Floods in Australia: more rain adds to the fight for reconstruction | Floods News

Lismore, Australia – In late February, torrential rains battered the northern part of the Australian state of New South Wales, submerging the region in raging floods.

Now – with residents still trying to rebuild – the area has been hit again, leaving many desperate.

“I think if they had a choice, they would just leave because a lot of them literally just finished cleaning their houses only to be flooded again,” Kyle Wood, owner of the Lismore pharmacy, told Al Jazeera.

“Everyone was still gross of each other, and it’s not like the city has [been] repaired… there are still quite a few thousands of condemned houses and displaced people all over the place.

When the rain arrived last month, Wood thought his store – which sits higher than the street above a small flight of stairs – would be safe.

But as the rain fell, Lismore and other towns across the Northern Rivers, the official name of the area, were inundated with water so deep that people had to climb onto their roofs.

At 3 p.m. on February 28, the level of the River Wilsons, which runs through the heart of Lismore and is the region’s main tributary, was 14.37 meters (47 feet) – more than two meters above the previous record of February 1954.

The water “cut through and destroyed” Wood’s pharmacy, leaving all but the top two levels of the dispensary in a damp, smelly mess.

Lismore Pharmacy owner Kyle Wood occupies what remains of his business after the February floods. He thought the elevated position of the store would protect it from rising waters [Zoe Osborne/Al Jazeera]

Some people managed to evacuate but many were stuck in their homes as the water rose.

MJ, a resident of Woodburn, a town about 34km (21 miles) south of Lismore, said that before floodwaters flooded the town, people had moved their cars onto her street because c was “one of the tallest” in the city.

“And then the water kept coming…and coming…and coming,” she said.

MJ’s 89-year-old neighbor Toby Bell was rescued from his sister’s porch a few doors down as flooding rose to the second floor.

He had waded to her while he still could.

“All we could hear were cows and calves [going] down the river,” he said.

Like Bell, hundreds of people across northern rivers have found themselves stranded at home.

In just 24 hours, State Emergency Services (SES), a state government emergency and rescue service for natural and man-made disasters, received 927 calls for help from the people of Lismore only.

Woodburn resident MJ in a lime green shirt, her red curly hair tied in a bow
Woodburn resident MJ sits outside the donation center where she currently volunteers
Toby Bell, in a blue shirt and jeans, stands in his flood-ravaged home
Woodburn resident Toby Bell lost everything but the clothes he was wearing in the floods [Zoe Osborne/Al Jazeera]

Nancy Grimm and Daniel Clark, two SES volunteers in Coraki, about 24 km (15 miles) south of Lismore, say it was nearly impossible to meet everyone that day.

“There were three of us answering the phone and people were coming in tears saying ‘my loved ones, the water [is] walk into their house,” Grimm said, “and then come back ‘did you get this person’ and it was really painful … for us to try to keep a cool head and get the word out.

Clark and other volunteers got the SES boat out, and community members on private boats joined in the rescue effort.

“I feel like as a community, everyone kind of tried to do their part,” Grimm said.

Uninhabitable houses

When the water cleared, more than 2,800 homes were deemed uninhabitable and some 1,234 people were in temporary and emergency accommodation.

“It took everything we had, everything [except] my shirt and my shorts,” Bell said.

Army officers equated the “human-scale” damage to that of a war zone.

“War, unfortunately, has quite a dynamic effect on people. It causes great trauma, just like natural disasters,” said Brigadier Robert Lording, Commander of Operation Flood Assist NSW, adding that residents of Lismore and the wider Northern Rivers region have “lost their homes, they have lost all their property, and in many cases they have also lost their means of subsistence”.

MJ, who is a bespoke toymaker, says the flood “destroyed my tools, gone, my wood, gone”.

“It was so overwhelming to go and see my garden…dead,” she said.

“Then my elderly neighbors who were so proud of their garden, they actually compete, so that’s what keeps them alive,” she said. “They feel like they’ve lost a lot of that.”

But despite the losses and trauma, the region is slowly recovering.

Mattresses, furniture and other property destroyed by the floods piled up on the side of the road in Lismore
Residents left the crumbling contents of their homes on the side of the road as they attempted to clean up after February floods [Zoe Osborne/Al Jazeera]

The Australian Defense Force (ADF) and other services were brought in and volunteers from across Australia poured into the area.

Mark Isaac, who leads a “community-organized resilience effort” in Wardell, a town about 30km (19 miles) southeast of Lismore, said most of the donations his group receives come from other Australians.

“At the moment we have … cleaning supplies, everything needed to really clean houses, stretchers, brooms and dustpans,” he said.

State and national services, such as ADF, SES and the rural fire service (RFS) also intervened.

A lot of the work has been “putting people on the ground to help physically,” Brigadier Lording said.

“But we also have specialized capabilities,” he added, engineers at “the Air Force, [which has] does a lot of work to provide mapping and provide that geospatial information that will inform future planning.

Meanwhile, the local population also began to recover. Bell, whose house now stands like a giant, bare ribcage on his land, says he “will have to live” there.

“Nobody will buy it,” he said.

He will stay in a trailer with his sister and son until his house is rebuilt, and will “go to the [he] can” on the money he has, he added.

Housing is a big issue in the northern rivers, with thousands displaced by the February floods.

Lifeline’s managing director in Northern Rivers, Michael Were, whose team runs a distribution facility in Lismore, says two key questions keep coming up.

“Where are the people who cannot return to their homes going? ” he said. “The second, and again, is always housing, it’s the people whose houses are potentially being refurbished and rebuilt. But are they structurally sound?

Mark Isaac, wearing a red t-shirt, and his partner stand in front of the supplies they have gathered to help those affected by the floods
Mark Isaac and his partner standing in the main hall of their community-organized resilience effort in Wardell [Zoe Osborne/Al Jazeera]

Realistically, recovery could take years, he said.

“Right now the city is working a lot on adrenaline,” he said. “So ‘I have to clean my house, I have to do these chores,’ and it’s more… when this all starts to calm down a bit, that’s when the real toll of sanity starts to emerge.”

Financial constraint

Many residents were uninsured, adding to the stress of the situation.

Wood packed up his medicine cabinet as the first flood warnings arrived. “(I) just can’t afford to lose anything more,” he said.

Wood and others say flood insurance was unavailable or too expensive.

“[We had it] for home and content,” Bell said.

“They wanted extra [AUD]$20,000 ($14,946) a year for flood insurance, and you can’t afford that on a pension. It’s more than you get!

Nancy Grimm and Daniel Clark, two SES volunteers in Coraki in their bare house
Nancy Grimm and Daniel Clark, two SES volunteers in Coraki, had to strip their own house after it was damaged by the floods [Zoe Osborne/Al Jazeera]

On the ground in Lismore now, floodwaters are knee-deep, Wood says. Some staff are in his building “hosing down the walls and getting things out”, and he’s waiting for the water to drop further so he can go inside and assess the further damage.

“In fact, we put [our fridges] over tables and things just to push them aside. So hopefully they will be fine,” he said.

Others are still in evacuation centers, waiting for it to be safe to return home.

Around 20 flood evacuation orders remained in place in the North Rivers and North Coast regions of NSW on Thursday, but MJ, despite being “completely cut off” and without supplies, hoped the ordeal would soon be over.

“The sun is out and the forecast is good for the next eight days,” she said.

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