“It’s coming up a foot a day, which means I have about a week,” says Menindee’s Robin Eaton. “Once it gets to there, I am going to bail out,” he adds, showing the sticks he has put in the ground to mark where the Darling-Baaka River has risen on his property each day in the past week.
Eaton has lifted everything off the ground in his house on Irrigation Road. He says he can evacuate in under an hour.
“I’ve done it before, there are just a few odd things, but until that water comes it’s business as usual.
“As you can see, I am still watering the trees.”
Like Eaton, residents of low-lying parts of the far-west New South Wales community have been warned to begin evacuation preparations after Water NSW increased releases from the Menindee Lakes into the Darling-Baaka River this week.
The releases are predicted to see the river reach 9.6 metres at the town gauge by early next week. At that level, up to 30 residents will lose access to their properties or potentially become stranded if they choose to stay.
With up to 2,700GL expected to arrive in Wilcannia before the end of the year, the peak is likely to reach levels not seen in Menindee since the floods of 1972 and 1956, potentially leaving residents of Irrigation Road unable to return to their properties for months.
“There is a varnished dressing table in there,” Eaton says. “They never shifted it, the water stained it as far as it got, that was before my time; I’ve only had this place since 1989. I think that was the ‘56 flood.”
Patricia Quayle, a Barkindji elder, has been evacuated three times in the 34 years she has lived on her riverfront block in Menindee. Four weeks ago, the 81-year-old packed up her house and relocated to a temporary caravan at the highest point of her block in preparation for the flooding.
“I’ve moved out the front because I don’t want to wake up in water,” she says.
“I’m not nervous, what comes, comes; we got to take it and that’s what we’ve been doing the whole time I’ve lived on this block.
“There’s too much water up there, it’s got to go somewhere.”
It’s all part of life on an ephemeral river system for Quayle, although she says watching the river reach emergency status in recent years – while residents like herself felt unable to communicate with the people making decisions – has been devastating.
It was barely three summers ago that during one of the worst droughts on record, people were putting out pans of water for kangaroo and rescuing fish from the remaining stranded pools of the river, she says. The water quality in Menindee was so bad that it burned and eventually killed all but five of Quayle’s orchids.
Like the rest of Menindee, she was drinking water out of 10L boxes delivered from South Australia.
Quayle is now deciding where she will stay, and readying herself to find alternative accommodation in town.
David Rankine of NSW’s State Emergency Service (NSW SES) told Guardian Australia the emergency team is well equipped to respond and cater to the needs of individual residents, whatever they choose to do.
“A prepare to evacuate notice has gone out to the community. Once that has been done, they can request for emergency accommodation and those sorts of things,” he says.
According to Rankine, if people want to stay on their properties, NSW SES can also provide daily food drops and medicine.
“We can get trucks in from Broken Hill, we’ve got a dozen volunteers that will be in Menindee until after Christmas, so we’ll have the manpower to assist with anything there.”
After a town information session to prepare residents, Andrew Mensforth, a Barrier police district inspector, says that while he had witnessed some frustration in the town caused by mixed messaging, based on the data coming from WaterNSW, he believes Menindee is in a good position.
“I can see here after today’s meeting that that information is not correlating or in line with the information that we are getting from Water NSW, so that is causing some angst.
“There is plenty of time for the town to get prepared.
“People … have lived through several flood events in this town, so we do have quite a bit of local intelligence about what is going to happen in the area.”
Otis Filley is a freelance journalist and film-maker based in Broken Hill
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