‘We’ve done what we can’: Echuca bands together as Victorian town braces for record flood

The community has pitched in to sandbag the town, which lies at the junction of three rivers

Echuca man Peter Green says floods are a bit like a horserace, “you can never predict what’s going to happen”.

“Who knows? It depends on the rainfall,” Green says. “If we get 50mm of rain, it’ll soak in. If we get 100mm of rain, it’ll run off … we don’t know.”

The northern Victorian town on the Murray River has been under evacuation warnings since Sunday, and things are about to get worse – two rain fronts are forecast to hit the region over the next seven days, bringing more water into already sodden catchments.

That will coincide with the arrival of flood waters from the Goulburn and Campaspe rivers – Echuca is on the junction of the three rivers, and is named for the Yorta Yorta word for the meeting of the waters.

Workers survey sandbag levees as the water slowly rises to its flood peak in Echuca on Tuesday afternoon.
Workers survey sandbag levees as the water slowly rises in Echuca on Tuesday afternoon. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

The Murray is expected to exceed major flood levels of 94.4 metres AHD from Wednesday and could reach as high as 95.9 metres AHD on Friday. If that forecast proves correct, it would be the highest recorded water level in more than 150 years, above the 94.77m recorded in the devastating 1993 floods and 94.74m recorded in the 1973 floods.

About 300 people have already fled the town, while another 3,000 were on standby to leave.

Volunteer Mark Oliver was among dozens of residents who arrived in the town’s centre with shovels in hand on Tuesday morning after a social media callout to fortify the main street against the incoming flood.

“People just need a bit of direction, and then everyone goes and gets the job done,” Oliver said. “There’s people bringing in sand, there’s people bringing in bags … it’s been a constant stream of people turning up and working their guts out.”

Among the dozens of volunteers shovelling sand into makeshift sacks were children as young as three, retirees in their 70s and teenagers preparing to sit end-of-year exams.

“This is an unprecedented time,” Oliver said. “My father’s lived here all his life and this is the worst he’s ever seen it by a long way. We’ve had to make a decision to give up part of the town before it’s even come.”

State Emergency Service workers, Country Fire Authority volunteers, and off-duty police officers and residents of all ages pitch in to sandbag shopfronts in Echuca on Tuesday afternoon.
State Emergency Service workers, Country Fire Authority volunteers, off-duty police officers and residents of all ages pitch in to sandbag shopfronts in Echuca on Tuesday afternoon. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Beechworth Bakery general manager Beck Bachelor had been sleeping at the shop since the early hours of Sunday morning, frantically moving equipment to higher ground.

“We got the notice about 10am Monday morning that we’d need to evacuate and we’d be 1.5 metres underwater,” she said. “It was all hands on go – within five hours we completely gutted the whole ground floor of the bakery.

“Today it was about getting the building wrapped and sandbagged. We put a callout on a community page and it feels like half of Echuca has turned up.”

Any leftover sweets, pies and sandwiches were passed around to hungry volunteers on Tuesday afternoon before they dashed back home to wait out the storm.

“Everyone’s still really positive,” Bachelor said. “We’re fortunate we had notice. At least we could prepare. At least we’ve done what we can.”

Workers race to raise the levee bank around Echuca on Tuesday afternoon.
Workers race to raise the levee bank around Echuca on Tuesday afternoon. Photograph: Mike Bowers/The Guardian

Two kilometres down the road, authorities worked overnight to build a 2km-high temporary levee bank on the eastern side of Echuca to protect the town centre from rising waters, while sacrificing a smaller portion of houses.

Bobby, who asked that his surname not be used, lives just outside the levee. He has owned his house for the past seven years and spent Tuesday sandbagging the property to 1.5 metres high out of concern the construction of the levee would push more water into unprotected streets.

“We were told [the flood water would] just be a foot high but obviously when they started building this levee it’s changed the heights a fair bit and they’ve left us to fend for ourselves,” he said.

“It’s going to pull it all back and take everything. Luckily everyone’s banded together to help out because nobody else has been here to help us … we haven’t seen anyone.”

Bobby stayed in his now empty house on Tuesday night with his border collie, Lad.

“I just got rid of my boat,” he said. “It might’ve been the only thing I could keep in here. We’re just exhausted now, there’s not much left in the tank.”


Caitlin Cassidy

The GuardianTramp

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