As extraordinary stories emerge of the rescue efforts in northern New South Wales, with hundreds of people saved, residents describe being completely abandoned by the federal government. By Rick Morton.
Residents abandoned in epic floods
Rebecca Rushbrook is a single mother of three children. A fighter and a survivor in an area where it has become increasingly difficult to live due to rising rents and house prices, Rushbrook found the perfect home to rent in Lismore.
She could afford it and, even better, the floor of the home was almost 30-centimetres higher than the highest flood height of 12.46 metres in 1890. It was a metre higher than the terrifying 2017 event.
Lismore, one of the most flooded towns in the country, is used to water. People know what to expect and how to prepare. Rushbrook sent her two youngest children to be with their father while she and her 14-year-old daughter bunkered down with food and supplies, ready to wait out the rising waters, which would inevitably cut off the home.
Instead, the warnings kept coming. First, the Bureau of Meteorology warned the flood would reach more than 10 metres in Lismore, just below the maximum height of the town’s levee system. Throughout the night on Sunday, February 27, and into Monday morning, the river-height forecasts were repeatedly upgraded.
As the situation worsened, Rushbrook realised she had made a horrible mistake. A friend in a big ute managed to navigate floodwater in the street as it rose, ferrying the family to the house of her ex-partner’s parents. As they arrived, about 3am on Monday, the river warning was upgraded to 13.5 metres. Later that same day, the Wilsons River peaked at 14.37 metres, an extraordinary level more than two metres higher than anything experienced since the town was founded.
“This wasn’t a normal flood, this was annihilation,” Rushbrook says. “And this is nothing compared to what has happened in South Lismore. Houses are gone. My friend has a roller rink over there and she has a house that has gone through the back of the roller rink and is sitting in the middle.”
Rushbrook lost everything. The weight of the water tore through the front windows of the home and swept through the house. It peaked 1.8 metres above the floorboards. The building itself may never be habitable again. The rent was $380 a week, one of the cheapest available rates in the area. “The price on other places in the area is like $550 or $600 a week and I can’t afford that,” Rushbrook says. “I’m a single mum.”
More than 2000 homes in the region are now uninhabitable, according to NSW Premier Dominic Perrottet. Residents in houses like Rushbrook’s had a false sense of security. Many did not get out before it was too late.
Across Lismore, in Mullumbimby, 46 kilometres to the north-east, and in other towns and villages, people woke with water already in their homes. The local State Emergency Service, with control operations conducted out of Sydney, were completely overwhelmed.
“I knew it wasn’t going to stop raining,” Rushbrook says, “so I rang the SES and said, ‘Look, I don’t feel like we are safe, can you come and get us?’ And the lady on the phone said, ‘You need to get out, we’ll come and get you.’ ”
Rushbrook asked if it would be an hour or a few hours. There was a heavy pause. “We don’t know when,” the operator said.
“It turns out there were more than 1000 calls for help and they were just going and going,” Rushbrook says. Were it not for her crazy-brave friend, she would have ended up on her roof like many other people.
Michael Woods went out that Monday morning with hundreds of others in “tinnies, in boats and on kayaks”, ferrying people out of houses and from roofs in Lismore.
The water was so high that only those in kayaks, of whom Woods was one, could scoot under powerlines to reach some residents.
“With the kayaks, you could hear people yelling for help because there was no engine noise,” the exercise physiologist says. “Sometimes all you could see was a flashing light coming from an attic. And we’re only talking four or five blocks and there were dozens and dozens of people and that was replicated all over town and it was worse on the southside.”
At one house, Woods came across an elderly man standing on a chair in a hallway with floodwaters around his chest. He was on the phone to his son saying goodbye for what he thought was the last time.
“Being privy to that conversation, as he waited for a boat to come back, and hearing the son talking to his father and telling him how much he loved him… It was something else,” Woods says.
Woods, and others, are independently of the view that were it not for the “hundreds of locals in their boats … there would have been a massive death toll”.
“The whole infrastructure and spending of the emergency response is at fault here,” he says. “It’s not the SES members’ faults. They were busting their arses to an unimaginable level.”
There were some air rescues in those early hours, including by the Australian Defence Force, but conditions were so severe overnight and into Monday that it was too dangerous to put helicopters in the air. The water was so violent in places that the SES also declined to send volunteer crews.
But on that day and in the days that followed, there was an obvious lack of an official response. Federal Nationals MP Kevin Hogan, who holds the seat of Page, told Nine newspapers columnist Niki Savva that he rang Defence Minister Peter Dutton at 6am begging for help. Locals were told the ADF was “on the ground”. The language was slippery and made them livid.
