“Though it hasn’t been in the best of circumstances, at least it’s allowed you to spend time with your family”, my friend Sue’s mum commented over lunch yesterday. We were reflecting on the significant amount of time I’ve spent in Lismore over the last eighteen months.
Halfway through 2021, I came home for my sister, Nancy’s funeral. Though I had planned to spend a couple of weeks here, I ended up staying much longer. When COVID-19 forced Sydney into lockdown, I couldn’t see much point in going back.
Unexpectedly, I found myself living back in my hometown, and with my family, after several decades away. I’ve always revisited Lismore a few times each year, but last year marked the longest extended period here since my high school years.
I especially loved reconnecting with my family in a more meaningful way, both in conversations and shared experiences. An extended period allowed me to get to know them like I never have. I remember my brother-in-law Jack’s words as I returned to Sydney in October last year, “I feel like we were really getting to know you again properly”.
And this year, it was the catastrophic floods in February and March that resulted in several short trips (two or three weeks at a time).
The phone conversations I had with my family on the night of the first flood (the worst flood in recorded history) are still with me. Many of the conversations that night were around very practical things, such as passing on the latest flood information, trying to connect emergency services on their behalf, etc. But there was also a sense these were, potentially the last conversations I would have with them, as there was the possibility they (and hundreds of others) might have drowned.
When they were finally rescued, there was over one metre of water in their two-story homes. In my nephew’s house (with a young baby) it was deeper, eventually reaching the eaves. Ahead of their rescue, my niece and her daughters took refuge in the roofing cavity. At my home, my sister Pat was seated on the kitchen bench, while her husband and her grandson stood in floodwaters up to their chests.
“Nan, we’re fucked”, my nephew, Sam said to Pat, as the water entered and quickly rose within the house.
Throughout Lismore, there were so many other people in the same circumstance.
My family were all rescued, thanks to the “Tinny Army”, the name coined for the many people who got out in their own boats and rescued people, as the State Emergency Service was overwhelmed by the scale of the emergency.
Oddly enough, I was more worried about them when they were on the nearby Ballina Street Bridge. I remembered a story from my childhood where mum and dad had spoken about a bridge that had washed away during an earlier flood. In my mind, I had an image of the Ballina Street Bridge collapsing due to the strength of the waters. Thank God, they made it through.
Though many of the media reports have concentrated on the economic costs of the flood (the need to clean out and rebuild homes and businesses) the psychological cost has been immense.
Though she seems to be coping much better now, throughout the year I’ve often seen Pat staring mid-range saying, “I can still see the water coming into the house”. “Every time there’s heavy rain, I wonder what’s in store”, my niece, Karran has often said, adding, “I can’t go through that again”.
As we enjoyed Christmas lunch this year, Karran reflected on the meals we had together at my niece’s house (on the hill in Lismore) where everyone took refuge.
At the end of 2022, many other people in Lismore remain homeless. Some are living in cars or staying with friends and family. Karran’s place still only has one active powerpoint. My nephew is taking delivery of a replacement kitchen this week. Other people in Lismore remain “camping” in their homes or living in caravans in their backyards.
By this time next year, I think the Lismore CBD will probably be looking okay, but it’s going to take much longer both physically and psychologically to recover from what happened earlier this year.
Normally, this “year in review” post (this is my twentieth!) would include lots of other information, aside from just one story. There would normally be reflections on travel, friends, work, etc. But to be truly honest, there is only one important story this year, and that’s the Lismore floods, and what my family (and thousands of others) have been through.