Late last month Australia suffered its worst flood disaster in history after heavy and sustained rainfall caused a series of floods along the country’s east coast, killing at least 22 people, destroying tens of thousands of homes, and costing at least AU$2.5 billion.
The city of Brisbane, with a population of 2.3 million, recorded 676.8 mm of rainfall over a three-day period starting on February 26, breaking the previous record of 600.4 mm in 1974. The “rain bomb” dumped a volume of water equal to about 80 percent of the city’s annual average rainfall.
The city center, as well as several suburbs along the river, were completely inundated, with flood waters damaging more than 15,000 homes. More than 1,100 tonnes of debris has so far been pulled from the Brisbane river, including damaged yachts.
Just two hours south of Brisbane, the small city of Lismore, with around 44,000 people, has been completely destroyed. Having suffered devastating floods in recent decades, the city has a 10.6 meter high flood wall, but it was no match for the waters. The Wilson River, which runs right through the center of town, peaked at 14.4 meters – more than 2 meters higher than the previous benchmark set in 1954.
Water began to spill over the wall in the early hours of the morning, cutting thousands off from escape routes. Desperate scenes played out of people taking refuge on rooftops as the water rose or of people trapped in their roof cavities and clawing at the ceiling to find a way out.
Emergency Services Minister Steph Cooke put out a desperate plea to local residents that despite their past experiences with flooding the waters were not to be underestimated.
“This is entirely unprecedented for this region. We need you to please be on alert now more than ever,” said Cooke. “These conditions are different to anything you will have experienced before.”
The State Emergency Service (SES) carried out 512 flood rescues in the first 24 hours alone. In Lismore, the service received 374 calls for help in just a 30-minute window early in the morning.
Completely overwhelmed, the service initially asked for residents that had access to a boat to help with rescues, but they later rescinded that request once the situation became too dangerous.
The state premier, Dominic Perrottet, told residents not to take risks, which “could have tragic consequences.”
In the absence of emergency services, residents took to social media to spread messages about people needing to be rescued.
For example, Lismore’s mayor, Steve Krieg, wrote on Facebook: “If anyone has a boat and can get to Engine Street in South Lismore, there’s a pregnant lady sitting on her roof. Please help.”
Residents who had earlier managed to escape continued to mount a civilian rescue effort to get those stranded to safety, using boats, kayaks, and even paddle boards.
In the following days, as the water subsided, the total devastation became apparent. Of 1,400 homes that have been assessed so far, 900 are beyond repair and will be demolished, while two of Lismore’s four high schools have said they will be closing permanently.
While Lismore has survived previous floods, its mayor said this disaster will change the city forever.
“This wasn’t a big flood event: this was a demolition,” said Krieg.
As the clean-up in Brisbane and Lismore got underway, dozens of smaller communities between Brisbane and Lismore remained cut off.
With little support from the government, local residents again took it upon themselves to help those still stranded. Up in the mountains out the back of the town of Mullumbimby, near the world-renowned tourist destination of Byron Bay, communities spent several days without access to fresh water, food, fuel, and electricity, while some residents required urgent medical attention.
A group of experienced civilian divers and hikers from surrounding towns began trekking supplies up to those cut off and evacuating people down the mountain on foot. Others raised money on GoFundMe to charter a helicopter to deliver supplies to more remote communities.
Local residents said they felt abandoned by both the state and federal governments and let down by the emergency services. In the days before the flood, the emergency services unit in Lismore, which had only two boats, refused to call for additional resources, despite the warnings of the coming deluge.
Residents said they hoped to see the army deployed to help with the clean up but that they were largely left to fend for themselves. After several days, a few defense force personnel did arrive, but videos circulated online showing them arriving, conducting photoshoots, and then just up and moving on.
Australian opposition leader Anthony Albanese criticized the response.
“Clearly there have been some issues here with people who were on roofs of places for a long period of time. There’s a need for an explanation,” he said.
More defense personnel did eventually arrive, with thousands now assisting with the clean-up.
Prime Minister Scott Morrison toured the area but banned media from reporting on his visit – likely to avoid journalists witnessing locals’ anger toward him, which also occurred in the aftermath of the 2019/20 bushfires.
During his visit to Lismore, more than 100 residents staged a protest in town against his inaction, holding signs that read “we need help” and “the water is rising, no more compromising.”
The Morrison government has since introduced a disaster payment for people impacted by the floods in Brisbane and Lismore but has left dozens of other communities off the list.
The state premier, Perrottet, after facing a lot of public pressure, said he won’t “spare a dollar” in rebuilding Lismore, but residents fear that the damage is too great this time and that Lismore may never rebuild. As climate change worsens, some communities at risk of severe flooding don’t see the point in rebuilding if wider efforts to mitigate climate change aren’t also being made.
Mayor Krieg told the Sydney Morning Herald that any reconstruction of his city would be worthless without minimizing the impact of future floods.
“If we don’t do it, we die as a city. Simple as that,” he said.