By Martin Byrne
Well, living in Lismore we are used to regular floods. Our house is built on stilts to the height of the 1974 flood level, and another annex to the 1 in 500 year level.
Prior to the 28th February 2022 I commenced my usual headless chicken dance of running around placing things up high (e.g. washing machine, pumps, tools, etc…), and tying things to trees and poles (e.g. rubbish bins, trampoline, garden bench, etc…). Cars were placed on hills, packed with camping equipment and clothes and other stuff just in case. Mower and ride on placed up high as well.
Every flood is different, and so no solace is ever sought by me from the BOM or old farmer’s tales of floods gone by.
I had an escape route this time, two kayaks tied to the steps railing.
Almost ready for the onslaught. Our daughter wished to stay, until convinced just before the last road closed, that not having a toilet and the internet could be inconvenient, and was taken to a friend’s house on higher ground.
Had a few scotches to help calm the nerves and off to bed to try to sleep, knowing things would look different in the morning. Sleeping was impossible with the rising water causing objects to bang against the house underneath.
By 1am it was on with the head torch and saw the water level was already creeping up the steps. By 3am Alex woke just as the water was about to top the top of the steps, and soon for the first time ever the water was entering our house. Both of us were busy moving things on top of cupboards and wardrobes. It was difficult to think logically as to what were the most important things to place in the attic (afterwards we made jokes about some of the things we had deemed important at the time).
The waters were rising quickly in the house, so we decided to sit up in the attic. The SES/000 were called who advised us to get up on our roof, and not remain in the attic. By 5am we were on the roof in the rain. We had a bag each of what we thought were essentials. I had some rain pants in the bag but was only wearing undies and a rain jacket. We both had umbrellas. I had to climb back into the flood waters to re-tie the kayaks to the aerial. Later I was dangling over the roof trying to free the kayaks being stuck under the roof or freeing the kayak ropes stuck under objects.
Life on the roof was quite surreal watching the world float by. I, impatient as usual, called the SES/000 several times in the 6 hours on the roof. They advised to stay put and not attempt to kayak to safety. Alex was patiently waiting on the roof, and was even taking calls from people. I was pacing the roof, shouting for help, waving my lime green umbrella at helicopters and passing boats who couldn’t see us. I was almost at the point of making a dash for it in the kayaks when a boat went across the cricket oval nearby. I shouted like a banshee (in my undies and waving the lime green umbrella) and a boatman heard me and had another boat come to us. Rescued, and taken a short distance to a nearby hill.
The boatman was very casual, and had come from Ballina, and had been rescuing people for hours in the driving rain. The boatman said “oh, you would have been sweet in your kayaks getting to this hill, as long as you didn’t enter the main river.” Damn, never listening to the SES/000 again!
What a surreal scene being taken to the hill just a 100m or so away with bedraggled wet people everywhere. One man with a dozen little yapping dogs that had been rescued, and seemed terrified. Someone offered me some wet trousers, which I politely declined. Ah, thank God our car was on that hill. Not the one with clothes though. Put on my rain pants, put the heater on, and Alex and I cracked upon a wee re-bottling of a Lagavulin 12 I had been saving for a special occasion, and I had a little nap.
Woken by Alex I don’t know how long later, “a boat is coming. “Back into the pouring rain with our bags and on to another boat. It was like a scene from Apocalypse Now, no colours, all murky greys, with boats everywhere with boatman looking for people. Google maps not working as houses flooded up to their apexes. The boatmen communicating using their mobile phones in snaplock bags. Shivering boatman braving the flood waters not listening to the advice of their emergency services to leave the rescue to them. “Duck, get down right inside the boat” the boatman would calmly advise, as a power cable would slide over the top of the boat. The boatman would lift the propeller as we rode over the top of the old wooden railway bridge. Streets and landmarks were virtually unrecognizable as we rode past. “hang on, we’re gonna have to gun it to get across the main river.” Across the raging Wilson’s river and through the CBD, past the shopping centre, and landed on the roundabout near Lismore Base hospital. Thank you boatmen.
Reflection: Upon reading the above I can see the hecticness that has been present in the experience. The fear, sadness, sense of loss but also the love present within the community to help each other through a traumatic time. It was a time of action. Action to save possessions, save ourselves, and to save others. However, how is a time to feel.