August 2022


Rethinking Lismore in the new era of floods

By John van Tiggelen
Bonnie Aungle in front of her house, which shifted sideways in the flood.

Bonnie Aungle at the home she shares with her partner. They were priced out of the nearby town of Mullumbimby and didn’t want to live in a flood zone, but it was all they could afford. The house, which was built in the 1800s, shifted sideways in the flood. Photograph by Elise Derwin.

What does the future hold for a town battered by climate-change catastrophe?

On February 27 this year, a Sunday, the people of Lismore knew what to expect. It was the second-last day of an inordinately wet summer, and the ranges to the north were being pummelled with rain, as was the basin itself. Lismore’s 25th major flood in just over 100 years was on its way. Should the river overtop the levee, the central business district would yet again be inundated, and downtown’s streaming streets were teeming with shop-owners and friends packing up their gear and wares.

At St Andrew’s church, some 50 parishioners cut short their post-sermon morning tea. The intensity of the rain was unnerving, and Ray Nickel, who was on the waiting list for a lung transplant, was in distress. He’d lived through five floods but none while intubated to an oxygen concentrator. His priest and friends accompanied him to his blue home on stilts in North Lismore, inevitably the first suburb to flood, and helped lift his prized collections of vinyl LPs and books to safety. Nickel packed an overnight bag and went to spend the night at a friend’s on the hill, in the suburb of Goonellabah.

Elsewhere, too, people seemed hell-bent. While most homes are high-set, they’re nigh uninsurable, and neighbours spent a sleepless weekend moving upstairs each other’s downstairs goods – lawnmowers, washing machines, cupboards, tools – and stacking their upstairs possessions – hard drives, heaters, clothes, books – atop tables, beds and fridges.

Across town, in East Lismore, Karey Patterson finished stacking and settled down to a tequila and kombucha. It was his weekend to have the kids. His ex-wife, who lives nearby but higher up, dropped around to see if she should take them. He asked the kids if they were worried. The floor of their high-set home was four steps above the predicted flood level, they’d stocked up on supplies and they had Netflix. Nah, they said, they’d be right. Late afternoon, the Pattersons ventured out to take their dogs for a last walk. The oval was mush. Patterson pointed at the ants congregating atop his street sign. “It’s coming, kids.” Hunched neighbours passed them in the pelting rain, hurrying back from moving their motorbikes, caravans and cars to higher ground. Over at the airport, the Northern Rivers Aero Club towed a dozen single-engined planes onto a purpose-built mount.

Down by the river, on Molesworth Street, a digital gauge atop the Browns Creek pump station began counting down the centimetres remaining between the river level and the top of the levee wall. The pump station, which helps brace the levee, flanks the offices of the Koori Mail, the national Indigenous newspaper. As dusk fell, staff converged on their building to move what they could to the first floor. At the back of the building, the river ran fast and filthy brown. Out front, water was gushing over the road and into the basement from what was once Browns Creek, but is now a 400-metre-long car park.

At 10pm, Naomi Moran, the paper’s general manager, locked the door behind her. No sooner had she arrived back home than she noted a warning that this flood could exceed all that had come before. The Koori Mail’s ground floor was high-ceilinged, leaving the first floor well above the height of the levee. But Moran had grown up hearing her elders’ stories about floods much bigger than those of 1954, 1974 and 2017, ones capable of submerging even the high ground that the cathedral was built on. She drove back to the river with her husband, toddler in tow, rustling up some friends en route.

From her corner office on the first floor, she kept an eye on the pump station’s countdown. The gauge was affixed a couple of metres above the “one in 100 year” flood marker of 12.4 metres. Her team raced to elevate things further. Photocopiers and printers were moved onto tables, and essential computers, hard drives and servers up to the second floor, where the beating of the rain rang in their ears. The Morans fell into bed around 1am. Two hours later, the river swamped the levee and didn’t cease rising for another 12 hours, ultimately submerging even the digital gauge.

Three months to the day after the great flood, a tall, bearded man in a hoodie and jeans is walking down the middle of an otherwise still deserted Molesworth Street, his arms splayed, palms up, face to the sky, shouting, “Yes, yes, yes!” When he opens his eyes and sees me, he says, “This is something I haven’t done in a long time, bro. Walking in the sun. So good.”

It’s as if all of Lismore, population 27,000, is taking a deep collective breath: at last, a sunny day, a drying day, a day to get on top of the mould. “It’s not stopped raining,” people keep imploring. Following on from the record-breaking soaking that was summer, autumn has been three times wetter than average. It included a second major flood, Lismore’s sixth-biggest, on March 30, which again tore through the town centre, dousing the re-opening hopes of those who’d spent weeks de-clogging their shops of mud, rot and stink.

Some 3000 homes and commercial buildings were inundated beyond floor level in the city on February 28, including pretty much every house in North and South Lismore. Most of these homes are empty shells, stripped of their inner walls, insulation, ceilings, carpets and cabinetry, all of which were disgorged onto the street in piles almost as high as the flood stood, as if dunked by a tsunami. In all, some 70,000 tonnes – about 14,000 truckloads – of home contents went to landfill, and there’s plenty to come. Meanwhile broken-fenced yards have rewilded into swamplands, and entire streets look abandoned but for the odd campervan parked in a driveway. Even on higher ground, the golf course and municipal parks remain too boggy to mow, and fast-food franchise hoardings are smudged grey-black with mould.

