Lismore residents are living in limbo on the front lines of the climate emergency

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<p><figcaption class=Photography: Patrick Hamilton/AFP/Getty Images

In the rivers of the north, we live in the midst of post-flood brokenness.

For months, we were crushed by the incessant rain and the thick, low-lying La Niña cloud. Of the 24 weekends of the year, it rained on 19. Someone is counting the rainy days, but the weather here has stopped. Shops are abandoned and people are camped out in the husks of houses without walls or kitchens.

The cold is approaching – even cardboard is hard to find, because it can be used as makeshift insulation.

The Northern Rivers Reconstruction Corporation, created to lead the reconstruction, does not yet exist. It won’t go into effect until July 1 – 17 weeks after the floods.

Instead, we have questions. Different surveys that collect the same horror stories: the emergency services were flooded, there is a catastrophic shortage of housing, families live in tents without water or kitchen. (The latest SES figures say more than 4,000 homes are uninhabitable and another 10,849 damaged.)

An independent flood inquiry in New South Wales, led by a former police commissioner and scientist, is examining response times, preparedness, emergency resources and recovery. He will not report to the prime minister until June 30. An NSW Upper House committee is also investigating responses to major flooding, while the federally funded Lismore Flood Mitigation Study – looking at how to reduce future flooding – was halted because the signing of a contract between the CSIRO and the National Agency for Recovery and Resilience was paralyzed by the change of government in Canberra.

Related: Too little, too late: Australia’s disaster response has been… a disaster

It’s been three months since Marcus Bebb was ripped off the roof of his sunken South Lismore home, but he still feels trapped.

Bebb is caught between committing to rebuilding the family home (so his wife and three teenagers have a home) and waiting to find out if the NSW government will announce a property buyback. Prime Minister Dominic Perrottet said he would adopt recommendations from the independent inquiry, including proposals for relocating homes.

“I’m stuck in limbo,” says Bebb of the caravan he and his wife sleep in at the Lismore showground. Your teenagers have a second van.

He is insured but is reluctant to begin repairing the extensive damage to his home. “If the government finally decides that we are going to do a buyback scheme for the rivers of northern NSW, where does that leave me?” he asks.

The feeling on the ground is that the government has spoiled the emergency and now it has spoiled the recovery. We are the canary in the coal mine – a warning that most of Australia does not have the systems to deal with severe weather events.

Lismore only has a population of 27,000 and affected villages like Coraki and Woodburn are smaller, but what happens when a perfect storm – flooding or fire – exacerbated by climate change hits a densely populated area in Hawkesbury, Adelaide Hills or western Victoria? ? Will emergency response and recovery be better?

It is difficult to convey Lismore’s current experience. Only about 20% of businesses have reopened. Many people have exhausted their savings trying to repair property. “I think – bureaucratically – it’s not understood, the scale of the trauma,” Lismore Mayor Steve Krieg told the Upper House hearing.

Related: Fights erupted when the top-down approach to the Lismore flood response failed, the inquiry said.

Every time I drive around town, I’m reminded of CS Lewis’ description of “gray city” or purgatory in The Great Divorce.

“I was wandering for hours on similar streets, always in the rain and always in the twilight of the night. Time seemed to have stopped in that dark moment where only a few stores lit up and it’s still not dark enough for their windows to look lively,” he wrote.

“And just as night never turned into night, my walks never took me to the best parts of the city… I found only dirty boarding houses, small tobacconists, hoardings with posters hanging from rags, warehouses without windows, freight stations without trains… the city whole appeared to be empty.”

Is it an exaggeration to say that this new reality of climate change looks like purgatory?

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