The scars linger in a broken city. For many, only a flicker of hope remains
By Catherine Naylor
Low fog rests over Lismore at dawn.Credit:Brook Mitchell
The sun is rising over the land of rainbows. It’s hot and harsh, even at dawn. The day will be a scorcher. But a heavy fog hangs over Lismore.
It smothers the empty shops, the ruined houses, the tired people. It wraps itself around the statue of the Virgin Mary outside St Carthage’s Cathedral. It strangles the CBD in the same way the torrid brown water of the Wilsons River did at this same hour, almost one year ago to the day.
When it finally lifts, there stands the broken city.
“It was such a pretty town,” Sarah Cassidy says from her new home, high on a hill, 40 kilometres out of Lismore. The house, which she rents with partner Taylor O’Moore-McClelland, has views that stretch from Lennox Head to Byron Bay. The water is miles away. That’s how she likes it.
The couple lost almost everything when a record 14.4-metre flood swamped Lismore on February 28 last year, destroying the CBD and leaving thousands of people homeless. The night before, they had taken refuge in a small gym they ran in Alstonville and woke to find their rental house had been submerged, but for the tip of the roof.
The couple count themselves among the lucky ones. They survived. They are not homeless. They are building a new life.
But sitting at a donated dining table, as two eagles soar over the escarpment that begins at their back porch, they struggle to explain the mental fog that gripped them in the months after one of the worst natural disasters in Australia’s history.
“We were stuck,” Taylor says, his eyes not leaving the eagles. “We were in limbo. It was a weird sensation … It took two or three months to realise we were living in a gym.
“I still get that sinking feeling when I go down the hill, as you go down into town. You can just feel everybody. You just feel it.”
The lingering scars
Lee Hourigan feels it too – the weight of collective trauma and enduring grief. Her city is trying to rebuild, but so many friends have moved away, so many businesses have not reopened.
Scars of the flood linger in the broken windows, the peeling paint, the tree branches draped with flood debris too high to reach – sadistic streamers that mock the survivors drifting underneath.
“There’s this malaise,” Hourigan says. “A permanent sadness. Before there was a groovy, eclectic feel to the place. There was always something coming up, always something happening.”
The retired nurse was furiously scrubbing her toilet when I met her last year, in a sprawling old house converted into studios in Girards Hill, an artistic part of Lismore. She stopped cleaning to recount her dawn escape days earlier from the chest-high floodwaters that had filled her bedroom. Her calls to emergency services that morning went unanswered, and she had to swim out of the house.
“I have been going down to the pool at the uni,” Hourigan says when we meet again, almost one year later.
“The first three times I went, I burst out crying.
“I can’t submerge myself,” she explains, almost ashamed. “It’s visceral.”
The life Hourigan knew and loved, surrounded by friends and buzzing with activity, is gone, along with her savings, which she had invested in art, antique books and prints.
Lee Hourigan: “There’s this malaise, a permanent sadness.”Credit:Brook Mitchell
Now she sits in a patch of shade outside the shed-turned-studio she rents on a hill in suburban Goonellabah. As she speaks, she picks up a stick and throws it half-heartedly to her landlords’ kelpie, the dog’s energy a sharp contrast to her lack of it.
“I can’t think clearly,” Hourigan says. “I keep picking things up and putting them down again. I can’t finish a task.
“The pendulum’s not moving. Newton’s cradle has stopped. There is no equal, opposite effect. You’re slogging away at it and just going nowhere.
“Everyone’s lost hope.”
Then she pauses. “Nobody came.”
The day the warning came too late
The flood of February 28, 2022, was the result of almost a metre of rain falling over 24 hours in the hills that surround Lismore. The earth was already saturated, the rivers and creeks already high. And the rain was torrential, with much of it falling between midnight and 6am.
In those chaotic hours, the Bureau of Meteorology kept raising the predicted flood height, but the warning came too late for thousands of people in Lismore. They were trapped.
Emergency services struggled to cope with the scale of the disaster. As the sun rose, survivors had to be plucked from their roofs or cut out of them, largely by civilians with tinnies, jet-skis and kayaks.
Community radio volunteer John James Maloney spent the night broadcasting river heights and flood warnings from the RiverFM studio in South Lismore, until the station itself fell victim to the flood and lost power.
While on air, he started receiving text messages about a fellow volunteer, Marge Graham, who lived nearby. Graham had been ringing her friends in a panic, trying to find someone who could help her escape the rising waters in her house.
“She’d had a hip replacement not that long before, and had a wheelie walker,” Maloney says of his friend. “How she was going to get up onto a table, or get up through a manhole, I don’t know.