Come sundown, lights blink on in a few of the houses, but dimly, as those who have returned are effectively camping, inhabiting one or two rooms, often without hot water or heating, and relying on a single repaired power point. The nights are rent by police sirens, as small-time crime is rife. Air-conditioners installed above the flood level are a particular target.

There’s minimal traffic otherwise. One cold evening, I stop by a high-set home in an otherwise eerily desolate street in East Lismore. Inside the former kitchen, Brad and Christine Hoskins, clad in donated clothes, are huddled in salvaged chairs around a fire in a 40-gallon drum that Brad has rigged up to the stove pipe. Three dogs are at their feet. Donated socks, underwear and a shirt are drying on a wire strung above. There’s a lingering reek of flood mud, though it could be the dogs.

Hoskins, who “cooks leaf” for a living – he’s a boiler operator in a ti-tree oil plant – initially kayaked back to his house the day after he was rescued, when the water had receded to below floor level, so he might hose out the mud before it caked dry, as well as deter looters.

“We’re lucky we never renovated,” says Christine. The Hoskins also own the house next door, where Christine’s daughter lives. Christine’s three-month-old granddaughter became briefly famous when footage emerged of her floating in an inflatable paddling pool at chest height in the lounge room. The baby, two siblings, her parents, their pets, plus three more children on a sleepover were rescued by boat via the window.

Another daughter had a narrow escape when a landslip near Nimbin caused a massive tallowwood tree to smash into her home. “She was really lucky,” says Christine. “There’s been a bit of that.”

Quoted premiums of up to $24,000 a year, relatively few affected homeowners were insured for flood. It’s a floodplain, after all. Census maps reveal a clear-cut socioeconomic disparity between Lismore’s lowland and hillside suburbs, with North, South and East Lismore all in the bottom 20 per cent of average household incomes nationally. This disparity increases with every flood: the less insurable the property, the more likely those with least to lose will return to live there. With Lismore already in dire need of affordable housing before this year’s floods, renters have now had to uproot to centres such as Grafton, Casino, Ballina and Brisbane. Others are couch-surfing locally or relying on friends. Another 1300 or so, according to Resilience NSW, remain in crisis accommodation such as caravans and tents.

Meanwhile, homeowners have yet to see their options. The Northern Rivers Reconstruction Corporation, legally empowered by the New South Wales government to rebuild Lismore in any way it sees fit, is expected to enable voluntary buybacks for up to 1000 homes, to be followed by offers of land swaps. Both the corporation’s head, David Witherdin, and the premier, Dominic Perrottet, have said they’ll be guided by recommendations from the NSW Flood Inquiry, led by the state’s former chief scientist and engineer, Mary O’Kane, and former police commissioner Mick Fuller. Delivery of their report has been delayed by a month, to July 30. Perrottet has stressed the need for this “moment of uncertainty” in order to come up with the right policy decisions, rather than giving in to the “immense pressure immediately to just get things back to where they were before”.

In the interim, though, encouraged by $20,000 cash grants for repairs, people and businesses are steadily slipping back into the “wok”, as some ridge-dwellers like to refer to Lismore’s subtropical basin. The desperate shortage of tradies, tools and materials appears little deterrent: social-media sites showcase people lining their walls with cardboard, corrugated iron, blankets and even election corflutes, flammability be damned. An added factor driving people back to their skeletal homes is the otherwise enforced separation from their pets in temporary housing. Almost as many dogs as people were saved from the flood, but hundreds have had to be given up for minding or adoption, or worse.

Throughout the region, recovery hubs run by volunteers remain flat out. Here the flood-affected can borrow tools, access cleaning products, request labour, order hot meals, get help with relief grants, receive donated goods and seek counselling.

Elly Bird, a local councillor who coordinates the Resilient Lismore hub, thinks there will be a need for it for years to come. Resilient Lismore is across the street from the disaster relief precinct, where people come in for hot showers, do their washing, access government services and, this being the Northern Rivers, book in to see a herbalist. The setting, a car park lined with fig trees and paperbarks, resounds with the calls of rainforest birds – fruit doves, figbirds, lorikeets and currawongs. But when you look up there’s just more flotsam – a pair of jeans, planks of wood, a roll of carpet still dripping mud.

“This is a city in limbo,” says Bird, who started Resilient Lismore after the 2017 flood. “People’s initial reaction was ‘we can’t do this again’, but they are. They’re doing it again because they’re getting disgruntled and frustrated with authorities taking too long to make decisions, to re-imagine this city. We have to get out of the floodplain. We should have been ready for this. What are we waiting for? The next flood?”

Karey Patterson’s rental was just a short walk east from his upper-floor office on Lismore’s lively Keen Street. The turbid Wilsons River slunk along the other side of the town centre, about 700 metres away. On February 27, his eight-year-old daughter, Sascha, was in bed by 9pm. His two sons, Caspian, 15, and Caleb, 18, were watching television. His car was parked near his ex-wife’s, up the hill. The lawnmower, wheelbarrow, bikes and tools were up on the front verandah, which faces Lismore’s drenched sports precinct.

