Jed Smith

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Dispatch from The Flood Zone

On the ground and sandwiched between two rising flood zones in Australia's worst flood disaster.

There is an intensity to the rain that is unsustainable, and this is as apparent as much to your logical brain as it is a deeper, primordial sense. Humans are wired to understand this risk. Most animals are. And in millennia gone by we simply headed for higher ground. But things are a bit more complicated now, and as much as the intuition says “Go”, the ego – the world you’ve around yourself – says “No, stay, this can’t be it”. Some had the choice whether to stay or go, others didn’t even get that. 

“It started rising on Thursday. By the time it started to rise it had broken down the road so we couldn’t get out.” Mark O’Toole led the local radio station from a 20 horse power tinny strapped to his roof. 

“We were stuck, we watched it come up from inland way first, it’s come up come to the house, the river has broke the banks, four or five hours it was nearly up to the roof,” he said. 

Mark had been in the boat for two days now along with his 78-year-old landlady, his disabled son, their pet dog, cat, and two rats. They hadn’t eaten in a day and a half, they’d run out of water earlier in the day, the elderly woman was without her medication, and his son was growing increasingly distressed. The night previous, the rising flood water had forced the boat out from under the roof and into the downpour. They spent the whole night bailing water from the tinny. 

“Lee Ann (the landlord) is having trouble breathing this morning,” he said. “She doesn’t have her asthma puffer, we haven’t eaten for a day and a half and we’ve got no water.”

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With the internet down and phone services cut to large parts of the region, the local radio had become the primary means of communication, providing wall-to-wall, 24/7 coverage of the unfolding disaster, including constant evacuation warnings, and people phoning into to try and paint a picture of the scene amidst the communication blackout. 

I haven’t been able to leave this property in two days and have almost no idea what’s unfolding beyond the rising floodwater in my front yard. Sandwiched between two rising flood zones in Wardell and Lismore, our creek – which is usually a trickle – is now a five-to-ten meter wide raging river rapid. And the rain keeps on coming. Harder and faster, hour after hour. Something has to give, and it does. 

Reports are trickling in via social media and the radio. Towns to my north have begun disappearing. Lismore, Mullumbimby, Brunswick Heads, Ocean Shores; all gone or inundated. The Wilson River has peaked at 14.9 meters, breaking the previous record set just five years ago of 11.7 meters. 

Further north, it’s a similar story. The Tweed River has burst is banks flooding Murwillumbah, Tumbulgum, Chinderah, Condong, and parts of the Tweed. But Lismore is the epicentre. This low-lying, well-known floodplain feels the force of these seasonal downpours unlike anywhere. Every 20 or so years it disappears completely – 1954, 1974, 1989, and 2017 were the others. Two record-breaking floods in five years, however, is calling into question the very existence of the town. 

Image of South Lismore in the wake of the floods.

Image of South Lismore in the wake of the floods. (Photo: Jed Smith)

As a floodplain, it is subject to the cheapest housing in the region and indeed the state. Naturally, successive neoliberal governments have decided it would be the ideal place for the highest proportion of public housing in the region, a disproportionate amount of welfare recipients, and all manner of people who exist in the margins of Australian society, including, but not limited to, a large indigenous population, a significant refugee population, a large homeless population, those on disability pensions, single parents, unemployed, mentally ill and drug addicted.

Many young and working class people have also been lured to the area by the cheap house prices but it’s a trap. And the people caught in it are the very least equipped – at least in the financial sense – to have to rebuild their lives over and over again. 

This makes statements like that by the unapologetically right-wing, christian, neoliberal, NSW Premier, Dominic Perrottet, that ‘We are in this together and we will get through this together’, particularly galling. Lismore is a den of inequity unlike anywhere in he country. Perrottet and the likes will never walk more than a photo op in their sodden shoes. 

As the catastrophe unfolded, the SES put out a call to every civilian with a boat to join the rescue effort, what would become known as the ‘tinny army.’ It rescinded that call shortly after as it became clear how dangerous the relief effort would be but it was too late.

The people had come together and a flotilla of support was making its way up river by boat and by jet ski. Surfing world champions Mick Fanning and Joel Parkinson were among them. As was Skegss bassist, Toby Cregan, who was among the first to put his tinny in the water in Mullumbimby. 