Marge Graham was trapped in the flood in Lismore.
“I think about it all the time. That I didn’t go on air and say, ‘Has someone got a boat to get over there and rescue this person’, but it was late [at night] – who could have done that?
“I kept posting [on social media], ‘Has anyone heard from Marge? Can anyone check on her?’ Then someone told me they had knocked on her door, and that it didn’t look good … that I should stop asking.”
Later, Maloney met one of Graham’s neighbours, who said he had heard the older woman calling for help. The neighbour had wanted to swim over but his wife, fearful of the conditions, had stopped him.
“He was really tortured thinking about it,” Maloney says, shaking his head. “That she’d kept crying out, these mournful calls, until it stopped.”
Graham was found dead in her home as the floodwaters receded.
“It was the conditions. They were so severe. If we could have done anything we would have.”
John James Maloney ran updates on the radio until the station lost power.Credit:Brook Mtichell
The uncertainty remains
The east coast floods of February and March would prove to be Australia’s costliest disaster in history and, according to insurer Munich RE, the fourth most expensive natural disaster in the world in 2022. They claimed five lives in Lismore and left thousands of people homeless across the Northern Rivers.
One year on, more than 500 people in the region are still relying on official emergency accommodation, but countless more are staying with friends or relatives, or in tents and caravans. A Southern Cross University survey found almost half of last year’s flood victims were still without a home late last year, nine months after the flood.
Some victims have begun repairing and rebuilding, or have sold up and left for good, but thousands more are still waiting to hear if they qualify for an $800 million government scheme that will give them a way out – or a way back.
Eight months after the flood, the state and federal governments announced a scheme to buy the properties of those most at risk, and fund other owners to make their homes more flood-resilient.
But victims only began finding out their fate in late December, and most are yet to receive a call from the Northern Rivers Reconstruction Corporation, which is managing the scheme. Even if they qualify for help, they don’t know how long it will take to get it. The uncertainty is adding to their trauma.
‘I was in a very bleak place’
Maralyn Schofield was one of the first to find out she had qualified for a buyback, although she is yet to receive a formal offer.
Her neighbourhood of North Lismore, on a bend of the Wilsons River, is one of treehouses for grown-ups. They tower in the air on stilts, up with the Moreton Bay figs, metres and metres above the floodplain.
But even that was not high enough to escape the flood of February 28, when the water almost reached the ceilings in Schofield’s house, which she shares with her son, who has disabilities.
The air is thick with humidity on the day we meet and in the quiet of the late afternoon, surrounded by abandoned, broken houses and dense vegetation, it feels as though the earth is reclaiming this place. Schofield says the pythons come out in the evening. In the meantime, we swat mozzies while we talk.
“I think it was lifesaving,” Schofield says of the call she received just before Christmas to inform her she would receive a buyback.
“I was in a very bleak place, and having that call to tell me I’m in – just to know that I can go into the next phase and start planning – it lifted a massive weight off my shoulders.
Maralyn Schofield was in a “bleak place” before she received her buyback call.Credit:Brook Mitchell
“So many people are waiting on that call and their distress is at a very high level because of that. They can’t plan, they can’t move on. It’s an impossible situation and I don’t think anyone outside understands how hard it is, to not have that control – for weeks, months, even up to a year – and it’s taking its toll.”
The NRRC says the scheme’s 6000 applicants should know their fate by the end of June.
Schofield plans on using the buyback money, once it comes through, for some land out of town.
“Where we are going is also in the flood zone because we can’t afford anything else, but it is also a lot safer. You can get out if there is a catastrophic event.”
The home with no walls
Two kilometres further along the river, in South Lismore, it’s the end of the working day in the Spek household.
Mince is cooking on a camp stove for lunch the next day, and Rita and her adult daughter Kaitlind sit at a foldable table in the shell of a house that used to feel like their home. There are no interior walls, just studwork. One side is a no-go zone because the floor slants off at an angle. All their possessions are packed and stacked in boxes.
Husband Johan paces around the make-do kitchen, still in the high-vis gear he wears to work, selling building materials. At 64, he doesn’t like his chances of getting a home loan.
The family dreams of escape but they are hamstrung, waiting to hear if they will qualify for a buyback and how much money they might get to put towards a home that is far away from rivers that flood houses in the middle of the night.
Over the past year, while waiting to hear from their insurer and the Reconstruction Corporation, the Speks have watched other homeowners give up, list their properties for sale and move away.
“Young families are buying the houses,” Johan says. “It’s a way to get a house … and they think [the flood] will never happen again in our lifetime.”
