Lismore's Long Road Back
Lismore is used to floods. It’s built in a natural basin at the confluence of two rivers, in a region where sub-tropical storms are commonplace.
But the events of Monday were no ordinary flood. The record water height in the Wilson River was, until Monday, 12.4m in 1954. In 1974 it reached 12.2 metres, and the floods in 2017 reached 11.6m.
The river peaked at 14.4m – a full 2m higher than the most severe flood ever recorded in Flood Town.
The Rain Bomb
On Sunday morning Lismore residents were busy moving their belongings to higher ground.
It felt like we were well prepared. A drive around Lismore at lunchtime with my son seemed to confirm those feelings: the football fields were under water, but the river was coping well, and the flood levee was not under threat.
Things deteriorated during the day. At 5.39pm phones dinged with first text notification from the SES. It said:
SES FLOOD WARNING EVACUATION WARNING for low lying parts of Lismore. Evacuations are likely sometime on Monday 28 February 2022. Prepare now.
Still no need to panic, or so we thought. Most people went to bed thinking they had done enough to protect their properties.
But during the night, Lismore and the surrounding area was hit by a ‘rain bomb’. Nearby Dunoon recorded a staggering 644mm of rain in just 19 hours. It all fed into the Wilson River and Leycester Creek, which come together at Lismore.
By 12.45am things were getting out of control. A new text message was sent out. This time it was in all-caps:
SES EMERGENCY FLOOD ADVICE. LISMORE IS ISOLATED. FOR YOUR SAFETY EVACUATE TO HIGHER GROUND NOW ONLY IF SAFE TO DO SO … LISMORE LEVEE WILL OVERTOP. THIS IS A LIFE THREATENING SITUATION! RISK TO LIFE IMMINENT.
The levee protects the eastern side of the river, including the Lismore town centre, but it also pushes water back towards the eastern side. The suburbs on that side – North Lismore and South Lismore, were soon inundated.
By 2.30am the water spilled over the levee, surging through city streets and merging with lakes formed by flash flooding through the day.
Over the next few hours, Lismore residents woke to water lapping at our gates, our doors, and our beds.
The following hours were sheer chaos. In the darkness and the driving rain, people stumbled out of the houses and wade through chest-high water.
The water had come in silently, stealthily, and quickly. It was much faster than anyone had anticipated . And now it was a race.
Across Lismore, people had to make a judgment: could they wade their way or, or should they stay and wait for help? They climbed on top of tables, they clambered onto their rooves, they rang 000, they posted calls for help on social media.
The SES was overwhelmed. They did what they could, and then more. Residents grabbed boats, kayaks, inflatables and joined the frantic search for people who were trapped by the rising waters.
A tinny armada set sail on the flood waters.
It was a morning of despair and panic, courage and determination. The only thing that mattered was getting people to safety.
Hundreds, if not thousands of lives were saved.
The Mountain In Front of Us
But now, as the waters recede, the bigger challenges begin. The floodwater mixed with petrol, paint, raw sewage, dirt and the carcasses of dead animals to form a toxic soup in the Lismore basin.
That taxic soup is now turning into a muddy toxic carpet over the entire city.
Supplies are running low. The Pacific Highway is blocked, so freight is struggling to get here.. There are huge queues at petrol stations. I’ve heard the council depot is running low on diesel. Incredibly, even after the rain bomb, our supplies of treated drinking water are running out.
All of this, however, pales into comparison at the possibility that many have died. I write, there have been four deaths confirmed. This is, frankly, no surprise. The elderly, the very young, the mobility impaired, and the plain unlucky were at extreme risk.
We must brace ourselves for more bad news as authorities continue a door-to-door search of residential properties.
In the immediate term, the Northern Rivers needs emergency assistance. Thousands need food and shelter. Hospitals are short staffed because many of their workers are cut off and can’t get in to do their shifts.
Now that the clean-up has begun, there is a mountain of rubbish building up on Lismore streets. Waterlogged furniture, broken whitegoods, sewage-soaked clothes, ruined toys and sodden books are piling up.
Where will it go? Nobody knows. Lismore Council needs to find somewhere to take all this trash before it becomes a health hazard.
Once we get through the immediate crisis, people will need somewhere to stay. There were precious few properties for rent in this area before – so where will everyone live now?
A solution the housing crisis will need to be found urgently.
In the medium term, we will need to rebuild our local economy. The business community is already punch-drunk from the 2017 floods, which were followed by bushfires, which were followed by the COVID-19 pandemic. And now this.
Insurance will be a critical issue. It’s already prohibitively expensive for many people. Parts of Lismore are a no-go zone for insurers, now insurers may deem the entire town to be uninsurable.
If so, will businesses choose to remain here? Will the town be viable?
And we also cannot ignore the need to manage the psychological ramifications of yet another disaster on the people of the Northern Rivers. The cumulative impact of the stress, anxiety and heartbreak of the past few years can’t be underestimated.
We can talk about how resilient our community is, but we must also be prepared to ask for help when we need it.
We all have a long road back.
By Stewart Prins