By Jeanti St Clair
I live in Lismore in northern NSW and in 2017 it was devastated by a major flood. Ex-cyclone Debbie had travelled down Queensland’s coast, into the Northern Rivers and hit with a vengeance. The Bureau of Meteorology reported 20,000 people were evacuated from Lismore and Murwillumbah. This flood was the first to overtop Lismore’s levee, which was built in 2005 to protect the town’s CBD. I myself wasn’t flooded but many friends were, and I was involved in the clean-up efforts.
In the years after, I had the urge to provide a space for community reflection on that flood and what we had learned. What I created became Flood Stories, a participatory audio storytelling project. I planned to open on the third anniversary but COVID intervened and it took another year until my artist residency at The Lismore Quad saw light.
Over nine days in April-May, a shipping container sat askew in the Quad as if dropped by flood waters, and people explored a suite of 10 audio walks about the 2017 Lismore flood, told from the perspectives of people who were flooded and people who helped in the recovery. Each flood story was presented as an edited audio recording I collected through a public storytelling workshop and interviews.
Inside the 20-foot shipping container, two racks of bright yellow raincoats ran along the walls; a pair of gumboots sat beneath each raincoat. In each raincoat’s pocket was a set of headphones, a small audio player holding one person’s flood story, and a mud map of the story’s walking route.
Visitors would arrive at the shipping container and dress in a raincoat and gumboots. Then following the directions of their storyteller, they traced a route of meaningful locations in the surrounding streets while listening to that story. When you put the Flood Stories “uniform” on, you’re acknowledging your part in the flood. By putting the raincoat’s hood up, and listening through headphones to that one voice, you can become immersed in the story. It’s a very intimate exchange. People often responded emotionally. Sometimes they cried in the happy parts about people’s recovery.
Recovery and well-being
I framed the project around the third phase of trauma recovery: reconnection and integration (Hermann, 1992). People are no longer defined by their trauma but can share their story without re-experiencing the trauma. The storytellers largely found the experience cathartic. Some had not properly grieved for their loss, and it was only after hearing their own flood story in recorded form were they able to cry.
Recovery and resilience were important aspects of the project. While each storyteller spoke about the devastation, they also told stories about the clean-up and community support, how they changed (and mostly this was a pathway to growth) and what we still needed to enact in terms of climate disaster preparedness.
Over 160 walks were taken across the residency. The sight of people walking in raincoats, singularly or often in pairs, became a talking point around Lismore. The installation became an opportunity for the broader community to reconnect around some key themes and learnings from the 2017 flood, and engage in story-sharing to aid mental health recovery.
Some walkers said people asked why they wore the raincoat and gumboots. When they explained they were doing a Flood Stories walk, the asker would jump in with “let me tell you my flood story”. Four years post-flood, the project was able to activate conversations about the flood, the town’s recovery and future preparedness: “What is your flood plan?” Walkers would also come back to The Quad and talk about their flood story, and about what resonated for them in the story they had heard.
Flood Stories was a Plein Air residency at The Lismore Quad. This is an open-air residency program that invites cross-discipline exploration across all arts forms and industries and encourages ideas to be tested in a public space. The project’s methodology was broadly inspired by the Empathy Museum’s A Mile in My Shoes project, which suggests an embodied-walking listening practice supports an empathetic engagement with the person’s story.
An online repository of the audio walks features on lismorefloodstories.net now the residency is completed. A montage of Flood Stories will be part of the 2021 Shine Festival in August.
Bureau of Meteorology, 2017. Tropical Cyclone Debbie, 25 – 29 March 2017, Summary, http://www.bom.gov.au/cyclone/history/debbie17.shtml, (accessed May 26, 2021)
Empathy Museum, A Mile in My Shoes, n.d., https://www.empathymuseum.com/a-mile-in-my-shoes/, (accessed May 26, 2021)
Herman, J.L., 1992, Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence–From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror, New York: Basic.
Lismore Flood Stories, 2021, Lismore Flood Stories, https://www.lismorefloodstories.net/ (accessed April 22, 2021)
Lismore City Council, n.d., The Quad, Plein Air Residencies, https://lismorequad.org.au/plein-air-residencies, (accessed May 26, 2021)
Lismore City Council, 2021, Lismore’s CBD Lights Up For Shine Festival, 18 February, https://lismore.nsw.gov.au/news/lismore-s-cbd-lights-up-for-shine-festival (accessed May 28, 2021)
Jeanti St Clair (she/her/hers) tells stories through audio, both as documentaries and audio walks. She lives in the beautiful Northern Rivers of New South Wales and is a lecturer at Southern Cross University in Lismore, Australia, where she teaches media and journalism. Jeanti is a PhD candidate at the University of Wollongong and is also an associate producer with Soundtrails. She researches audio walk design for transformative place-based experiences and is developing a model of practice around narrative and audio walks as a tool of recovery and reconciliation.