“It started bucketing really, really hard. I was having a drink and thought, I’ll stop drinking now. I said to the boys, ‘Are we ready for this?’”

Warnings started pinging on his phone. At 11pm, the Bureau of Meteorology predicted the levee would overtop and river levels akin to the 1974 flood (12.15 metres) were possible. “So, I thought, right, no worries. Our floor’s at ’74 level – it might get to ankle-deep.” The boys went to bed at 1am. At 3.18am, shortly after the river cascaded over the levee, Patterson saw a message that the river could reach 13.5 metres. “So, I’m like, okay, let’s do the sums. My daughter’s 4 foot 8 – that’s 1.4 metres. Holy shit.” Seven minutes later, an SMS came through to evacuate the town centre. He watched a Toyota Corolla washing down the street, with people in it. “It was too late to go. You had to hear it: there are fire alarms going off, car alarms, the rain, the rush of the current.” The water began rising faster. The power cut out. Another message, this one warning the river could peak between 14 and 16 metres.

“At that point I’m like, Fuck, we’re dead. The carpet and underlay start moving, so the dogs go on the lounge – they’re never allowed on the lounge. Next thing, the lounges start moving.

“By now the kids are freaking out. There are logs and rubbish and gas bottles ramming into the house. And there’s this really strong smell of petrol. The water was thick with it.”

He called a friend with the State Emergency Service. She told him they’d recalled their boats, as it was too dangerous. “She said, ‘Get out, or you might die.’”

Sascha’s brothers stood her on a chair, then the table, then on the kitchen sink. “She’s staring at the water outside the window, which is higher than inside. And she just starts screaming.” Patterson decided to smash a hole into the roof cavity. He kept a claw hammer to this end in his “flood preparation” drawer, but he couldn’t open it against the weight of the water. He found a barbell instead and punched a hole through the lounge-room ceiling only to find a hardwood layer beyond it. He smashed another hole in his bedroom ceiling. Same deal.

He tried once more in Sascha’s room. This time he found access, and the four of them pushed and pulled each other into the roof cavity. They grabbed the smaller dog, Mira, but yanking Floyd up proved impossible. Outside they could hear a boat roar past. It was pitch-black. There was no way out.

At 6.30am, Patterson messaged a mate, Craig. Half an hour later, with the water rising above the door jambs, they heard Craig’s voice through the thunder of rain above them. Caleb dropped down into the murk to swim down the hallway to the verandah, where Craig was sitting in a single-person kayak, one hand on the gutter.

Craig handed Caleb a life vest. He swam it back to Sascha and returned holding her above the water. Craig paddled Sascha to landfall, about 800 metres away, ducking under powerlines and steering clear of treetops. Then he came back for the others. After Caleb had guided his younger brother to the kayak, he told his father, “Floyd’s gone, dad. He’s dead.” They huddled around Mira in the blackness and waited numbly for Craig’s return.

Over the ensuing days, Patterson surveyed how much worse it might have been. A shipping container had landed in a neighbour’s yard. A nearby house was torn off its stumps. His business had gone under, uninsured. He souvenired a propeller from the base of his street sign, where a rescuing dinghy must have come to grief above. He heard that a woman named Lorraine drowned in her home around the corner. And he found Floyd, alive.

From Jerry Vanclay’s deck, things make more sense. Perched high on a ridge above the golf course, his north-facing house overlooks the Lismore basin to the Nightcap Range, which forms the cusp of the catchment. Poking up behind these mountains, in the next catchment, is the knob of Wollumbin (Mount Warning), the first spot on the Australian mainland to catch the rising sun.

On the morning of February 27, torrential rain shrouded all from view. Vanclay, a professor of sustainable forestry at Southern Cross University, drove into town to help a friend pack up his shop, then headed quickly home. Over the course of the day, the drapes of rain darkened. According to the Bureau of Meteorology, an “area average” of close to 500 millimetres fell across the catchment that day and night. Or, as Vanclay later calculated: “It was as if the entire contents of Sydney Harbour had been dropped on the southern slopes of the Nightcap Range.”

Not so long ago, the Northern Rivers hinterland was clad in dense subtropical rainforest, known as the Big Scrub. Initially, red cedar was logged and floated downstream to where the water became navigable, at the junction of the Wilsons River, which drained the eastern catchment, and Leycester Creek, which drained the west. At this confluence, still 100 winding kilometres from sea by boat, yet just 10 metres above sea level, Lismore was built.

By the 1900s, however, 99 per cent of the Big Scrub had been cleared for agriculture. Downpours would sheet down the bare hills into creeks running like gutters, nut-brown with topsoil that bogged up the river and surrounding lowlands. Come the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, the boats ceased, the floods worsened and the hippies moved into the hills.

