothing but smouldering earth, burnt so hot that it will be a long time before life is brought back into the soil, still burning around the edges. Your first thought is how the hell am I going to keep these cows fed and fatten up these calves on the ground to get them to market for some form of income. Imagine wondering where all your cows and calves are. Fences are destroyed, the smoke so unbearable and no power or water to the house as all this in the rural world runs on power. Imagine no internet or phone reception as we have no reception in our area and the satellite internet we rely on is now taken out by the lack of power. Imagine not being able to call your kids or your family to tell them you are ok. Imagine what effect that has on them also.
The inevitable next steps
No one and no amount of reading can prepare you for the next step. The winds come up and she blows back on you. You have a team of neighbours there to help, but nothing can prepare you for what is about to happen. Imagine you see it turn and take out the fence where your stock is looping, young calves with no better sense, men and women helping with water pumps on the back of utes trying to contain it. But when young calves run, their mothers go too. Again, nothing can prepare you for the sound of your cows and calves running into the fire and burning to death. Trust me, that sound will haunt you forever and it is not over yet. Finally, after 43 hours it’s out. The wind has died down and all the edges have been mopped up and we are now just watching for ember attacks or if the wind picks up again we need to be ready to run to the hot spots as they will start again.
The shock of what you have just witnessed can never be undone, unseen or unimagined. It causes a lifetime of heartache, hurt and pain. Not just for those living it, but for those who went through it from a distance. Imagine calling your kids, mother, father, and friends and hearing them say “Thank God you’re ok” after them thinking the worst. That stuff stays with you forever and you will remember every detail about it. Right down to the colour of your undies.
After the shock of seeing, hearing, and feeling what you have been through comes the worst part. Being resilient, being strong and being stoic. Those are three of the hardest traits to live up to because the hardest part is just about to begin. Recovery is a never-ending process. Trying to lodge insurance claims when there are 1000’s of people affected. Proving the damage. Imagine having to take photos of what is left of your stock that burnt to death. Yes, they need to see that for proof. Imagine having to keep reliving everything you went through for 6 months every day to try and get Rural Assistance Authority Grants, or Small Business Grants from Service NSW. Imagine having to survive for 3 weeks with no power whilst waiting for the power company to rebuild half the area. Imagine struggling to wonder how you are going to do any of this with little or no financial help and all these applications take months and that is if you are successful.
I ended up being in such a dark deep place from the effects of these disasters being drought and fire that my marriage fell apart and I was diagnosed with PTSD, as it just would never end. Luckily though with lots of help from my family my marriage was repaired, and my kids have now come through the other side also. No one can prepare you for that side of events. We can prepare for the actual disaster but the aftereffects, the stuff that the public does not hear about from us producers is where we hurt.
Rebuilding for the future
Believe it or not, 15 months later we are still rebuilding and recovering and that is most producers. The containment lines that the RFS put through at the time and tore down fences and tearing up pasture as they went have now started to revegetate with pasture and grass, but they now need to be undone and we will now have all that precious grass torn up again. We still have fences to rebuild and stock numbers to increase. The mental anguish that producers go through is nothing that can be described in any text. 15 months on, a lot of producers are now being swept away with flood waters. Here is the clincher, on your stock insurance policy it is standard for them to be covered by fire, theft, and vandalism, however flood is not covered. Unless you spend 3 times the amount to cover them for it.
To be still rebuilding from one disaster to be faced with another one immediately after is just exhausting. Premiums on insurance policies now go up due to all the claims in the previous year, stock numbers are decreased, and croppers are now faced with no chance of reaping anything they sowed in the last year which would have been a great season on the back of several depressing ones. I cannot begin to detail how they are feeling or how they will ever recover. Banks will still have their hand out for the loan repayments and whilst we are all in agriculture, we are high-risk and seasonal therefore our interest rates are higher than normal.
The resilience of a farmer
To go through something like this once in a lifetime is hard. To deal with several shocks such as droughts, fires and floods takes courage. Courage to admit when you need help. Courage to admit when you need someone to hold your hand. Courage to get back up and face another day. Us producers, we do it because we love life. We love the animals, our crops, our paddocks. We love helping the population be fed, clothed and sometimes drunk. That is our reward for standing back up and rebuilding and recovering. It is not easy, but neither is the alternative. Imagine hearing your fellow producer, who is a lucerne producer, has just filled his shed for the first time in 5 years now he has to set fire to it as it has been ravaged by mice and now flood water. Imagine seeing all your crops underwater and not knowing about your stock losses yet. That is the burden we all carry for each other. or help each other carry?
I hope this has given a little insight into what producers go through after the fire is out and the flood waters have washed away. Because those images you see on TV are only just the beginning of the story of an Australian producer.