It took three days after the rescue to get back and assess the damage to my partner’s home in North Lismore.
It is at least still standing. Everything is brown. We make a bridge over the water-filled ditch by using muddled scaffolding and other debris. My partner, his friend, and my eight year-old son, climb over the railway tracks, and then into the backyard.
It’s horrible. It’s a mix of rotting rubbish, diesel, dust and mud. After such a devastating event, the sky is a beautiful blue. Although we are thankful for the sun, the stark contrast between the muddy landscape and the brilliant blue is quite jarring.
I wonder what’s happening in Ukraine. I had heard that Vladimir Putin might push the button. As if my brain can even think about that right now. I was engaged in geopolitics before the floods. But now, the war is in my backyard.
This is the best way to describe the scene. Sometimes you can’t even have a conversation because of the noise of the helicopter overhead, still rescuing people three days later. All around you are brown mud and dust, broken buildings, and scattered possessions, all piled and scattered across the landscape. But it’s the putrid smell that overwhelms every sense and we know it will grow in intensity as the hot day ferments the rotting detritus and vegetation.
We then proceed to the front yard, where we climb the muddy steps that lead to the porch. The smell is so strong that I almost vomit. The porch freezer has been broken and the contents are rotting. We go inside. We can’t even get into one of the rooms as the door is jammed. The house is littered with every piece of furniture, drawers, cupboards, fridges, washing machines, and other belongings.
The squeaks begin to sound. My partner sprints in, climbing over the furniture and bed, and Prince, our beautiful, long-haired guineapig, appears. Prince, his harem of young girls, is still alive. This small act of mercy breaks our hearts. We thought all the animals had died. Somehow the guinea pigs survived, floating to the ceiling in their tubs which didn’t capsize despite the 15m flood height.
Back out in the glaring sun, we don’t know where to start. It is overwhelming. Not only what we have to deal, but the whole situation: our neighbours, the destruction of our town, and the reality of a house thrown against the bridge. I think about the lady who was holding on to her house’s window for her life and wonder if she survived. The police don’t want us in the city centre today as they pull out bodies.
We were lucky we didn’t die. After climbing up to the attic to escape the flood, I called the State Emergency Service at 6 a.m. on Monday morning. But the water kept rising. After seven hours of waiting to be rescued, we hailed a passing tinnie driven by a local, Sandro – an unknown neighbour over the railway line.
Amanda and Sandro left their home to search for Diesel. Instead, they ended up saving more than 100 people that day. Aidan and Tim, our friends, also left their homes to rescue people. Despite being told by the SES not to use their boats for this purpose, they took to their tinnie. The two SES rescue boats couldn’t keep up with the local heroes. As Sandro took us to the nearest land, we saw roofs cut open where people had sheltered in their attics – only to realise that they would become their coffins if the water kept rising.
We drive through Lismore’s central business district – it looks as though it has been bombed. Businesses are stacking everything on the streets to make room for the rubbish collection. This will go on for several weeks and will look like a postapocalyptic horror flick.
Many won’t recover from this. Businesses are saddled with debt from the last flood and the preceding two years of Covid lockdowns; it’s too much to bear. My partner and I were devastated by the devastation caused to our beloved town by the 2017 floods. We are now numb to it. My son is in shock. He cries for hours, expressing his shock at the devastation inflicted on our beloved CBD.
I don’t know how we can recover. When will the next flood come – or will the bushfires get us next? I see on Twitter that the PM has Covid and is calling this flood a “natural disaster”. The government repeats this same narrative. It is not natural. This is climate change in action, and pretending we aren’t experiencing a climate catastrophe right now is dangerously irresponsible. Remember that we are only at one end of the hockey stick curve. Things are only going to get worse.
Lismore was a great place to live until the pandemic caused insane house prices. North Lismore was the most affordable, and it was a victim of the CBD levie rather than a beneficiary. It is also home to some of our most vulnerable members. Flood insurance is almost impossible for most people living on the floodplain. Premiums are close to $30,000 per year. This flood was more than 2m higher than the nominal flood level of one in 100 years, despite people spending more than $100,000 to increase their homes. For many people in North Lismore, this meant more than 5m of water on the ground, drowning homes, lives and people’s futures under a sea of mud.
We are at the threshold of climate catastrophe and it’s communities like ours that are bearing the brunt of it. It has not only smashed through our doors, but it has also poured at our doorstep. It has destroyed our CBD and caused the deaths of our loved ones. These climate disasters will occur more often, with more intensity and more deaths. We will also see more communities crumbling.
We set up a washing station right at the frontline in the climate crisis. Our neighbors, soaked in muddy water and soaking, stop by. Their boat capsized and they were left without their phones or laptops. We hug, adrenaline and shock are pulsing through us, preventing tears from starting to form. More rain is on its way. Maybe it’ll wash some of the dirt off the house, we say. No more rain. Please. I see that I have missed a call. I listen to the message, it’s the SES. Are we still in dire need of rescue?
As I write this, the fuel is out, the water is running out, and the only supermarket that remains has no food on its shelves. What is the government doing?