Flood-stricken farmers are planning for recovery, but they need help
Primary producers from up and down the River Murray who have been affected by this summer’s floods will get together at a meeting in Murray Bridge this Friday.
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In the months before the River Murray floods arrived, Alex Westlake says, her family had constant contact from government departments and emergency services.
But since the day the levee broke, a month ago?
“No-one has even asked if we’re okay,” she said.
With their pasture at Long Flat completely underwater, the Westlakes have had to make life-altering decisions on the fly – in their case, investing considerable time and money in hand-feeding 2000 sheep on the high ground, at least until they found somewhere to agist them this week.
They’re not the only ones, either.
This Friday, at the Imperial Football Club in Murray Bridge, primary producers from up and down the river will get together to share their experiences and plot a course out of this disaster.
They hope the authorities will listen.
Levee failure took away farmers’ livelihoods
The fertile land behind the Long Flat levee had not been flooded since 1956.
Mark and Alex Westlake and their neighbours – including Ms Westlake’s parents – prepared as well as they could, enlisting friends and relatives to lay thousands of sandbags along the government-owned levee in 45-degree heat.
It wasn’t enough.
Water had been over-topping the levee on the Friday night; by the time they woke up at 5am on the Saturday, the levee had broken; by 10am the floodplain was full and the only access road was underwater.
In some cases, residents had an hour or less to pack their things and get out, with emergency services nowhere to be seen.
Since then those who remained have had to drive along the railway line at the top of the hill and walk or bike through their back paddocks to get in or out of their homes.
Unlike during COVID-19, isolated locals had had no welfare checks or care packages, she said – “we were left to our own devices”.
Only in the past week have residents regained access to their properties via the debris-strewn and still-closed Long Flat Road, as shown in the video below.
‘Let’s get together’
Friday’s meeting in Murray Bridge will give flood-affected primary producers a chance to take stock of their experiences and think about the road ahead.
Flood recovery coordinator Alex Zimmerman will be there, as will representatives of organisations including Livestock SA, the SA Dairyfarmers’ Association, the Department of Primary Industries and Regions and SA Power Networks.
Ms Westlake, for one, hoped our state’s leaders would come out to the Murraylands, visit people’s properties and hear about their experiences first-hand.
“They need to come and see for themselves the reality of this disaster,” she said.
“The impression you get by standing here is very much different to just reading about it or seeing on social media.
“They have to have conversations with us around the table and we have to problem-solve this together.”
The $75,000 grants on offer from the state and federal government would get producers through “a couple of months”, she said, but more help was needed – especially when it came to fixing the levees and pumping all that water back off the swamps.
If government infrastructure had not failed, her farm would still be dry, after all.
“This water will sit here until someone decides they’re going to pump it out,” she said.
“How long are they going to let us sacrifice our businesses until they make a decision?”
Attend the meeting: 11am-1pm at Johnstone Park, Murray Bridge; barbecue and drinks provided.
Get help: Visit the emergency relief centre at the Rambler Football Club, Le Messurier Oval, Murray Bridge from 9am-5pm most days, or 10am-6pm Tuesday and Thursday; call the SES on 132 500; or for mental health support, call Regional Access at any time on 1300 032 186 or visit www.sahealth.sa.gov.au.
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