The dust settles (the silt, actually) and the news stations, photographers and journalists move on to the next big story. Here in South Murwillumbah, we keep doing what we are doing, moving forward step by step in our recovery. The unprecedented flood event left the worst of us homeless, some of us reeling in shock, and those unaffected in the wider Murwillumbah community rallying support in all kinds of ways. Here is my story…
May I be clear, my story is not the worst and the writing of it is not so much about drawing attention to MY story over others…it has simply been my way processing all that has happened.
Thursday, March 30th– the big wet rainy day
My story started on Thursday morning, March 30, when my 2 sons and I started to head off for school in the bleak, heavy rain. We only got as far as the entry to the highway when we heard over the radio that all schools in QLD had been closed by the government. Since I was heading to work (at school) in QLD with the kids, we made a couple of calls and headed slowly home. Later in the day, Matt (my husband) joined us, and we spent the afternoon watching movies until we got a text from the SES with an evacuation warning. We flippantly wondered if it was serious or not. When the evacuation order came through, we shifted our cars to higher ground and noted that we were already flooded in down the road. Still, we weren’t too concerned, we figured we might get a foot of water under the house at most and planned accordingly, as did our neighbours. We filled up containers with clean water, got torches ready and then joined the people on the street in our raincoats, watching an incredible sight.
The Tweed River was slowly crossing over the adjacent street, still 100m away from our house and with a lot of height and area to cover. Comments were made from people who had lived in the area for years that they had never seen anything like it before. The atmosphere was pretty jovial at this stage…there was a mullet flipping on the road that one of the neighbour’s kids grabbed, with much laughter from the rest of us!
Thursday Night- darkness, roaring water and a speeding, floating car.
Slowly as the darkness settled in, we all went under our houses and decided to move things higher. We put the kids to bed, the rain continued, and a very long night commenced.
Matt and I went down under the house 3 times early on, bringing a few things up onto the deck, securing things better, lifting the fridge and washing machine up higher, and finally, on the last trip, grabbing our 6 chickens from their coop. It seemed a bit of a silly thing to do, because although it was mid-thigh deep, it was very slow moving water at that stage and the girls were roosting up high. The chicken house was elevated exactly in case of a flood event, a good 600mm off the ground, with their perch being 1500mm high. Regardless, my pessimism won out and up came 6 wet scrappy looking chickens onto our back deck!
The rest of the night is a blur…we went from the front window to the back door, to sitting on the couch but not being able to sit still. The water started to gush over the road in a torrent, like rapids. As the night wore on, we realised it was going to be a LOT higher than we had anticipated. We never once considered going back down under the house though, it was a swift moving brown mass of murky water and very obviously dangerous. In hindsight, we felt a bit silly, as there were a lot of small hand tools under the house that would have been so easy to bring up to the deck. It just happened so fast and took us completely unawares.
We eventually woke the kids up to let them see what was happening and it wasn’t long before all of us watched in horror as a Hyundai Elantra crossed the road, heading straight in our direction. I ran from the front window to the back door, just in time to see the car fly past at speed and then get lost in the darkness. How it didn’t hit our house or the neighbours house, I do not know.
We watched a couple of SES guys boat capsize as they attempted a rescue (they were ok- AMAZING people!), and shortly after, we called the SES ourselves. We were starting to feel a little freaked out. The SES reassured us if we needed a rescue they would come to our aid. I spoke to one of our neighbours at around the same time- both of us echoing the same thought- it wasn’t funny or interesting anymore…it just felt a bit scary. The house felt like a boat with things bumping up against the house…unsettling to say the least. We watched the cars out the front, and our steps, hoping and praying it wouldn’t get higher than the 4th step. It must have been about 4am when we finally realised the level was holding. We were exhausted, mentally drained and yet so very thankful that our actual house remained unscathed.
Friday Dawns: a sea of brown water and a new reality…
I can only imagine what it was like to be inside a house with water flooding in. There are so many stories out there of people’s incredible escapes and close calls. We went to bed in the morning, knowing the water level was slowly dropping and there was nothing we could do until later. We had a short snooze and woke up to a new reality…a different atmosphere. Quiet, subdued. Lots of stories being shared and some people were stuck on our side, their houses still under water and unable to reach them. The receding water looked gross. My nursing germ phobia came out and I said to Matt, what can we do today, the water is still in our yard, let’s just be in denial a bit longer! So inside we went, boiled up some pots of water and had a warm little wash, put the kids to bed and sat on the couch looking at each other.