“It was pretty surreal,” he says. “Going down the laneways felt like going down the Amazon or some shit with bamboo going over my head and these tiny little rivers. I’m whistling out seeing if anyone wants to jump in and every time someone wanted. I did it pretty much the whole day.”

After two days of continuous rain and flooding, with no idea of what was going on in my immediate surrounds, I took advantage of a brief respite in the downpour to drive to a nearby lookout. What was an otherwise gradual, gravel incline now had big, raw splits in the earth’s crust running through it, threatening to split off and slide down the hill, as had happened around Nimbin and elsewhere.

I made my way slowly, keeping my tyres either side of the cracks, and trying to keep the crack as close to the centre of my car as possible. I’d eventually find a section of the crack narrow enough to get both tyres on the same side and edge my way across it. When I misjudged the width of one of the cracks I was forced to reverse back along the raw split with my rear wheel a meter from the edge of the ravine. 

I gasped audibly as I rounded the final bend and looked out across the valley below. What was once prime cattle and cane country now resembled a chocolate Sydney Harbour, broken up by a ridge in the distance, followed by more brown water for as far as the eye could see. Nothing moved. A mist settled in as dusk fell and an almost psychedelic experience took hold. What the French philosopher Immanuel Kant might have called, ’the sublime.’ A deep knowingness in the primordial recesses of my brain combining awe, fear, respect for nature, and a deep comprehension of my place in it all. That is to say, next to nothing. No more than an ant or an atom.

The water had stopped at my neighbours cane field about five hundred meters from my western perimeter, and maybe 200 meters to my north. The hill to my east had blocked the rising floodwaters now decimating Wardell. 

The respite from rain continued into the following day and as the sun came out many were lured into a false sense of security. The worst appeared to have passed but this was just the the eye of the storm. 

“These waters are receding around homes in Central Ballina so people are starting to relax a bit more here but there is of course a number of flood warnings in place,” an SES spokesperson explained on local radio. “It’s hard to take that so seriously because it’s now looking so sunny in town, there’s no rain, there’s no cloud cover in the CBD.

“It is deceiving this sunny weather against these warnings from the SES and Bureau of Meteorology. The threat is still here…people need to be vigilant, things can change very quickly, and people need to be prepared.”

As the volumes of water made their way down the river systems from the mountainous interior, they hit a big high tide coming the other way and towns along the southern end of the Northern Rivers began disappearing. Woodburn. Broadwater. Wardell. Parts of Ballina.

The usually placid part of the Richmond River running beneath the Wardell Bridge now churned with rapids resembling the Zambezi. It was toxic water, laced with fuel from submerged petrol stations; industrial and agricultural chemicals; all kinds of rubbish and debris; countless livestock, living and dead. 

It was the rancid smell of the river and a plague of flies that alerted me to its closing proximity on my house. As darkness fell I packed my car and my dog for the second time and fled to higher ground. Cars clogged the overpass with refugees from Wardell. A panicked mother along with her husband, children and parents, tapped on my window. “Did you come from that direction?” she asked, pointing to a cut road leading to Wardell. “Sorry, no,” I replied, as she spun on her heel and closed the door in my face. 

I woke the following morning to clear skies, sunshine, and, paradoxically, flood waters that were even closer to me, now on my back fence. Military and police helicopters cut lines back and forth across me as the scale of the disaster continued to emerge. A total infrastructure melt down had occurred. Fuel, food, and water supplies to the entire northern rivers had been cut. Shelves stripped bare once again. Barely a single petrol station with supply. Hour plus waits at the few that did.

Even evacuation centres had run out of food and water. Emergency services were so stretched people in places like Wilson’s Creek and Main Arm (Mullumbimby) were now entering their sixth and seventh days cut off from civilisation. A fuel spill in south Lismore was threatening to ignite sending alerts, via Instagram, to evacuate.

Animal carcasses were washing out of the river mouths onto beaches in Byron Bay and elsewhere luring in sharks. Several cows and bulls had also been found alive and were now walking unaccompanied around suburban Coolangatta, Ballina, and Evans Head, charging at dogs, cars and members of the public.

As night falls, news comes through that the flood has peaked and the weather front that caused all this is moving south promising to wreak havoc along the all important supply route that is the Pacific Motorway toward Sydney. And now more weather is on the way bringing yet more warnings of flash flooding, hail and strong winds, sure to bring down countless trees.

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