Rita sees herself in her new neighbours – the woman she was 30 years ago, when she moved into a big old house on a quiet street near a river, happy to take her children by the hand to walk them to school or the park.
“I feel sorry for them,” she says of the home buyers. “But that’s what we did.”
When the conversation turns to the morning of February 28 last year, when the family stood in this very room, fighting to keep their mouths above the rising water, the whole experience is written across their faces.
Rita and Johan Spek, with their daughter Kaitlind, at home after the February floods in 2022.Credit:Jacklyn Wagner
“As soon as you start thinking …” Rita says, then stops. Kaitlind turns away.
“We were rescued by the skin of our teeth,” Rita manages to get out.
Life in limbo
Sitting at his desk in Goonellabah, Lismore Mayor Steve Krieg recounts a flood story that has been doing the rounds, adding light to the shadows in his city.
“One bloke saw what was happening and went on Gumtree that morning and bought a tinnie for $1200. He went out and saved a couple of dozen people. Then he sold the tinny a week later for $1500.”
The mayor lets himself grin. It’s a rare moment of humour after a year he describes as the hardest of his life. The Lismore cafe owner was elected just two months before the flood hit. He lost his business and his rental home.
Like its residents, the council is stuck in limbo, waiting for a CSIRO flood mitigation study to be completed before it can chart a way forward for the city. The full report is not due until mid-2024.
“We don’t want to approve any sort of development on the floodplain that puts lives at risk,” he says.
He lists some of the challenges that still lie before the council, including repairing 100-odd council assets, like the local pool, and finding housing for the homeless. The last is an emotive issue that has divided the council and the community over the past year, although Krieg says every councillor is committed to finding a solution.
“Thousands of people’s lives changed that day, forever,” he says.
“The scale of this is something you can’t forget. It wasn’t a flood. If Lismore had had a major flood, we’d have 90 per cent of our businesses back up and operating, and 10,000-odd people in South and North Lismore would still have a home, still have a roof over their heads.”
The glimmers of hope
For all the loss and devastation, there are nuggets of hope. A newly painted house on a devastated street. The hum of conversation in a cafe. Artworks on the wall of Lismore South Public School’s new home – bold red hearts, maps of the Earth, tiny people with long arms.
And in a simple brick bungalow on a hill looking over the city, three-month-old Austin McGowen looks out at the world from his mother’s arms.
Naomi McGowen had only just found out she was pregnant when the February 28 flood inundated her South Lismore home. She and husband Adam had to climb onto their roof to survive.
Adam and Naomi McGowen with their son Austin, three months, at their new home in Lismore Heights.Credit:Brook Mitchell
“I was kicking myself that I’d put myself in that situation, that I probably should have left the night before,” Naomi says. “But no one was predicting it was going to get that bad either.”
Mucking out their house a few days after the flood – covered in mud, surrounded by loss – the couple looked at each other and decided to tell their parents Naomi was pregnant.
“We were going to wait until we were really certain,” Naomi says. “But we thought it was some good news.”
After the flood, Naomi knew she did not want to go back to South Lismore with a baby but, beyond that, she and Adam were lost in the fog too.
“For a couple of months we had no idea what we were going to do,” Naomi says. “We had big plans [for South Lismore]. It was going to be our 10-year home. It was a nice area to raise kids.”
Naomi McGowen had only just found out she was pregnant when the February 28 flood inundated her South Lismore home. She and husband Adam had to climb onto their roof to survive.Credit:Elise Derwin
The pair eventually bought a house in Lismore Heights and moved in a month before Austin was born. They still mull over what might have been.
“All the gardening work I was doing would have been done by this year,” Adam says. “The pool would have been in.
“Every time I go down that way, I pull in and have a look-see – drive past the house, see how it’s looking, see what the young fellow has done to it.”
Back in North Lismore, Maralyn Schofield is dreading Tuesday’s anniversary of the flood.
“I’m going to make myself really busy and try and ignore it,” she says. “But … I won’t be able to.”
Schofield may have charted a way out for herself and her son, but she worries for the future of her city and for those who want to leave, but can’t.
She is haunted too by the loss of people who once filled the spaces in her day – the workers in cafes and shops she used to visit, familiar faces who disappeared after one rain-soaked, furious night.
“I don’t know what will become of this once really vibrant town and that weighs heavily,” she says.
“We have survived, but only just. And I just can’t celebrate that. I can’t.”
The sun is lower in the sky when we finish talking. The pythons are stirring. Fifty metres away, the wide, brown Wilsons River snakes its way past the treehouses and into town. The broken city waits.
The sun sets at Lismore.Credit:Brook Mitchell
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