‘There’s a cracking’: residents are broken in Lismore after the NSW town is flooded again

People were positive and ‘getting stuff fixed’ after the February inundation but now stoicism has given way to a ‘splintering of confidence and will’, locals say

With a relentless storm circling the region bringing shrieking winds and the sky low and grey, the mood in Lismore on Wednesday was “bleak”, says the former mayor Jenny Dowell. The night before had been terrifying.

“I never want to go through that again,” says Ellen Kronen, the president of the local chamber of commerce. “I can be pretty robust and don’t scare easily but the wind was intense, the rain was intense, it was loud. I have never been in a storm like it. I was a bit shaky when I woke up.”

There was frustration, too, when an evacuation order was rescinded at 5pm on Tuesday and then reinstated at 3am on Wednesday.

“There were no updates on evacuation orders even though we were pretty much in the middle of a cyclone,” says Noami Moran, the general manager of the Koori Mail.

Aerial shot of a flooded Lismore
On Wednesday evening, the flood waters enveloping Lismore had yet to peak. Photograph: Brendan Beirne/Rex/Shutterstock

“There was a massive gap in communication with the SES, which is where the Lismore city council gets their feed. So yeah, people are not happy. I’ll tell you that much.”

As Wednesday wore on, she says, you could “feel the heaviness all around”.

By late morning on Wednesday, the 10.6 metre levee at the Wilson River was breached, with the water expected to reach 12 metres, higher than the 2017 flood. By Wednesday evening it was still rising, yet to peak, the basin spilling into the CBD and spreading out to north and south Lismore and the industrial estate. There was no electricity.

It was steadier and slower than the torrent that hit the town four weeks ago, but it was, says the current mayor, Steve Krieg, “a major, major weather event”.

“This would be one of the top three floods in Lismore’s history if it wasn’t for four weeks ago. It’s sort of a surreal situation after what we have lived through,” he says.

Many residents of Lismore had nothing left to lose in Wednesday’s flood. The sound of rain on the roof will never be pleasant again.

Krieg, who lost his house and cafe in the last floods, describes himself as “numb”. “We went through all the emotions, our sadness and our grieving four weeks ago. Really it’s like picking the bones off a carcass at the moment.

“I haven’t lost my house because I lost it four weeks ago. All my belongings have already gone. What emotions are you supposed to feel other than exhaustion?”

There is just disbelief, says Dowell. “I have been at the evacuation centre and some of the same people who were there four weeks ago are back again. The look on their faces is shock, trauma. ‘I can’t do this again, it’s too hard.’

“It’s very distressing. And people are tired, they haven’t slept well for five weeks. There’s stoicism in some people. But I think under that brave face, there’s a cracking, a splintering of confidence and will.”

Until Wednesday, Lismore was taking the first tentative steps towards recovery. Chris Trew, who also lost his house four weeks ago, had started fixing it.

“We’ve just bought a load of tools, insulation, we’ve spent a fair bit of money, but now it will all be wet and buggered,” he says.

Bins and debris enveloped by flood water
There was still debris from the previous inundation that had not been picked up when Wednesday’s downpour hit. Photograph: Brendan Beirne/Rex/Shutterstock

“No one is insured because it is too expensive. Our mortgage company told us they don’t want to do any mortgage or any finance whatsoever in Lismore. It’s too unpredictable.”

Trew was staying at a friend’s house in Bangalow where water came through the walls on Tuesday night. “Before last night, I think people were quite positive and were quite keen on getting stuff fixed and trying to get back to normal,” he says, speaking to the Guardian on Wednesday.

“But I think after last night and today there will be an awful lot of people that will decide maybe enough’s enough. People that have started to re-collect their belongings and try and re-establish themselves – I think a lot of people will sort of be very unstable after this because it’s just another blow.


“People have already shelled out money to fix their places. And now they’re stuck in the position of having spent the money and stuff getting ruined again. Where do you get the next bit of money from to fix stuff?”

One business owner in the CBD was too emotional to even speak. He had repaired his building, replaced everything, rewired it, and now it had gone under. Again.

Others have no choice but to stay, Krieg says. “They have mortgages and different things that they have to pay. They have to reset and restart.”

The ground is so waterlogged now that trees are falling over in the slightest wind. “It’s the same with homes and foundations,” Trew says. “Houses will start to move because the ground is so unbelievably wet.”

