(Names have been changed for privacy reasons)
Early on the morning of February 28th 2022 I get a call from Dan, a neighbour I’ve only met via text and Messenger. He lives on the banks of Bungawalbin Creek, deep in the tall forest trees.
The water’s in his house. He’s about to turn off his power supply, which means no more phone calls, and get on his roof.
The level is rising fast. He rang the SES but they can’t come to get him yet; conditions are too dangerous for a helicopter rescue and they’re stretched way too thin with other emergency calls.
He wants someone else to know where he is. Or where he disappeared from, I think chillingly.
I do what I can to comfort him, put a message about his dire position in our road group on Facebook so plenty of others know he’s there, then take my dogs for a walk to our gully to check the height of the water there. We are way higher up than Dan. We’re also nearly 2km from the creek.
It’s a very deep gully. When the rains come like this, which they tend to do every February, the Richmond and Wilson’s Rivers join up with Bungawalbin Creek at nearby Coraki.
Eventually the water has nowhere to go and backs up into the forest gullies of Bungawalbin and Gibberagee, cutting off the hundred or so residents of our road from the rest of civilisation. Those living in the middle of Bungawalbin-Whiporie Rd are usually the first in the area to be cut off, and the last to get out, sometimes still being trapped while everyone else is in post-flood mode and getting on with their lives; but this gully hasn’t been full since 2009 – not in 2013 when we got flooded in three times in a row, and I had to be helicoptered out for chemotherapy by the SES – not even when Lismore went under so badly in 2017.
Yeah, we’re all used to floods out here. As people in touch with Mother Nature, many of us kind of like them. It’s peaceful; no traffic on our road, lots of birds, frogs galore. We get flooded in almost every year – or we used to. The drought that culminated in the 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires had been devastating for the natural wetland that is our home, so we’d rejoiced at first on seeing the lagoons fill up again, knowing this meant the water table was coming back up.
We’re used to floods, so we know the routine for flood self-preservation. Check the BOM warnings and forecast maps, check the radar, check the river heights upstream in the catchment, watch the sky, have your dry box of supplies sorted in advance, remember that it doesn’t take much flowing water to float a car and drown the occupants.
So we knew we were in for it. The rain had been so intense the day before, when I’d gone out to stock up on supplies, that I’d turned around and come home; I’d felt my Forester starting to lose traction in the water flowing over the road. It was the first time I’d changed my mind about driving the road in 14 years of living in the Bungy in flood, and I had to fight the thought that I was getting old, and being a wimp.
No is also an acceptable answer, I reminded myself. You’re dead a long time.
Anyway, I’d thought, we’ll get by with what supplies we have.
Back at our dog walk, I’ve barely entered the track down to the gully when I find myself walking in water – not puddles, but a pool with no end. The realisation dawns that I’m already in the gully. It’s never overflowed this much before.
Still I’m not worried. Silly me.
We go back to the house and my partner, Bear, tells me he’s driving over to a neighbour’s house to get some fuel for our generator, one of the supplies we missed getting the day before. Our solar system is wonderful, but we’ve had almost no sunshine for a very long time.
He gets as far as our gate in the ute before realising the puddle there is a bit too deep to drive through. Normal in a flood; the council road crew created this problem at our gate years ago and never got round to fixing it.
‘I’m going to walk down,’ he calls. Normal for him too. Barefoot, Driza-Bone and Akubra in place, always on the move to solve a problem.
Back at the house I’ve started to feel that things are getting a bit crazy, as the rain keeps pouring down. I think of Dan being caught by surprise, and bring a few things upstairs to our treehouse bedroom; it’s overkill, but I’m renowned for erring on the side of caution. My computer and portable hard drive. The paper characters I use to create my picture books.
It’s definitely overkill. After all, before I bought this house I carefully checked the 100 year flood projections and saw that this house was still on an island – a substantial island – at the maximum heights expected.
AND we have the second storey room and veranda now. We’ll be okay, I think, but I’m still compulsively cautious.
And maybe this really is the 100-year flood.
And a projection is just a theory.
I’m up on that veranda when the fear strikes. I look over the railings and see our small lagoon start to overflow across the lawn towards our dam. The water’s running in the opposite direction from usual, from south to north. It’s never run across our lawn like this, and the speed of that water is terrifying. The rate it’s rising is nothing like I’ve ever seen before.
A massive amount of water from the catchments upstream has arrived, with nowhere to go but up. It’s creating a flash flood, something I’ve only ever observed on videos online.
This is not normal. And that’s when my legs start to shake. I know that Bear is somewhere on the road still, walking over a kilometre to get a drum of fuel so we’ll still have power.
