A patchwork of stories about the 2017 Lismore flood
When we break into the house, a red plastic dog bowl floats down the hallway as if to greet me smoothly with a tragicomic one-liner. But you can’t be too humourless when the river comes into your house.
A corner of our old cathode ray TV rises from the brown water like an iceberg of obsolescence. It has come up so much higher than they said it would.
When we weave through the canopies in the boat, I can see the trees moving with creatures. Mostly rats, but if you look closely, you see strange insects you’ve never seen before. One had a lurid orange and green exoskeleton, like a Jim Henson creation. What underground den did it secretly luxuriate in when it wasn’t flushed out from home?
We speed up again and the tinnie’s wake makes a flotilla of plastic home brew drums bob violently.
You know what they say about carrots in vomit? How they are everywhere, but you swear you never ate carrots before you spewed? Well, when a flood purges all the contents from underneath Lismore’s Queenslander-style homes, it is the homebrew barrels that become the carrots. You swear you’ve never seen them before, but remarkably, now they’re bobbing up everywhere. The only thing you can see.
Other families chart their members’ growth with little lines of permanent marker measured on walls and door trims. I like to read between their Sharpie lines, imagining the tension when rival siblings reached height parity; noting the date when emo teens hit their post-pubescent plateau.
In this house, I’m outnumbered by two tween daughters. I play the straight character in their liminal pantomime – drowned out by the scorn-fried commentary of YouTube sensations, fights over icy-pole flavours, and laughter from obtuse in-jokes.
As renters, we aren’t allowed a growth chart so unapologetically inked. But our walls now tell the story of the 2017 Lismore floods.
When the kids come back from their Dad’s place after the water has receded, I show them how far it came up with the mud-lines and the warping on the walls.
They hold me tight and tell me they don’t need all their toys anymore anyway. My, how we’ve grown.
The street where I live, with its high-set workers cottages, is lawless and loose. More so in the 12 years since they built the levee to protect the CBD.
In safeguarding the businesses from moderate flooding, council literally cemented class lines along the river. Because of the levee, North Lismore cops more floods so the money side of the river gets less.
But when Cyclone Debbie hit, and the levee wall overtopped at 4am on March 31, the class divide went under. For a few days, we were part of the same flock – baptised by the same filthy water, united by the same loss.
Since the levee, you can’t get a development application for new dwellings in North anymore. So, when a house becomes derelict and is removed, it becomes vacant — a place to keep goats, donkeys, and market gardens. The vacant lots are like missing teeth. The more houses that get knocked out, the more ferocious our smile.
The train no longer runs to Lismore, but bus tickets are still sold from the grand old station, now home to many of the city’s homeless.
As soon as the floodwater recedes, and the roads are cleared, the station becomes HQ for a pop-up community recovery effort. It is run with the precision of a military base, except with dance therapy classes and free massages. They call themselves The Helping Hands.
This deft mobilisation of community is a legacy of the Bentley Blockade, which took place 20 kilometres west of Lismore’s ghost station. With pristine farmland and aquifers under threat from invasive coal seam gas mining, over 2000 ordinary locals – led by Knitting Nannas and Bundjalung elders – gathered at dawn to hold off the drill rig. On the morning that 800 police officers were expected to descend to break up the blockade, the government, fearing a bloodbath, announced they would suspend the miner’s gas drilling licence.
The toxic operation left town with its share price in freefall, but the community’s soft infrastructure – the email databases, the leadership skills, the chutzpah and heart – remain.
The community’s flood recovery effort burst forth like the storm lilies you get around here. When the flood hit, the grassroots operation erupted, blossoming spontaneously as if by magic. But really, it was always there, just waiting for another storm.
For most of the rough sleepers who call the train platform home, the recovery village which took over their camp was a bit of a novelty. Except for the odd social worker visit, they mostly get left alone.
One guy stood out. A Veteran with a scarecrow body. Diagnosed with PTSD, some of the other platform residents found him hard work. Nonetheless, he was the station’s unofficial caretaker.
During the recovery operation, he slept on the railway bench as usual, but with four homemade butter chicken dinners stacked up beneath him and a job to look forward to. Each morning he would line up at the Helping Hands volunteer’s desk to be assigned his next mission, where they dispensed gumboots rather than guns.
In the days after the flood, keeping up with the Joneses was a contest of who had the biggest pile of crap outside. The streets resembled a zombie apocalypse garage sale from hell. Mattresses, cane furniture, toys and lawnmowers were piled on verges for council collection.
One of the homes had a particularly small pile of crap out the front.
Inside lived a brother and sister. They had recently moved to Lismore. They had fled their family home in Casino and its alcohol-fuelled violence, with virtually no possessions. He had a severe intellectual disability — couldn’t pour his own cornflakes – so when she finally left, she took her brother with her.
When recovery volunteers knocked on their door they found the siblings in an empty house covered in flood mud. They had nothing. And nowhere to go.
The Helping Hands army called Code Red and within three days their house was clean and fully furnished.
You’d see the two of them down at the Recovery Centre, drinking the finest free espresso, laden with donated packages filled with Italian biscuits and hand sanitiser. From there the State Recovery Centre took over their case. It was staffed with ladies called Shirley and Beverley, members of the Red Cross.
One of the Shirleys helped him get on the NDIS. His sister, no longer needing to be a fulltime carer, enrolled at TAFE. If it wasn’t for Cyclone Debbie, she might still be sitting in an empty house pouring her brother cornflakes.