Car in flood waters
Despite the financial losses sustained, there was no help for the devastated region in the federal budget. Photograph: Jason O’Brien/AAP

The financial impact for a town that was trying to recover is enormous.

“I haven’t had an income for six weeks,” says Kronen, who owns a craft business in the CBD. “I am living on savings and money I had committed to building a house. We are not completely back to square one – but pretty close.”

When the businesses went under, so did many jobs. The federal MP for Richmond, Justine Elliot, supports having “a form of jobkeeper in Lismore for people who are unable to work because of the impact of the floods”.

“They need to have some sort of income. We just need them to step up – both the federal and state governments. We really do. There’s a lot of people in really dire need,” Elliott says.

The MP says there was no help for the devastated region in the budget. “It’s just frustrating and disappointing for the community because of the extent of it not to see a significant amount of money going into it. They’ve got that $4.8bn emergency fund and they’re just not using a huge amount of that to help us out at this time.”

Flood waters enveloping a house in Lismore
Flood waters enveloping a house in Lismore. Photograph: Brendan Beirne/Rex/Shutterstock

Elliott believes there should be a “full, independent, transparent inquiry into all the elements of the lack of preparation and lack of funding and capacity to deliver resources”.

Naomi Moran is waiting for the water to recede to get back to the relief and food hub in the Koori Mail building. “The support that the community is going to need … because literally people have just dried their walls and now they’ve got to do it all over again.”

There is still rubbish in the streets that hasn’t been picked up from the late February inundation. People were still cleaning up when this week arrived.

But, says Trew, “there’s no point in crying – you have just got to keep going”.

Susan Chenery

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Flood evacuation orders issued for Lismore after man and dogs die in Queensland
Severe weather warnings issued for parts of eastern Australia still recovering from recent floods, with heavy rain forecast

Peter Hannam and Elias Visontay

28, Mar, 2022 @8:58 AM

Article image
Death toll rises to 10 as bodies found in Lismore and Glen Esk – as it happened
This blog is now closed

Caitlin Cassidy and Matilda Boseley (earlier)

01, Mar, 2022 @8:46 AM

Article image
Brisbane homes flooded as ‘rain bomb’ continues to threaten lives in south-east Queensland
Six people have died across state, while Gympie records highest flood level in more than 100 years

Conal Hanna

27, Feb, 2022 @2:03 AM

Article image
Lismore and Byron Bay flooded as weather system tracks south bringing more evacuations
Missing woman identified as Lismore’s levee overtops for second time in a month

Christine Tondorf, Jen King, Cait Kelly and Conal Hanna

30, Mar, 2022 @7:57 AM

Article image
Messaging from rooftops: Lismore’s flooded residents document a disaster
On Twitter, Facebook and Instagram pictures of boats floating down streets, pets rescued and homes under water tell the story of inundation

Rafqa Touma and Conal Hanna

28, Feb, 2022 @7:33 AM

Article image
Queensland floods: Brisbane man killed as death toll rises to six and thousands of residents on alert
People urged to stay home and not to drive on flooded roads as parts of state hit by worse flooding than in 2011

Calla Wahlquist

27, Feb, 2022 @12:19 AM

Article image
NSW flood cleanup continues as south-east Queensland again lashed by thunderstorms
Severe rainfall that may lead to flash flooding ‘likely’ in Queensland, while Hawkesbury-Nepean River in NSW set to surpass last week’s flood level

Peter Hannam

06, Mar, 2022 @7:17 AM

Article image
Major flood warning issued for Brisbane after ‘rain bomb’ unleashes havoc on south-east Queensland and northern NSW
Seventh person dies, with two more missing, and major flood warnings issued for Brisbane, Ipswich, Lismore and Grafton

Ben Smee and Tory Shepherd

27, Feb, 2022 @7:11 PM

Article image
Eastern Australian states hit by major flooding after ‘rain bomb’ weather event
Eight dead and hundreds rescued from rooftops as rainfall exceeds annual averages in just a few days

Ben Smee and Royce Kurmelovs

28, Feb, 2022 @8:28 AM

Article image
Before and after aerial pictures show how floods swept through Queensland and NSW towns
High-resolution images shot from a camera system mounted on planes focus in on the devastation

Donna Lu

04, Mar, 2022 @2:46 AM