Lismore, despite enjoying the perks of being a regional centre – a university, an art gallery, a base hospital – has since languished economically. But its waterways have fared worse. A 2015 assessment of water catchment health gave both the Wilsons River and Leycester Creek an F-rating, the equal-lowest in the state. “That’s F for failed,” says Diana Devai, a bush regenerator whose North Lismore home on the west bank of the Wilsons River went completely under. “Or maybe it’s F for fucked. The banks are covered in noxious weeds, all the native vegetation has been cut back. It’s just a drain.”

That February morning, as the rain let up somewhat, Jerry Vanclay awoke to see brown water all the way to the foothills. The river hadn’t even peaked yet. Grabbing his bird-spotting scope, he watched the surreal tableau down below. “It was so busy. There were tinnies everywhere, and jetskis and kayaks, plucking people from roofs and depositing them on top of the Bruxner Highway bridge. The dinghies were just coming and going non-stop.”

Days later, he spoke to a fellow academic, Barbara Rugendyke, who likewise lives on a ridge but overlooks the vast floodplain to the south. Rugendyke, a geographer, objected to the repeated use in the media of the phrase “unprecedented”. From her vantage point, the very lay of the land suggested floods of this magnitude, and greater, had shaped this country.

She asked Vanclay to join her in co-authoring a report to council, arguing the case for moving downtown Lismore to higher ground and transforming the former centre into riverine parklands. Browns Creek car park, for instance, might become a creek again. Vanclay initially demurred, surmising there might be engineering solutions. But then he did the maths.

The volume of water coursing into Lismore over 24 hours on February 27–28 was about 240 gigalitres, about the same daily flow as cascades over Niagara Falls. No dredging, dam or diversions were going to contain that.

Rugendyke and Vanclay drive me down the hill into town, past the golf course where their report suggests a new city centre might be built. Serendipitously, the golf course is the same size and shape as the existing CBD, and less than a kilometre away. In town, Rugendyke admits to a guilty pleasure in imagining taking a red pen to certain buildings – like any regional city, Lismore has its share of architectural abominations. Its beautiful red-brick heritage buildings, she argues, should be repaired with flood-tolerant materials to create a cultural precinct. Camping grounds along a restored river would attract tourists and grey nomads. North Lismore could return to wetlands and South Lismore might host a new golf course. Any floods would still do damage, of course, but they’d no longer cripple the city.

From the CBD we drive 10 kilometres downriver, to the village of Wyrallah. The road is subsiding in places, and car bodies remain strewn across the floodplain. The planes from the airport washed up not far from here. We stop by the Wyrallah Hall, where a farming congregation that saw its 120-year-old church go under has gathered to disburse fuel, food and hay vouchers to stricken local families.

Over lunch in the sun, a farmer tells me a man in a dinghy rescued her octogenarian parents minutes before their farmhouse was swept off its stumps. “He never stopped, he just kept saving people.” When I ask for his name, she grabs my arm and pleads, “I don’t know, but I need to find out so I can buy him a carton of beer.”

A ti-tree grower recounts how his family lost three homes on two properties. His 91-year-old mother was alone in one of them. By the time he reached her, by boat, the water was up to her armpits. “I said, ‘Mum, you never told me you can’t swim.’”

The congregation’s elder is Fred Hoskins, 87, who has variously produced dairy, beef, macadamias and coffee in the valley. He says if 1974 was his once-in-87-year flood, he doesn’t know what this one was. “Maybe you’d have to go back to Noah,” he says. “But it’s going to happen again. In my mind, you cannot mitigate a flood like that. We have got to move to the ridges.”

Ray Nickel, 67, is sitting behind the wheel of his 22-year-old silver Magna, parked in the slush of his driveway, gazing out at his drowned blue house.

“There was always music coming out of that place,” he says, taking short, sharp breaths through the nose tubes extending between us to the oxygen concentrator on the back seat. “I had 400 albums: 52 years of blues, jazz, heavy rock, classical… But it’s the memories that go with each album. I’d have friends ring up and say, ‘I’m coming round with a bottle of red, put the album on.’”

North Lismore, which has no levee to protect it, has been transitioning back to floodplain for decades. Voluntary buyback programs were offered after both the 1954 and 1974 floods. In Nickel’s street, well over half the blocks are now council-owned and vacant. Of the remaining residents, some raised their homes up to four metres off the ground; they look like tree houses. But these, too, were inundated in February.

Nickel bought his home in 2005, after a separation. “You’ll find that’s one of the main reasons people end up in North and South Lismore,” he says. “We can’t afford anywhere else.” Thanks to a long-running policy, his house was insured for flood. This cost him a fifth of his income, and meant he “did without”: no flights to see his grandchildren, no trading-in his car, no new books or albums.

It took 14 days for the floodwaters to recede sufficiently for him to get back home. He didn’t make it past the top step. “The place was two inches deep in mud. My friends hustled me downstairs.” He pauses to compose himself. His friend Elma nearly drowned in her home. He knew Marge Graham, a country and western singer, who drowned in hers. “There’s so much loss. And during all this, I’ve been going through all this,” he says, gesturing at his breathing apparatus. “I could get the call-up [for a lung transplant] any moment. So, my life is pretty measured. It’s just slow steps, catch your breath, and carry on.”

The owner of the house next door wanders over and greets Nickel warmly through the driver’s window. His name is Sledge, he’s from Nimbin and he hasn’t seen Nickel since the flood.

