In the last few days, I’ve had quite a few emails, messages and phone calls from friends concerned about how my family have fared in the current floods. “That’s not a flood”, I’ve told them, “It’s a high river. 74 – now that was a flood”. At which point I’ve gone on to tell them (bore them?) with my memories of Lismore floods, along with some interesting family folklore.
Although the river had gone up and down several times already during my life, my first “real memory” of a flood was of the 1974 flood. I was eight years old at the time. As with most Lismore floods it had been raining heavily for several days. “What’s happening at Nashua?”, I recall my mum saying as my dad listened to 2LM. Early in my life, I learned there was a relationship between the extent of flooding and the amount of rain they had at Nashua and the level of the flood we could expect in Lismore.
As I recall it was a Sunday night when South Lismore flooded. Although due to an expected failure in the levee bank, dad must have known something terrible was going to happen, as we spent much of Sunday afternoon securing things underneath the house. The washing machine was raised three or four feet off the ground and the family car had been moved to the higher block of land next door. With everything secure, we came back upstairs and sat to watch “Disneyland”, as was the Sunday night family tradition. By the end of Disneyland, our house was surrounded by almost six feet of water. Needless to say, both the washing machine and the family car were covered in water.
As our house was on stilts, we avoided inundation this time. The people who lived across the road, however, the Jobson’s (their daughter Wendy was in my year at school) were evacuated in the middle of the night.
The flood-waters surrounded our house for three of four days, as I recall. When they finally subsided we were able to walk around the neighbourhood to visit family and friends to see how they had fared. These were the days before telephones were common in households, and communication was therefore limited. In particular, there was concern about how my sister, Pat had fared with her infant child. As she lived opposite a fuel depot (she still does), she told us of her late-night fears (while her husband was out volunteering for the State Emergency Service) as she heard the floating fuel drums smash against each other.
From there we walked across the Ballina Street Bridge to see how people who lived in the CBD had fared. Long before the establishment of the levee bank there were a number of families living on the riverbank, many of them Aboriginal. Standing on the bridge we were able to look down to see the water just a dozen feet or so beneath our feet. Rushing rapidly, and carrying livestock with it, I remember, in particular, seeing a distressed cow mournfully mooing as it floated underneath our feet.
Although the 1974 flood was and remains the highest in recorded history, the 1954 flood was far worse, in terms of financial devastation and lives lost. A decade before I was born, I’d only been told stories of what occurred. Most significantly, our house was low-set in 1954, which meant the floodwaters came right inside reaching to almost the top of the window-sills.
As it was in the days before the State Emergency Service, my family, like many others, had no other option than to move higher and higher as the water came up. Famously, my mum and my granny sat on chairs on the kitchen table until the rising waters forced them too into the ceiling.
When they soon realised my overweight granny couldn’t squeeze through the manhole, they cut a larger manhole. Thus, my mum, my dad, my granny, my uncle and my four sisters spent close to a week living in the roof-top of our house, with flood-waters swirling just below them.
It’s hard to imagine how isolated they were at the time. According to press release issued by Telstra a couple of years ago, recognising my Uncle Alf as “Bigpond’s Oldest Customer – he was 100 years old at the time – Having been introduced into amateur radio by a cousin in 1922, Alf obtained his Amateur Radio Operators License in 1947 and today remains an active operator. During the 1954 Lismore flood, he provided the only communication to the outside for telegraphs, police and councils.
With monotonous regularity, much of my early life was spent on flood-watch. Listening to the radio and listening to the stories told by family members, I became knowledgeable at an early age about how flood-waters come and go and about the flood-markers you need to keep an eye out for. I wonder if any of the newer arrivals in Lismore know of the significance of “AGR’s Corner”?
Although my family continues to live in one of the two most flood-prone areas of Lismore, we have been fairly lucky. Like most people who have lived in the area for a number of generations, we have developed an in-built sensibility about how best to deal with floods. Mostly they have been an inconvenience more than anything, although we did lose a few family things in the 1989 flood which came up very quickly.
Perhaps not as quickly, though, as the flash flood which occurred in the 1960s (I think), which my mum told me saw her quickly surrounded by three feet of water while putting out the washing.
The last time I was genuinely worried about my family was in 2005 when the river reached near-record heights. At the time there was a genuine threat to South Lismore, and my niece, with a young child, for the first time in years considered moving to higher ground. As it happened, she didn’t need to.
My most significant flood memory remains, however of the 1974 flood. Whether or not 1974 will remain the biggest flood in recorded history remains to be seen. My dad told me a story many years ago relayed to him by his sister-in-law, Eileen Crummy. By way of interest, Eileen and her family (and my grandmother, Lena) lived in a house in North Lismore, the area of Lismore most prone to flooding. An Aboriginal woman whose family had lived in the area for, presumably, thousands of years, she told dad of a flood which had gone “over the top of the Cathedral Hill”. If such a flood occurred again, Lismore would be in SERIOUS trouble.
* The flood photograph from the State Emergency Service website demonstrates how deep the flood-waters became in 1974. Source unknown. And by the way, that’s AGR’s Corner you’re looking at.