Union Street, Lismore 2022

The cleanup continues in Lismore

“A lot of people in the homes we’ve visited just stand and stare into space”, one of the volunteers working on the flood recovery in Lismore told me today.

I had just apologised to her for finding it difficult to respond to a very simple request. I can’t remember exactly what it was, but to illustrate, I found it difficult yesterday to put on rubber gloves. I struggled for a couple of minutes to find the thumb hole.

Today, I’ve seen two other family members go through this also. My job today quickly became one of assigning them simple tasks which didn’t require much thought. “I need you to wash these plates”, I said to one family member. “I need you to sweep this floor”, I said to another.

It’s the one part of cleaning up that I didn’t consider. I was expecting tears, as we moved into cleaning our family home, not an inability to think clearly. But that’s what has been happening today.

Today was the first day that Jack, who has lived in the house since 1969 came down to assess the damage. “It’s as bad as I expected, and then 100% worse”, he told me today. 

Jack is my brother-in-law, “But really you and Pat (my sister) are like mum dad”, I told them today with a tear. Later this afternoon, we sat around and shared many moments of laughter, as we reminisced about family stories. It was a welcome end to the day.

Today I also visited some near-neighbours, checking in on their welfare. I also visited the former home of Nancy who died last year. “My sister lived here until last June”, I told Cathy who lives there now. She told me she had bought the house after that, and after significant renovation, had only recently moved into the house., “That’s my home on the lawn”, she told me, adding, “I can never go through this again”.

The flood waters reached the gutters of a number of houses on Union Street, South Lismore. All of their household items now sit outside on the street, awaiting assessment about what can be saved, and what will go to the garbage dump.

She welcomed me into her home to see the renovations and introduced me to the builder.

Only minutes after arriving in our house today, there was a group of six volunteer workers from the Gold Coast knocking on the door. There were four women who did an awesome job of cleaning mud-covered household goods and photographs, and there were two huge blokes (a carpenter and a plumber). They achieved all of what we wanted to achieve in the day in just an hour or two.

Later we were joined by a group of Michelle’s colleagues, a bunch of nurses from Lismore Base Hospital. They have been awesome in their hard work and care. One, in particular, has been wonderful recognising the emotional stress we’ve all been under. Another of her colleagues will be delivering dinner. We are so incredibly lucky, and fortunate to have been helped through this. And when Jack scratched himself, there was no shortage of nurses on hand who could treat the wound. But Jack, being Jack, he treated himself!

Colleagues who help
Colleagues who help

Michelle and I were interviewed for ABC Radio.

Dom: We continue to focus on Lismore here with our colleague James O’Brien, who is Lismore born and raised and coming to terms with what’s happened to his hometown over the past week or two where he still has a whole lot of family. James. Good morning.

James: Hey there, Dom Yeah, I’m at my sister’s house at the moment in Elliott Road, South Lismore. And there is a pile of rubbish. We’ve just thrown out the window onto the street. And I can see what’s happening on the rest of the street. The people next door would have similar size actually, these might be bigger, down another house. They’ve got rubbish out the front. And I can’t the reason I can see up the street is that our front windows were broken. So we’ve got lots of air conditioning we’re joking about here this morning.

Dom: Yes, I’m sure I’ve got a photo of where you are now. And really, it’s almost indistinguishable, the scene outside the front of your family home there. From when you gut to the house. It’s basically you haven’t got the house, aren’t you? That’s what’s going on?

James: Yeah, absolutely. So we’re in the front bedroom now. And I spent last year I have the last year living with my sister and brother in law in this house. And so this is my bedroom from last year. My great-nephew, Sam is living has been living in his bedroom over the last few months. And he was amazing in helping his nan and pop, my sister and brother in law survive. We’re in the bed in the front bedroom now of a two-story house. And the water as you can imagine got up to the top of the windows. So that’s about three feet taller than I am. And about four feet taller than my niece is standing here next to me. She grew up in his house. So to mom and dad’s house, and her son was amazing. Can I kind of hand it over to Michelle, we want to Yes. Here you go. Here’s Michelle.

Dom: Michelle, thanks for joining us. Great to have you with us. Talk us through the past couple of days. How on earth have you gotten through this?

Michelle: Oh, I’ve got no idea. I think you just switched into autopilot and you just do what has to be done. I think want to go over the shock of that. You know, like if I didn’t, except if my son wasn’t here with my parents, they would have drowned in their home.

Dom: And sadly, that’s been the case for some in your community. There have been deaths. But it just seems as though no one really anticipated something on this scale. This is an area that knows flood the Northern Rivers, you know that the rivers rise, everyone knows that but not like this not before and your community just got swamped, didn’t it?.