Sledge is doing up his house and plans to rent it out. His previous tenants, a family of six including two toddlers, were rescued by dinghy. “They were born and bred in Lismore,” says Sledge. “Wanted to buy the place. Past floods didn’t scare them. But this one did.”

Sledge tells Nickel that his neighbours on the other side, a young family, have moved back in. Their house is slightly lower set. On the night of the flood, the two parents, their young son and a dog swam for their lives to the elevated railway track behind their house, where they spent hours waist-deep in water before being rescued.

“What are you doing?” Sledge asks Nickel. “Are you going to refurbish?”

“I’m still in limbo.”

“What are your options?”

“If it’s condemned, I’ll get a payout. If not, I’ll move back in after doing it up.”

“You lost a lot of stuff.”

“Yes, I did. Everything.”

“There’s something you haven’t lost.”

Sledge produces a curved, timber-handled pocketknife from his satchel and places it in Nickel’s hand.

“Wowee,” says Nickel, tearing up. “My old farm knife. This used to go everywhere with me, in a little pouch on my belt. Thank you.”

Every third or so flood-ravaged building in Lismore is draped with a white cloth featuring a red love heart. It’s Lismore’s banner of unity and resilience, but also of defiance. The banners might as readily depict a raised middle-finger to the flood and, more pointedly, to anyone judging those living in the floodplain: we will get up again.

Take Eli Roth, a born-and-bred South Lismore artist whose achingly raw social-media clips from within his gutted home have made him the poster boy of this fragile stoicism. His appeal, and that of his streetscape, affirms that Lismore’s identity is not the ridge-borne tendrils of suburbia sprouting off roundabout after roundabout. Lismore is downtown. It’s the elevated hardwood homes built 100 years ago. It’s the vibe of Keen Street. It’s the market square known as the “Quad”. It’s the majestic conservatorium. It’s the Koori Mail. It may even be the river.

Waiting in line at a newly re-opened cafe in Keen Street, a woman called Moira tells me the question is not whether the CBD should be moved, but whether Lismore’s heart can be successfully transplanted. “You outsiders might want to think about that,” she says. She and two friends have just returned from a yoga class five doors down, in a half-done-up studio underneath Karey Patterson’s destroyed office. “I’m so glad to be finally back here,” she says. “You know what the worst thing has been about these last months? Having to shop up there in Goonellabah.”

And yet, you can’t help but wonder whether people would be so ready to move on, and back, if, as feared at the time (and indeed still rumoured), many more lives had been lost. As emergency services systematically went about checking each house, each roof cavity, in the days after the flood, both Lismore’s mayor and the premier counselled that the death toll was likely to rise.

Miraculously, it remained at four.

But what of the hidden toll? Dozens were minutes from drowning. Many more were terrified that they were going to. In May, the NSW Flood Inquiry received a submission from Professor James Bennett-Levy, from the University of Sydney’s Centre for Rural Health, who found an elevated risk of serious mental health issues after the 2017 flood.

“On every metric,” Bennett-Levy warns, “the scale and severity of mental health problems following the 2022 floods is likely to be vastly greater.”

He gives four stark reasons. First, “marginalised communities have been disproportionately affected” because they’re over-represented in the floodplain, including First Nations people, people with disabilities and the rainbow community. Second, many more people than in 2017 had “very frightening (PTSD-inducing) peritraumatic experiences”. Third, many more experienced “multi-area inundation” (homes, workplace, friends’ homes, etc)”. And finally, across the region (including Murwillumbah and Mullumbimby) upwards of 15,000 people have been displaced for months if not years to come.

Bennett-Levy concludes: “While the number of deaths has been considerably higher in some of the bushfires … the numbers of people displaced and severity of the trauma experience is likely to mean that the northern NSW floods will create more PTSD than any natural disaster since Cyclone Tracy in 1974.”

Lismore’s mayor, Steve Krieg, agrees his city looks like a refugee camp in places. He himself is displaced and has been holed up at a friend’s while his home is repaired. Just don’t call him a climate-change refugee. He will not abide the “c” word in the flood context.

Lismore City Council’s floodplain risk management plan of 2014 noted, somewhat presciently, that it was “significant” the town had not yet had a so-called one-in-100-year flood – measuring 12.4 metres at the city’s rowing club gauge – in well over a century. The floods of 1954, 1974 and 2017 were just under that. This year’s flood, in other words, was overdue.

To tie it to climate change, then, might seem churlish. “Piss-poor,” in fact, as one councillor fumed at a late-night sitting three weeks after the event, when a colleague proposed the council acknowledge that Lismore “was likely to experience further disasters of this nature as climate change continues to escalate”. A majority including the mayor agreed the reference to climate change was “political” and struck it out.

Nonetheless, three of the city’s biggest six floods of the past century have occurred in the past five years, and February’s flood of 14.4 metres made a relic of the one-in-100-year figure (and, for that matter, the putative one-in-500-year level, of 13 metres). The most recent catchment modelling shows the “probable maximum” flood level in Lismore is 16.5 metres.

