My home town of Mullumbimby was submerged by floodwaters on Monday 28 February, and is now officially a disaster zone. Properties in the centre of town went under by varying degrees, with water coming in at ankle height in some homes (including ours), at knee height in others, while others remained unaffected. In the surrounding district, bridges collapsed, landslides pushed boulders into people’s homes and whole houses were destroyed. Key roads washed away, or resembled river beds once the waters receded. Dramatic tales of peril are everywhere, such as the couple who spent several hours buried up to their necks in mud, separated from their baby. Or the old guy who couldn’t swim so climbed on top of his bin and was rescued by a dinghy when the water was up to his chin.
In fairness, most people’s experience wasn’t life-threatening, but it was devastating. From cars to photos, mattresses to businesses, people lost possessions big and small. Hundreds of homes became uninhabitable in the space of a few hours. It was the worst flood ever recorded, higher than the one in 2017, which was deemed a one in fifty year event 🤔
Everybody’s story is different: I can only share my own experience. We were comparatively lucky as a family, but I will be forever changed by that day. It came at the end of an extremely intense week at work. Neither Johnno or I were supposed to be working on the Sunday before, which was my birthday, but because the heavy rain made causeways impassable for rostered staff, we both ended up behind the desk. It was crazy busy, full to the brim with customers including a couple who’d flown from Sydney just to have a massage at Kiva (rub my non-celebrating nose in it why don’t you!) The day was filled with logistical challenges: clients & therapists running late, a leak inside the house, waitlists a mile long. Real if-you-didn’t-laugh-you’d-cry stuff.
We’d left the kids and dog at home to fend for themselves during the day, the seventh in a row of unceasing rain, although on this day in particular it was really bucketing down. Arriving back from work, I had to wade across the garden where only the tips of the grass were visible. I was so drenched, I had to shower and change before cake. So already, a memorable birthday.
At bed time, I said to Johnno “Last time the lawn was like that was in 2017” recalling the time floodwater came within a few inches of our house. A key memory of that time was waking in the predawn to the sound of our submerged wheelie bins clanking together.
Clearly worried, Johnno said “I’m going to move the car. The van will be fine in the garage.” So out he traipsed, taking the car to the higher ground of Woollies car park, about 3 minutes walk away.
That was the first in a series of extremely high-stake decisions Johnno made. I discovered that while I am organised to the nth degree in everyday life, when it comes to a crisis, I am utterly hopeless. He is the opposite. He was clear and strategic, and I am so grateful to him for that. At the time, though, I was a total twat, questioning his decisions and adding stress to the unfolding disaster.
When at 3am, he decided to move the van, I moaned “You said it’d be fine!” The water looked too high to pass on one side, and almost too high the other, but he left anyway. Without his phone. Leaving me to clutch the bedsheets in comic despair. When he returned 20 minutes later, I wailed as loudly as I could without waking the kids. “You didn’t take your phone! I was worried about you!”
“Sorry to worry you. But listen, you need to get up. We need to move our stuff. Pick up anything that if it gets wet, will get ruined.” So we stole around the house like thieves so as not to wake the kids, and moved sofas onto chairs, and rugs and mattresses onto the sofa. We unplugged all floor level electronics, and yeeted them onto the pile, creating two towers at either end of the house.
Dawn broke. While the rain had stopped, the streets and our garden were now covered in water from the flooded river. The levels were visibly rising, and as the piling of our possessions continued, I kept telling myself “This is precautionary. We’ll be fine.” Reader, we were not fine. So thank heavens it wasn’t left to me to make the decisions, otherwise afterwards, we would have had a junk pile 6ft high and 10ft wide outside our home, as was the case for 90% of our neighbours. As it was, we managed to keep everything important safe and dry.
“What’s going on?” asked Amy, always the first to rise.
“Hi sweetheart.” said her dad “Help me get your mattress up here.”
Over the next eight hours, the water came in and (and receded again) three times, each time covering every inch of our house. The level pictured below was as high as it got.