He’s already been gone too long. Our neighbours are very, very slightly downhill from us, in the direction that the water is now gushing down the road. I messaged them half an hour ago to say he was on his way, and the reply had struck me as peculiar then – ‘He’s walking??’
It’s a bad half hour more till I find out what’s happened further down the road. I hear a muffled rumble, gradually getting closer.
The two men arrive back in John’s huge tractor, water spraying up from the wheels, Bear perched in the bucket surrounded by fuel drums and bags of clothes and supplies.
‘The house is going under,’ yells John, throwing everything onto our veranda and turning the tractor around. ‘We’ve got to get out. We’re going back for Lee and the kids.’ The water there has quickly gone from ankle height to knee height, and now it’s lapping up the steps of their single storey bungalow.
And so Bear disappears again into the torrent to help them evacuate, and I wait trembling, watching the water rise, grabbing anything I think we’ll need upstairs, not knowing if he and John will get back or be washed away, if I’ll be facing this alone now, if my dear friend Lee and the two children I think of as substitute grandchildren will make it out alive.
Do not drive through flowing water. DO NOT DRIVE THROUGH FLOWING WATER.
But drive they do, because even the best rules break down when people you love will die if they’re obeyed.
By the time they arrive back at John’s gate, the water is threatening to rise over the gateposts. Lee, the two little boys and three anxious dogs bundle into the bucket, along with a few backpacks of essentials.
The massive John Deere can barely stay on the driveway on the return journey, can barely see where the driveway is. The gate’s disappeared.
Back on the road at last, they come past a property where two more neighbours, Sue and Bill, are struggling to reach their front gate – Bill waist deep, on foot and dragging his kayak, with Sue sitting in it clutching their dog and whatever else they could save. Their home is already under water. The current is so strong now. They’re battling it and losing.
No room for them in the bucket.
John and Bear continue to our place, unload and immediately turn round to help Sue and Bill. I can’t believe they’re going out again, yet yes, yes I can. This is what we do in the Bungy. My knees shake so much I can barely continue as I work with Lee bringing food and cooking equipment and dry clothes and a ladder to get on the roof and anything else we think might be useful up to our top room, keep an eye on the children, tie up all the dogs, lift furniture in the main rooms downstairs.
Will we both end up widowed? I slam my mind closed on that thought.
But we don’t try to stop them going. We don’t even think about doing that. We are a community. We help each other. It’s one of the things we love about being here. Bear and I have never met Sue and Bill in our lives, but this is how rural community works.
And we don’t talk about how scared we are, because then we’d be admitting how justified we are to be scared.
I suddenly realise we’ll need drinking water. The moment the house pump goes under, that’ll be it, and judging by the levels right now it’ll be any moment.
I run around finding every container I have. I drop a bottle in my study and it shatters all over my desk and the floor. I don’t stop to clean up the mess, there’s no time. At any minute all the taps will stop working.
Our men finally make it back. The water is dangerously high on the tractor wheels. Bill is exhausted. Sue lights up a smoke, her hands trembling. Their little dog yaps, confused.
John and Bear disappear again and I don’t know where they’ve gone. Everything’s a rush, communications are breaking down because we’re all realising little emergencies and just dealing with them as fast as we can. I don’t panic, I never panic; yet I start trying to walk to the gate because someone said they knocked our bin over with the tractor and Bear went to retrieve it and he WILL get swept away in this current, and –
What on earth am I thinking, going out there myself? The others call me back. Bear isn’t at the gate at all; he and John are using the tractor bucket to lift our main generator into the loft of the shed. They can’t save much in there by now, but they can save that.
The vehicles. My car, parked in the shed that’s now a metre high with water. The RTV, our most expensive and most useful possession, and the ride-on mower are in there too. They’re going under one by one as the water rises. We watch the level rise on the ute at the front gate; it’s sitting on one of the highest spots on our property.
We get everyone upstairs. My rescue dog, a beautiful Kelpie x, is spooked by the brown surge of water which is now rushing fast across our lower deck, between the main house and our spiral stairs to the top room. I’m terrified of losing him if he wriggles away from me. I lost my beloved dog Jack in the bushfire evacuation, hit by a car on a busy road he didn’t understand after living in the bush all his life. I can’t bear to lose this sweet boy too. It would finish me.
I cajole him, drag him, lift him, finally get him across onto the steps. Lovely dog. Our hunting dog follows obediently, the water less daunting for such a long legged beast. I tie them inside the bedroom, leaving the veranda for the other four dogs. The last thing we need is a dogfight, someone’s pet falling down the stairs or over the edge into the torrent below. Lee and John’s tiny Jack Russell pup could easily slip under the wire and we’d never get to her in time; she’d be swept away.
So would the children. So would the children.