In a “special climate statement” published in late May, the Bureau of Meteorology reported that this year’s floods, while extreme, were on trend. It noted the intensity of rainstorms had increased “by around 10 per cent or more in some regions and in recent decades” and warned this intensification was expected to continue: “A warmer atmosphere can hold more water vapour than a cooler atmosphere, and this relationship alone can increase moisture in the atmosphere by 7 per cent per degree of global warming.”

Krieg says he accepts climate change is happening. When pressed, however, he does not accept that it’s anthropogenic, nor that it serves anything but a Greens agenda to pretend something can be done about it. “This council has been way too colourful for my liking,” he says. “There are those who just take positions [on climate change] to be re-elected. Whereas I don’t give a flying fuck about that.”

Krieg was tapped late last year by business identities “fed up with Lismore’s slow decline” to lead a cast of like-minded candidates into local government on a back-to-basics platform of fixing potholes, drains and footpaths, returning “uniformity and consistency” to the town centre and welcoming new development. Six of them were duly elected, amounting to a takeover of what for decades had been a left-leaning council. Krieg and co. were sworn in in January, immediately replaced the council’s general manager and declared Lismore open for business.

Then the flood hit.

Krieg’s home and business went under. In his many media appearances, dressed in donated clothes that looked like Scott Morrison’s weekend hand-me-downs, he sounded jaded, if not defeated. But his manner suited the crisis. And as pledges of government money rolled in, and the heart banners went up, and his council’s “Building Back Better” slogan resonated, he perked up.

“As much as I don’t enjoy being the mayor of Lismore, I believe I’m here for a reason,” he tells me. “There are very few people in history who’ve been given the opportunity to rebuild a city. I’ve been given that opportunity. The catch is, I’m relying on other people to fund my dream.” Krieg, whose CBD cafe is being refurbished, wants the town centre to remain where it is. He clings to the belief that the river system can be engineered to lower the maximum flood level to a point that keeps Lismore safe. “Yes, we live on a floodplain, but do you move Townsville after a cyclone?” he asks. “No, you build to a certain standard to protect the city. Same here.” Such protections, says Krieg, might include river straightening, channel widening, detention basins and, controversially, a new dam in the hills.

Krieg says he’s outlined his thinking to David Witherdin, but so far the Reconstruction Corporation chief – who is on the record as stating that, in a time of climate change, Lismore’s rebuild “could really serve as a great template of what to do in the future across Australia” – has been “a bit cagey”.

“I don’t blame him for that; this is unexplored territory for New South Wales,” says Krieg. “A lot of our councillors are a bit nervous about the powers he’s got. He could go rogue. But we need to work with him. We need their money, but we also need their expertise, because … let’s face it, local government isn’t great at strategic development.”

To see the proposed dam site, I head 17 kilometres up the range past lemon myrtle and macadamia plantations to Dunoon, a village that on the day and night of February 27 recorded 775 millimetres of rain – an incredible 30.5 inches in rural speak and the state’s second-highest daily total on record. The road is potholed to oblivion, and locals have taken care to outline every crater with white paint. Except more keep emerging. Lismore’s tyre shop is making a killing.

Dunoon has lent its name to the dam, though the actual structure would be built just above The Channon, a nearby alternative lifestyle community famed for the anti-logging protests it staged in the 1970s as well as the markets it now stages in a valley of remnant rainforest. The National Party has long clamoured for a Dunoon dam to secure development across the Byron Bay coast and hinterland, but Indigenous and environmental concerns saw the proposal shelved mid last year.

The Greens worry that flood mitigation is being used as a guise to put the dam back on the table. Their fears sharpened in March when the local federal member, the Nationals’ Kevin Hogan, announced a $10 million flood engineering study for the region, to be carried out by the CSIRO. Hogan made clear this was not about feasibility; it was about doing the necessary modelling. “The debate is over,” Hogan said. “We will be doing engineering work for flood mitigation.”

Hogan, who at the time was assistant minister to the deputy prime minister, the dam-happy Barnaby Joyce, was targeted by Simon Holmes à Court’s Climate 200 group ahead of the May election. His electorate of Page was regarded as a bellwether seat, and his “teal” opponent was Dr Hanabeth Luke, a scientist and surfer who was part of the “tinnie navy” that lifted people to safety as the flood peaked, and who went on to help coordinate evacuation centres for downstream communities.

Yet the “climate election” passed this wounded electorate by: voters stuck overwhelmingly with Hogan. Climate denialism is inevitably strongest where people cling hardest to hope – those trying to pick up the pieces don’t want to hear that rebuilding is futile.

“The default of people is the path of least resistance, and that’s to fix what you have,” says Luke, whose teaching at Southern Cross University includes hydrology, climatology and disaster resilience. (A survivor of the 2002 Bali bombings, which killed her boyfriend, she designed the resilience unit herself.) “There are areas of Lismore that are clearly not safe. I still don’t understand how almost everyone was rescued this time. What about next time? Business as usual is not going to cut it. We need to move people, but we need them to be part of that process, to move people together, as a community.”

