The rain started the day I arrived in back in Lismore. I was hoping for beach weather but instead got a steady drenching deluge that just kept on and on. Welcome home.
It was obvious a flood was coming. Ex-tropical cyclone Oswald was on his way south after dousing Queensland. Wall-to-wall coverage on web, radio and TV announced the impending inundation.
The collective response from the people of Lismore was a resounding, heartfelt “meh”.
Built on wet foundations
Floods have always been a big part of the Northern Rivers district’s history. The timber cutters who opened the area up to settlement used to use floodwaters to float their cedar logs downstream to the mills.
Us Lismorons are particularly accustomed to floods. Founded at the meeting point of two watercourses – the Wilson River and Leyecester Creek – Lismore generally gets one or two a year.
The most common architectural feature around town is stilts and markers everywhere indicate the level reached by the biggest recorded flood the town has ever seen.
More than 1000 people fled their homes, thousands of houses were damaged and some were even completely washed away. One man died after being swept off his horse.
When I was wet behind the ears
Weirdly, I’ve got nothing but fond memories of the floods I went through growing up.
That might have something to do with the fact my high school, Richmond River, was built in one of the areas always first to go under, which meant a few days off almost every year.
I remember being in town at my dad’s place – a house on stilts in Keen St next to the river – during a flood in the early nineties.
The water didn’t come into the house but only the indication where the backyard ended and the river began was the tops of a few trees poking above the water line. We could have fished off the back steps.
I somehow got hold of a huge rectangular piece of polystyrene packaging – it must have been used in the transport of some sort of whitegoods – and floated around the backyard playing pirates.
My dad’s housemate was braver and went for a voyage right out into the middle of swollen river.
A bloody good flood story
My favourite flood tale comes from my dad:
“I was drinking JD and Cokes in the Commercial Hotel and at closing time wandered towards home with someone I really wouldn’t have wanted to wake up next to the next morning. She bailed as we approached fast swirling floodwaters going down the Bruxner Highway which I had to swim to get home.
“Reaching home I found it empty of fun so swam back into town and when the water in Keen St became shallow enough to walk in a bloke walking the other way looked at me, blanched and said: ‘Hey mate did you know your throat’s cut?’
“I felt my throat and went: ‘Shit, so it is… thanks mate!’
“I figured it was unlikely to be fatal (since I was still alive) and went back to the Commercial where the publican and staff were watching the floodwaters rising towards Lismore’s only traffic lights on the corner a block away.
“They said: ‘Hey mate did you know your throat’s cut?’
“I said: ”Yeah, someone already told me.’
“They said: ‘Well get up to the hospital!’ I said: ‘Give me another double JD and coke in a middy and I will.’
“Someone fetched the drink.
“I then swam down past the traffic lights, across the sports fields and came to dry land somewhere above Lismore Square.
“I walked up to the hospital and kept the emergency ward entertained until a while later they put three stitches next to my jugular vein. I then swam home.
“Just another night in Lismore in a flood. It goes off.”
The Lismore levee
In 2005 Lismore City Council finished building a $20 million levee wall along the riverbank to protect the town centre from inundation – as long as the floods stay below 10.95m.
While the project was hugely controversial at the time (“the levee is a lemon” was the catchcry) it has undoubtedly saved a bunch of people and businesses in the protected area a great deal of money and hassle.
However, some say that the protection from minor floods is breeding complacency which could lead to disaster when there is another flood like in 1974.
On the plus side, it means no more swimming home from the pub.