I’m putting regular updates on Facebook from my iPad upstairs. Trying not to panic my friends, but needing them to know this is serious, we’re all alive still but this is serious. I suspect that things are much, much worse downstream and they’re all worried about us.
I get a call from Jo Shoebridge at ABC radio while I’m downstairs, still trying to grab anything we’ll need to live upstairs for who knows how long. Plates. Utensils. A bucket to use as a toilet. She wants to interview me about what’s going down here. I try to make sense, my whole body shaking now. Later I have no memory of what I’ve said.
The pump goes under. The circuit trips out and I lose internet. The mobile signal booster goes out too; we’re down to the occasional one bar of reception.
We’re on our own but for a radio, and we can hardly bear to listen to that as Lismore goes under, Coraki goes under, Woodburn where our SES is based goes under too.
We watch the children closely, warn them not to be boisterous, try not to lose our tempers, try not to convey our fear.
The water keeps rising. It’s over the second step to the treehouse, storage freezers full of grain and fertiliser are floating out of our shed, it’s in Bear’s office next to the shed ruining his clothes and photos and mementos, turning the chipboard furniture into mush.
In the pantry now. We unplug the fridge and freezer. Where’s the induction cooking plate? I’ve already moved the portable generator upstairs so we can cook. Bear’s forgotten the induction plate in the confusion. He wades out to the shed waist deep, and finds it on a high shelf. It slips out of his wet hand and shatters in the back of the RTV.
The empty gas bottle attached to our house starts to float, twisting the connection pipe. Even if we can get downstairs, we won’t be able to cook. John, can you grab the microwave. I rarely use it. I have no idea how to use a microwave to cook the sausages that I’ve stored in the Esky upstairs. Such a stupid thing to be worrying about. Nobody feels like eating. We feed the kids biscuits, chips, anything they’ll eat that we have.
My heart freezes over as I realise the water has risen around our shipping container. My entire stock of original children’s picture books is in there, my life’s work since cancer destroyed my teaching career.
Logic tells me that nothing can be watertight in this torrent.
Lee knows she’s lost everything at home. She knows her house is being destroyed. She’s being strong for the children. My heart hurts so much for her. The children are screaming and squabbling, unable to process what’s happening. I understand. I still snap at them.
We have eight people and six dogs on a veranda above Bungawalbin Creek. We are IN Bungawalbin Creek. We’ve made joke after joke about our house being ‘the houseboat that doesn’t move’. The joke has become reality.
The water keeps rising. It’s still raining.
The front veranda goes under. Water laps at our battery box. Another 600ml and it’s in the whole house downstairs. Another metre and our power system is toast.
I couldn’t raise my 1820 Richard Lipp piano, iron framed, beautiful, heavy as hell. I tell myself it’s just stuff. My books, my piano. It’s just stuff.
We are all still safe. We have the ladder, we can get on the roof if the water keeps coming up. We have red things to wave. I try not to think about keeping six dogs and two small children safe on our roof in the rain. Did I bring rope? I didn’t bring rope.
We have Sue and Bill’s kayak. John and Bear have rescued our dinghy from the lagoon; it’s bobbing in the shed next to my car. Roof, or boat? Choices we don’t want to have to make.
I’m worried about another neighbour, Mark. He’s a good friend. I’ve had a message from his girlfriend before the phone signal dropped; he was about to get on the roof of his donga, he had six inches of water inside and rising. His power’s gone out. He’s only about 700 metres away but he may as well be in New Zealand for all the help we can give him.
There are no helicopters. Help is not on its way. The weather’s too bad, the resources are stretched too thin, there’s too much trouble and too few contingency plans, there’s been no organisation or preparation by our leaders to combat a disaster of this magnitude.
We stand and stare at the rising water. I watch one of our free range turkeys being washed away on the current. It looks bewildered. I see six more clinging desperately to their perch on a dead tree, others in another tree further on. If they fall, they’re carried away. Doomed. There’s nothing I can do to help them. Mother Nature has spoken.
I have no idea how many we’ll lose. Within days the horrific smells from the bush will tell us where the missing ones are. Wildlife that miraculously escaped the bushfires two years ago will drown, rot, stink alongside them.
Around 5pm the rain starts to ease. The water stops rising. We dare to breathe.
Nobody sleeps much. The sound of running water is all around us. I make ironic Titanic references as I lie awake with Bear in the spare room downstairs. We’re desperately grateful to be alive, warm, under a roof still. I pat the dogs to try to calm myself, trying not to think of what could have happened to them. My Kelpie has panicked again as Bear carried him across the water so we could give the others some space; he’s collapsed into a deep slumber, exhausted by the day’s events. I envy him. Upstairs John and his family crowd onto the king sized bed while Sue and Bill try to rest in the beanbags on the veranda.