It’s Luke’s first week since the election back on campus, which itself is returning to a semblance of normality, having at one point sheltered 1200 people plus their pets, including pythons, in the basketball stadium and nearby lecture rooms. (As it is, the university continues to host the displaced police station, three secondary schools, local politicians’ chambers, TAFE and numerous government agencies, including Centrelink.)

Luke lives at Evans Head, south of Ballina. On her way to the Lismore campus, she drops her younger child off at a preschool in the river-town of Woodburn.

“Have you been for a look there?” she asks. “This is not just about Lismore. Woodburn’s football field was under four metres of water. I see people living in tents, in the mud, in front of their wrecked homes. In the middle of winter. It just breaks your heart.”

Like her SCU colleague, Jerry Vanclay, she’s sceptical about engineering solutions being found, not least because any channelling of floodwater upstream might well exacerbate river levels downstream. Building detention basins is all very well in theory, she points out, but it needs to be kept in mind there’s already an existing natural detention basin at the base of the catchment that helps protect the farms and villages of the plains from flooding. That natural basin, of course, is Lismore.

South of Lismore, the Wilsons River switches and slithers its way through the paddocks and sugarcane plantations of an enormous coastal floodplain – at 100,000 hectares, the largest in New South Wales – to join the Richmond River at Coraki. Coraki is a town of halves: half on a small hill and half on the flats. After floodwaters peaked in Lismore around 3pm on February 28, then in Wyrallah late in the afternoon, the rivers completely swamped lower Coraki that night, displacing some 600 people.

Early the next morning, the river swallowed Woodburn. Almost everyone in town – another 600 people – had to be evacuated by boat to the primary school, perched on a hummock. Next in line, four sweeping bends downriver, was Broadwater, where the sludge likewise surged through almost every home and business, as well as the sugar mill, knocking it out of order for six months.

An hour later, the river engulfed Cabbage Tree Island, a mangrove-edged delta strip home to an Aboriginal community of about 170 people. They evacuated in time but the damage to their 25 high-set homes, plus a low-set school, was such they’re unlikely to be able to return to “Cabbo” for years.

The last river village to go under was Wardell. “We didn’t think we’d cop it,” says Tony Brown, who helped set up the local recovery hub. “When we moved here seven years ago, the old-timers said, ‘Nah, you don’t need to worry about the river. She does a final turn before Wardell and then whooshka, she’s all straight till she’s out to sea.’”

To track February’s floodwater across the plain by car, along more or less the same route from Wyrallah to the river mouth at Ballina, a distance of some 65 kilometres, is to imagine driving entirely underwater, every kilometre of the way. The paddocks remain a brown bog. Fences have been washed away, stock is conspicuously missing. Some of the most distressing images of the flood were those of whole dairy herds swept away. Where fences held firm, cows tangled and drowned. Some washed up near Byron Bay, 20 kilometres north of Ballina. In Coraki, which was marooned for close to a week, residents cleaning up had to deal with the stench of bloated beasts wedged in trees above them.

Almost everyone I meet lost their homes, their gardens, their cars, their shops, their chooks, their fishing gear. They’re continuing to rely on disaster relief hubs in each town. The biggest is Woodburn’s, which feeds and supplies hundreds of desperate people a day. A young couple from Byron Bay, Jordi and Krystal, quit their jobs to run the show. They say they’ll likely stay for the winter. “We just make sure we have music and coffee; keep things positive and warm.”

In an open lounge area, I meet Greg, who’s feeding his warm lunch leftovers to his border collie. Since being rescued, his large family has been moved from a tent to a van-park cabin, then a house to a motel, and now a holiday rental. They hope to move into their granny flat soon, so they can start repairs on their home.

I’m feeling for him, but then he taps my hand and says, “You do know the bigger story: this flood was caused by cloud-seeding.” It’s not the first time I’ve heard this. Apparently, it’s a United Nations plot. Not coincidentally, the region is an anti-vax bastion. Other keen theories include that a much larger death toll has been covered up, that a secret dam broke and that environmental tree plantations caused the displacement of water. The kind view would be to accept that it’s not unreasonable for people like Greg to be struggling to come to terms with what happened.

I stop by the golf course at Wardell. It’s supposed to be the site of a temporary village, in the form of modular homes, aka pods, for the Cabbo community from upriver. But there’s no sign of any activity, apart from three caravans in the gravel car park. Their awnings appear to have been smashed by recent strong winds.

The grounds’ caretaker, Peter, who lives in a shack on site with his partner and their dogs and chickens, tells me the Cabbo mob have been in and out, but mostly out. “There’s not much here for ’em,” he says. “They can’t use the clubhouse for showers – it’s locked.” He’s heard some members of the golf club committee aren’t happy. “They reckon the Aboriginals are taking their land.”

The Northern Rivers Reconstruction Corporation is expected to outline the region’s rebuild in the weeks ahead, more than five months after the flood. There will be a lot of money on the table, in the order of billions of dollars, and various developers and architect firms, including a team backed by the Prince of Wales, have already been jostling and lobbying at full tilt.

But the more time passes, the more it’s looking like a minimalist intervention. David Witherdin acknowledges the drawn-out government response has somewhat narrowed the corporation’s scope by permitting people “to vote with their feet”: there are now so many residents and businesses returning that the relocation of entire suburbs, including the CBD, can no longer be under consideration. Nor are compulsory acquisitions still on the table.