“If you have three ADF members on the ground having photos taken of themselves with professional lighting, that is a sort of truth,” Woods says. “But it’s manipulated language because in terms of what people expect, that there are personnel on the ground in large numbers helping in the emergency, that just wasn’t true.
“I was out working on the Sunday when the ADF convoy drove past me, so the heavy machinery did end up arriving exactly a week later. Day seven.”
Kiri Hance was at her ex-partner’s home in Mullumbimby when the floodwaters surged through town. Like thousands of others, they never thought the new terrace house, above the previous flood records, would ever be threatened. They were wrong.
“We were watching the water for hours thinking, ‘We’re fine, we’re fine’, and then all of a sudden it was in the house and we were shocked by it. It was slow; slow but fast,” Hance says. “And it was debilitating because there were no sirens, no professionals around to give us any advice.”
Hance’s former partner, Nick Riley, jumped in a tinnie and began ferrying people from their homes to higher ground. He noticed a paddock with horses in it, poking their noses above the water, and managed to find the owner before taking her to the animals and freeing them. With several other families, Hance and her gaggle of children and adults climbed into boats and on surfboards and made for a pub in town with its high second floor.
“But it was out of control and I said, ‘This isn’t safe for my babies, we have to get out of here.’ And all of a sudden my ex is best on ground, hero of the day, and he says, ‘I’m going to find a truck, we’re getting out of here.’
“And I was like, ‘You’re nuts, you’ve lost your mind. The whole town is flooded in.’ At this stage we were four families, seven kids, eight adults, three dogs and a cat.”
Nick Riley waved down a “giant” former army truck owned by a tree lopper and ushered everybody outside and onto the vehicle. Water was reaching the tray.
“I saw my old landlord, actually, and the last time we’d seen each other was when we were evacuating from the bushfires and I said, ‘We need to stop meeting like this,’ ” Hance says.
Video taken of the evacuation by Hance shows huddled bodies on the tray as the enormous vehicle presses through mud-thick floodwater that has completely submerged other cars. Nobody is speaking.
Nick and Kiri have both become sick with gastro following the emergency and days of clean-up.
“The community is just broken,” she says. “At one point, when Nick was putting up the street, he came across this old boy who was just sitting in his house, water up to his belly button, with a cup of tea, thinking, ‘Well, this is it.’ Like, whoa, what a way to succumb to it.”
Days later, the community effort continued. Hance had to go to the hospital because an old man named Bruce whose house she was helping clean didn’t have an oxygen regulator.
“People are destitute and alone and scared and it feels wrong,” Hance says. “The feeling we are getting on the ground is that the government is failing us.”
Former City of Lismore deputy mayor Simon Clough relayed the story of a friend whose son was walking down the street on Tuesday when he spotted something gruesome.
“He looked up and there was a body hanging in the tree,” he says. “People were trapped inside their roof cavity and had to cut their way out, one way or another. The local [state] member [Janelle Saffin] had to swim to safety and somebody in a kayak got her. And we were told we needed to leave the rescues to the professionals. There were no professionals.”
There are two timescales at which authorities have failed Northern Rivers communities, from the Tweed to Ballina and beyond. The immediate response is the most harrowing example, of course, but there is the issue of climate change and flood mitigation.
One of these has been known about for half a century. Now, communities are shifting into an era in which the planet’s changing climate, propelled by the use of fossil fuels, is a present-tense threat. Old forecasts are current realities.
A flood engineer who spoke with The Saturday Paper said he recently worked on a development application in Lismore.
“When I did that in accordance with the regulations I thought, ‘Oh gosh, this is embarrassing – this floor is almost three metres above street level.’ This flood would have been around a metre higher than that, as it was at the upstream end of town,” the engineer said.
“My point being that this was two metres higher than the very rare and extreme event used in the design. Calling it rare risks the label of climate change denial, but it really is very rare. Climate change is only supposed to give us an extra 7 per cent of moisture per degree of warming.
“The volume of this was far more than a climate change-affected 20-year event, for example. So, a rare event turbo-charged by climate change seems like a reasonable supposition to me.”
There are interlocking features of a climate crisis, too. A small but elegant example of this is a note attached to Northern Rivers flood and rainfall data from the Bureau of Meteorology on February 28.
“A small number of [reporting] sites located in areas impacted by bushfires have stopped reporting,” the disclaimer says. “We are working together with our partners on restoring this information as soon as possible.”