Michelle: That’s right. I mean, I remember the 1974 flood it’s there were a few steps from coming in. And that was a massive one. And then, you know, there’s been ones over the years when I’ve been in high school and then 1988 And you know, you know, it just went underneath the house and we were you know, just trapped in the house. You know, you can still live you still drive. We still got our electricity. But this was just and then 2017 Just just about wiped out loose more. And this mall was barely had barely recovered since 2017, and then this one come along to just about pretty much wiped us out completely. But everyone just thought, Oh, well, you know, we survived 2017. So it’s not going to be as bad as that. So you know, we rebuilt once we’ll rebuild again. But then it was just terrible. When my son rang me early in the morning he said Mum was coming in to nan and pops house. And I was just in shock. I was like, Okay, well, I need I said I need you to be strong. And I needed to look at the look afternoon and I just had the ad caught stay awake and worry. Yeah. And then just kept in constant, you know, half alley phone calls. And as I’m sure that the story for everybody else. And you know, that was quite affected.

Dom: I was talking to my colleague Chris Bath earlier in the show has just come back from spending the weekend in the northern rivers, she said that there were two hardshell flood boats in Lismore at the start of this and it just goes to show that even with the experience that has been had in the planning of this thing, this just went far beyond what anyone expected. How are you feeling about the future and about rebuilding? We’ve I’ve got a photo in front of me of just your house with everything ripped out of it. What are you planning to do from here? Or is it just too early to make plans?

Michelle: It’s far too early to make plans. I’m not even sure if the house is gonna be safe to move back into like the floorboards are bowing and you can see in part so you can see through to underneath the house and you think it moves, you know, you walk through it and it moves and it’s like, Well, shit, I’m not even sure if you know it’s safe for us to be in here ripping up carpet throwing things out, but 

Dom: and this is a town of 20,000 people, many of whom would be in the same boat. It’s just the devastation is unimaginable. Our hearts are with you, Michelle.. I really hope you can find a way through this and work out what to do next. Because, yeah, if I were in your shoes, I wouldn’t know.

Michelle: Yeah, can I thank the volunteers. There are so many people that have just come in, even friends of my teenage son have just turned up and just came in and got their hands dirty. But work colleagues that are dropping in for a couple of hours at a time help out. There are random strangers pulling up across the road with washing machines to the service station, there are people pulling up in their cars out the front singing out food and water, food and water and we just run out and get some food, you know, and, and then they drive to the next house and hand out food and water. It’s like, the generosity has been overwhelming. We’re very, very grateful.

Dom: Well, I’ll tell you what, but for the tinnies Michelle, what we’ve seen the tinny army going around and helping people and as we heard from some experts before, it’s quite hard to do. Flood rescue is there special training for that, that people do in the evacuation centre that was used for, you know, Olympic kayaking and so on, but people have had to do it for themselves. And that’s what happened in your family. People have had to rescue other family members and the community has pulled together but it’s a pity you had to

Michelle: Yeah, my poor mum, I mean, you know, she’s got a bit of a back end on her and I pushed it through an 18-inch window in the kitchen, you know, into a boat and the dock in under the power lines and you have a look outside how high the power lines are, you know, they were 20 foot off the ground.

Dom: Yeah, I mean, we’ve all seen the phone with the fast-food joint where the waters were as high as that as the sign. You know. I’ve been to Lismore a few times over the years and the notion of the amount of water that was there. The mind absolutely boggles Michelle. Look, really appreciate your time, all the best to your community. And thank you for sharing your story with us. Thank you. Yeah, that’s Michelle there, the nice of our colleague, James O’Brien, who’s on the ground and Lismore trying to make sense of what happens next.

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  1. Andrew

    Your observations of what I guess is simple shock and disbelief are interesting. I’ve been thinking of you and how you must be coping.

    It is great that so many people are helping, just as they do all over the world in times of natural disaster.

    Say Lismore was settled in 1800. It is a once in 220 year flood, but will people chance that it will never happen again in their lifetime? What must insurance premiums be like after this? I doubt some places could now even be given cover.

    This extends to many areas that were flooded. Once in however many years seems to be happening with increasing frequency. Should highrise apartments have been built on the banks of city area of the Brisbane River? A bit over ten years ago they were flooded and those that were there then have again been flooded. I think we are just doing it wrong.

    1. James O'Brien

      Thanks Andrew for thinking and caring. The last week has been intense. So many questions. There are informal reports that at least 1,000 homes in Lismore (likely more) will be deemed uninhabitable and maybe condemned. This flood has changed my hometown already. There are also non-official reports of a significantly rising death toll. As bodies are confirmed, and relatives informed, I understand we’ll see numbers rise rom the official five deaths so far. I’m feeling very sad right now, but thankful for these great humanitarian acts by people in ours, and nearbt communities. Can the town rebuild? Maybe. I’m normally a glass half full kinda guy, but right now not so much. Lismore is lucky in that people can “move up the hill”, but only with significant financial support for all those involved.

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