Instead, Witherdin hopes to persuade people they “will never get a better opportunity to get out of the endless cycle of emotional and financial trauma” than by taking up the imminent government offer to buy their properties at pre-flood prices. “The badge of honour of getting back up again is one thing,” he says. “But people need to understand the risk exposure to their lives, to their economic lives and to the lives of the rescue services they depend on.” This exposure, he adds, is heightened by climate change. “Looking to past events is not a good indicator of what’s going to happen in future. There will be bigger floods.”

Witherdin expects buyback transactions in the most dangerous suburbs and towns to be completed by the end of this year. Securing land for substitute homes will take longer. At the margins, there will be subsidies for further house-raising and rebuilding with flood-safe materials. Witherdin, a civil engineer, does not hold much hope that the CSIRO flood mitigation study will uncover a “magic fix” that previous studies have missed. As such, a redeveloped CBD will likely remain protected by a levee that only halts a one-in-10-year flood. The town centre will also be thinner – numerous businesses won’t be returning, and critical services such as the police station, banks and Centrelink will move uphill.

The corporation chief foresees a five-year rebuild, at the end of which Lismore will be a thriving, safer and more resilient community, where people, as he put it to the local ABC, “will be able to go to sleep when it’s raining and not be concerned that they’re going to have to climb up through their ceiling onto their roof in the middle of the night”.

In reality, though, there is no neat solution. A remnant, sparser Lower Lismore will only look more bedraggled, minus the charm. Across the Queensland border, the village of Grantham is a case in point. Following an extraordinarily violent flood in 2011, surviving residents were offered a land swap to higher ground. It was a success for those with the means to rebuild. But the less fortunate were left stuck in the valley, to be hammered by floods since.

Back at the offices of the Koori Mail, Naomi Moran, in black leather jacket and Converse high-tops, has set herself up at a trestle table outside, under a flapping blue tarp, in the concrete enclave between Browns Creek pump station and her building’s basement. She has her back to the levee wall. An extension cord trails out of her first-floor office window to her laptop.

She’s facing mild chaos. Donated funds need distributing to those waiting. She has a paper to run. She has submissions to write. The basement to her right is a popular food bank. Across the street, the car park has been transformed into a mess-tent area where guest chefs feed hundreds of people every day. Volunteer crews embark on cleaning jobs and food drops.

“We stepped in because we saw straight away it was going to be bad,” says Moran. “We’ve never done this before, it’s not our area of expertise, but it is our responsibility to look after our Indigenous community. We made sure we served them first, we fundraised, and once we knew we had the support for this hub to be operational, we were there for everybody.”

In return, the local Bundjalung community was there for the paper. The flood had destroyed everything in the building – archives, furniture, computers and a Namatjira – except for the items moved to the top floor at the eleventh hour. Most of Moran’s staff live on the floodplain and were hauled to safety from their rooftops, including her acting editor, Darren Coyne. He’d used a saddle stirrup as a “knuckle duster” to smash a hole into the roof cavity of his house. There, he, his girlfriend and two large dogs sheltered for several deafening hours, “shivering in the dark and covered in putrid flood muck”. At one stage the bigger dog tumbled back down the hole, and Coyne had to dive into his house and then from room to room to get him: “He almost killed me, the silly bugger.” The paper, a fortnightly, missed three issues. Edition 774 hit the streets on April 20. Its emphatic front page featured thumbnail photos of 68 Indigenous volunteers, assembled around a red love heart, underneath the headline, “They stepped up”.

The ongoing collective effort has got Moran thinking. “This is going to happen again. We know this,” she says. “Here, but also elsewhere. Now take a look at the volunteers we’ve had on the ground for the past three months, who have been amazing. How about creating a First Nations first responders taskforce, instead of relying on the Australian Defence Force to be dispatched every time there’s a disaster?”

The irony is not lost on her that many in the Northern Rivers region are now “living like blackfellas” – on the fringes, in emergency accommodation, disempowered. “Learning to survive, being resilient, that’s part of our core. That’s unfortunate – it’s not something to be celebrated – but it’s something to absolutely acknowledge that Indigenous people in this country know firsthand what it feels like to be displaced and to lose everything.”

A small queue is forming behind me. Moran excuses herself to tend to Uncle Mac from Cabbage Tree Island, who’d like a load of gravel delivered to his caravan to deal with the mud. The van turns out to be one of the three at Wardell’s golf club. He might also need a new awning. Moran tasks a volunteer to make it happen, then asks the man, “Would you like a white-picket fence with that, Uncle?” She laughs lustily and turns back to me.

“There are no excuses for not bringing Indigenous people into the conversation as to how we can be better prepared, how to mitigate risk, how to restore the river system and how to build back better. We deserve a spot at the table. Instead of us being told where to camp, let us advise you where to build. That’s the real opportunity here.”

Moran allows herself a wry smile.

“I mean, seriously people. Look at this place. Could you have got settlement any more wrong the first time around?”

John van Tiggelen

John van Tiggelen is a freelance writer and the author of Mango Country.

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