I knew my life was not in danger, still I have never had a day where I felt more threatened. I saw our neighbour Polly climb into a passing dinghy. Should we stay, or evacuate? Of all the questions needing answering that day, that was the most critical. Not long after we decided to stay put, it became unsafe to leave, due to the torrent of water swirling along the roads around our home. Deciding to stay when you can leave if you want to is one thing, to be stranded is quite another. While we kept power and running water, the drains were out of action and come mid morning, we had no phone reception. We couldn’t check tide times or whether more rain was coming and worst of all we could no longer receive the reassuring calls we’d had from friends checking in and offering help.
Our decision made, all we could do was wait it out. You’d think disasters would be noisy, whereas this one was unfolding so, so silently. With no rain or signs of life outside, all I could hear was the slosh of water underfoot or the lapping sound of it pulsing down the street. I stood on our sodden veranda, thinking of my community and how this would be a defining moment for us all. There was a sacred quality to my musings, which were rudely punctured by the sound of… a wet vac. I was not at all impressed, marching inside and demanding “Why bother when we’re only going to have to clean up at the end?!” Once again, I was wrong to doubt Johnno’s efforts. Each time the water came in, it left a layer of sediment which didn’t get a chance to build up thanks to the wet vac. The untouched patches (behind a bookcase for instance) revealed how foul our place would have been if Johnno hadn’t have spent so long cleaning up in between floods.
Spending a day at home with your kids when none of their things are where they go, the only place for them to sit is the bath and the only place they can shit is in a bucket presented its own logistical headache. As anyone who’s had the misfortune to accompany me on a camping trip knows, I’m no Bear Grylls. I was pushed to my limit by the need to make multiple decisions from the fundamental, to the bizarre, to the inane, all against the backdrop of doubting the decision to stay. Poor Theo did a real slip-on-a-banana-skin-style fall onto the super slippery floor. The poor dog, meanwhile, kept heading outside to stare at the lawn and was clearly bewildered to see water in its place.
Deprived of his usual spot, he relieved himself in our front room. A two person, two part clean up was needed and involved a net at stage one, and later when the water had gone, about 25 Wet Wipes.
“Don’t go over there!” Johnno said to the kids
“Dad, we can’t go ANYWHERE!”
“Yeah I know but ESPECIALLY don’t go there”
At one point, I bagsied a sit down in the empty bath for 20 minutes, and witnessed the bathroom get wet for the first time, meaning this water surge was higher than the last. As the drains gurgled, I let the meta part of my brain take over, offering mini holidays from the drudge and worry by making observations like “Look how filthy and wrinkly your feet are! You should take a photo” (I didn’t). “What are you going to do with that bucket of human shit? ” (I have no idea) “Is it time for tea yet?” (definitely).
In spite of being under immense pressure, we were able to kept our cool. I am so proud of the kids, who stayed super calm throughout. I later learned that was partly due to Amy taking them aside and giving them the hard word when they woke up, insisting they do what they were told today. At their bed time, while there was a slim chance we’d wake up to more water underfoot, the overriding sense was that the threat of danger had passed. The day’s final, stressful act required of me and Johnno who had been literally on our feet literally all day, was pulling down precariously positioned mattresses from the Jenga tower. The floor retained a filthy film, requiring extra care in the carrying of the mattresses. I made each kid’s bed and went to each of their rooms to wash their feet in a bowl of cold water before tucking them in. I assured each of them “It’ll be over in the morning, I promise.” Was that true? I couldn’t possibly know. I don’t think I’ve felt such a powerful sense of Being a Mum since birthing them.
Exhausted but unable to sleep, I spent the next hour staring at our veranda. At around midnight, I noticed I could see the top garden step that’d been hidden by water all day. I got into bed, giving my own feet a half-hearted clean, and pulled myself tight into a sound asleep Johnno. “It’s over” I whispered.
* * *
Whenever there are news reports about flooding, it’s always accompanied by images of raging waters. The water-y day will definitely stick in my mind forever, but the real challenges, in my experience, came when the water had gone.
But that’s another story.