Every so often the rain starts again, and we hold our breath.
Bear gives up on sleep. He’s reporting back on the water level every hour or so. He’s on the midnight to dawn watch, he says. He’s a sailor from way back. He’ll be awake for over 48 hours before his body gives up and lets him grab a few hours of rest.
The water drops during the night. In the morning we wade around calf deep, then ankle deep, retrieving things, telling the children not to get in. The current pulling that shallow water down the catchment is still strong.
Bear unplugs the pump, the circuit stops tripping, I get internet back. We all get a little phone signal.
The news out there is fearful.
A kilometre and a half down the road, past John and Lee’s house, two older people have been on the roof in the rain for over 24 hours with no food or water. Bear and John get into Bill’s one-man kayak, John leaning way back while Bear crouches forward in front. They paddle all the way there with water, food, warm clothes. He’s nearly 70, my Bear, and he doesn’t paddle a kayak regularly. He’ll suffer for days with the pain in his shoulders.
It will still be many hours before a helicopter gets those people off that roof. We hear of others in the same position, all down our road for miles. Some of them are our friends. We can’t help them at all, they’re too far away, we don’t have a way to get them out of the elements to safety. The men are exhausted, and they’ve tempted fate already. John doesn’t dare start the tractor again. The water’s risen high around it, but too high? Don’t know. Have to let it dry out. No use to anyone if they bugger it completely.
Facebook is full of desperate pleas for help. The rescue helicopters, when they come, are insisting some people leave their pets behind. I can’t bear it. The very thought traumatises me.
I don’t know where Dan is. I know he has a dog. I worry about the dog too. Is Mark still on his roof?
Our local SES is flooded, the hospitals are flooded, there’s talk of this being a one in 1000 year flood but that makes us furious; this is climate change, it could happen again next year or the one after, and next time it might be worse. Call it unprecedented, like the 2019 bushfires. This is our future on Planet Earth. We’re just the canaries in the coal mine, the first piece of evidence that our environment is no longer safe. Mother Nature’s had enough. She’s trying to kill us.
Lismore has been decimated again. Coraki, our most local supply point, is devastated. Lee and John and the boys are suddenly homeless. There were no rentals out there before the flood. Now there will be a new flood, this time of displaced residents. Where will they all live?
We have no idea how normal life will ever resume.
Gradually we realise the cost of what has happened. Lee and John go home to check the damage there while we look after the boys; they come back shattered.
The next day they’ll take the boys to see the shambles with their own eyes, so they can start to process it. Lee shows me a video of the inside of her house. It’s as though a whirlpool’s formed in there, swirling and hurling furniture, mementos, whitegoods everywhere.
Afterwards their five-year-old plays with his dinosaurs in the mud puddles of our driveway. ‘Everything’s ruined,’ he says, when we ask him is he okay, was it bad when he went home? ‘Everything’s ruined.’ He puts his dinosaurs into the mud, or under the water. He overturns cars and trucks and tractors. He rescues them all, over and over.
‘This one is you. This one is Bear.’
We open the container. My books are ruined too, the piles of boxes tumbled over and saturated. I rescue a few dry copies from the very top of the chaos. I have no idea where I’ll find the money to reprint them. I know it’s nothing, nothing in comparison to others’ losses of family, pets, homes. But it’s my loss, my hard work, all gone.
We sit on the lower deck, drying out now, resorting to black humour.
‘Hope we don’t run out of toilet paper,’ offers one wit.
‘Plenty of paper we can use in the container,’ replies another.
We laugh. We cry. We laugh again.
‘I’ve lost my shoes.’
‘Look out, there are Crocs in the water.’
We just breathe, trying to feel gratitude just for being alive, staring over the brown wasteland of our garden.
*Mark and Dan survived, and Dan’s dog was found. Dan’s house also looked like the inside of a runaway washing machine, and his water tanks were washed away.
We had no running water for 11 days, and the stench of dead animals was fearful, but Bear and I got off lightly. Our scars are mostly mental. Our neighbours? Not so lucky.
The south end of Bungawalbin-Whiporie Road was destroyed by the flood to the point of being impassable to anything but troop carriers and high wheel base 4WDs, which had to be prepared to drive anywhere but on the road; this was irrelevant to the residents at first, given that nobody’s vehicles worked any more and we started getting some helicopter drops of food and other necessities, but we were incensed to discover that a secondary escape/supply route along Elliotts Rd and Summerland Way had been blocked by a ‘beaver dam’ of scrap softwood belonging to State Forests, who’d failed to deal with their mess after the bushfires. Systemic failure strikes yet again.
Remember this, if nothing else: we are the canaries in your coal mine. Are you ready?