Australia’s Black Summer bushfires were more than two years ago. The bureau claims its “resilient systems” can still produce “reliable warnings and forecasts in areas where gaps may exist in local observations”, but it is not clear whether the significant revisions in the river-height estimates at Lismore during the flood event are linked to this breakdown.
Several people have told this newspaper that “old-timers up in the hills” were reporting alarming observations that spelled doom for those downstream.
A former Ballina Shire councillor and recent chair of the Rous County Council flood mitigation authority for Lismore, Richmond Valley and Ballina, Keith Williams, said the 2017 major floods in the region prompted the NSW and federal governments to fund a first-stage upgrade of the floodway west of Lismore.
“All good, all good things. That was stage one of the project. Stage two still hasn’t been funded,” he says. “And that was to remove some old bridges and some other things that are actually blocking the floodway and reducing its performance. So that’s been waiting for funding since 2017-18 basically.”
Last year, when the federal government announced $50 million in grants under the Emergency Response Fund’s National Flood Mitigation Infrastructure Program there were no projects supported anywhere in northern NSW.
Three of the locations in the state that received grant money were in the seat of Farrer, held by the Liberal Party’s Sussan Ley.
A National Centre for Flood Research at Southern Cross University in Lismore sought federal funding for its operations, but when the coronavirus pandemic hit, followed by major losses at Australian universities, the centre was shut down late in 2020.
Minister for Emergency Management and National Recovery and Resilience Bridget McKenzie has defended a near-total lack of spending from the $4 billion Emergency Response Fund, which has earned an additional $830 million in interest since it was created three years ago.
Such comments have left Northern Rivers residents seething and asking: If not now, then when?
Options for flood-mitigation projects have been considered in the past, including a $200 million “super floodway” around Lismore, or extending the town levee to a greater height. All come with consequences.
“Yeah, one of the issues is that you increase the risk to north and south Lismore for those who aren’t protected by the levee,” Keith Williams says.
“If you do the levee, you actually make matters worse there. And the floodway again, because it’s taking a lot more water around that western side, we probably also put north and south-west potentially at greater risk.”
In any case, levees have to be built much wider at the base to accommodate increases in height and there is only so much land available. It is perhaps obvious, also, that levees will not be built along an entire river system.
Simon Clough is adamant about what needs to happen in his region.
“The first thing we do is we put a significant levy on the mining and fossil fuel industries,” he says. “I mean, they have been subsidised for years.
“We have to start generating funds from these bastards and that money needs to go into protecting our communities, whether it’s from fire, flood, sea-level rises, because this is what we’re facing. This is the new reality.”
In the meantime, a housing crisis has been made worse. Infrastructure destroyed in these floods will take months or even years to rebuild. The flood engineer noted that his profession relies on the “bible” of the NSW Floodplain Development Manual. A flood plain, he says, is defined by a “probable maximum flood”. Engineers call this the “Noah event”.
At Lismore, the Noah event is 16 metres. These floods reached 14.4 metres. In a planning sense, biblical scenarios are already on the cards.
When Scott Morrison flew into the region on Wednesday, he came bearing new announcements about emergency disaster payments. Extraordinarily, those in the Tweed, Ballina and Byron Shire councils – almost entirely in the neighbouring federal electorate of Richmond, held by Labor’s Justine Elliot – will not receive these two additional $1000 payments.
The payments only cover those in Lismore, Richmond Valley and the Clarence Valley in Kevin Hogan’s seat. Mullumbimby and Main Arm, for example, are both in local government areas excluded from the announcement.
For those who have already suffered such heartbreak, they are held together by the glue of community heroism, care and a thousand little moments of hope and levity.
Rebecca Rushbrook found a chest floating by with all her childhood photos in it. Every one of them was dry. Her son lost his entire collection of Goosebumps books, but a visitor happened to have an even bigger set in the boot of her car.
During our interview, Rushbrook asks a question: “Do you want a happy story to leave on?” Of course, and so she starts to tell it.
“My friend Maz is a chicken lady. Loves her chickens.” Rushbrook describes the waters rising, how her friend moved the chickens inside the house and placed them in a tent to keep them safe.
“Maz ended up on the roof of her house with her cat and her dog, but she couldn’t get the chickens up there and she was so distraught.”
For days she thought they were dead. She imagined them drowned in the tent where she had trapped them. When she finally got back into the house, she was met with a miracle.
“The tent floated,” Rushbrook says. “They were all alive.”
This story was modified on April 13, 2022, to remove an anecdote about the rescue of a child in Upper Main Arm Valley. The Saturday Paper has been able to verify some but not all aspects of the story to a satisfactory level.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 12, 2022 as "‘I could see a baby … its parents buried almost neck deep in mud’".
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