Like so many others, we didn’t have flood cover. Well, we didn’t think we did anyway. Imagine our celebration when, 2 days later we finally checked our policy and realised we were fully covered! (Suncorp has been amazing to deal with I might add!)
All we could think of on Friday morning was how lucky we were. It was only stuff we lost. We watched the news in horror and realised the growing enormity of what had happened. We felt saddened by the news that a neighbour down the street had a heart attack in the night and passed away- we had only been chatting with him a couple of days ago! We felt lost for words really.
Friday was a day of silence in many ways. After the roar of water throughout Thursday night, there was a calm quiet outside. Not a whole lot of SES or fireys or other vehicles could get to us yet. The air was still. The silence of our collective shock and disbelief hung like a wet blanket over everyone’s normal life plans. We looked at the mess as the water receded, we poked around, many neighbours made a start on their clean up. I just couldn’t seem to take it in. One more day of denial.
Saturday: clean up starts with amazing people…
Helicopters buzzed overhead, police and fire crews drove by, their engines humming loudly. Shovels scraping silt, water blasters hard at work and gumboots en mass. These were the scenes that filled our weekend in South Murwillumbah.
Many offered help but simply couldn’t get to us, but our local community rallied around and soon there was chatter and busyness, laughter and tears. From the simple difficulty of ‘we only have 1 wheelbarrow between these 6 houses left!’ to the tragedy revealing with receding waters leaving behind their murky muddy mess…this was our Ground Zero.
At this stage we were fresh and there was so much stuff that simply had to be shifted and cleaned, but it was difficult to know where to begin. I know we felt that we always achieved more when we had friends or helpers turn up because they seemed to pick a spot and conquer it. We seemed to do a lot of aimless wandering when it was just us. Saturday saw a big lot of the bulk mess cleaned up, and ‘the pile’ begin.
I feel the pile needs its own heading. It is a strange thing to say that the pile became a bit of a landmark in an abstract kind of way. A point of conversation “is this going on the pile?” or “yeah, chuck it on the pile mate” and even “Mum, look what the neighbours threw on the pile!” (The last comment cracked me up as I had to explain to my son that the toy on the pile was completely ruined, or else it wouldn’t BE on the pile, and later found out that the neighbours kids had made the same comment about a toy or something that WE had thrown on the pile!)
Watching everyone’s piles grow was sad and telling of the devastation. Our road was certainly skinnier as the pile’s grew. and then the pile suddenly joined up with next doors, and instead of having 2 piles, now there was just one…giant one!
The day the council came in to clear the pile was wonderful, but kinda weird. It felt like the pile represented the loss and the difficulty we were all going through, and whilst I was totally glad to have it gone, it also made me feel like everything was supposed to be normal again- because the street looked normal (well, sort of. In comparison to how it looked with the pile, not before the flood!).
My flood story continues, and the saddest part of all for me was the total devastation of my beloved and ‘becoming’ garden space. That, I have not yet been able to write about, but it is coming. Writing is such a catharsis in my world…whether this post is read or not, it has helped me enormously to sift and sort through all the emotions and be ok.
And then…the Tuesday morning phone call and the funeral
I guess it wouldn’t be the end of my story if I didn’t share with you that on the Tuesday of that first week after the floods, we had a call from NZ from Matt’s brother, telling us that Matt’s Mum had just passed away. Sad and sudden news we were certainly not expecting, but that was also not a complete surprise as she had been unwell for some time. We took off that Thursday and had a blessed week in NZ with family and friends mostly celebrating a beautiful lady who constantly served others and loved to laugh and chat. It was happy, sad and pretty emotionally draining. In some ways, nice to leave the flood mess/clean up, while in others, really odd to not be there and have people in NZ asking us ‘how are you guys?’ …er, well…we just had 6 feet of water decimate the underneath of our house and take everything from our garden, but…ok?!
We are glad that Lillian is resting peacefully now, free of pain and the restrictions that held her back at the end. Leaving behind a legacy in the life of a loving husband, 4 children, 8 grandchildren and family who knows how to laugh and rip each other off, play board games and eat together and mostly actually still like each other!
This has been my story from the flood. Life has its ups and downs. Easy and hard times, times of jubilation and trial. This blog may make it seem like the flood is my time of trial, but its not. It is still writing its own ending, but I think it may be turning itself into a beautiful chapter of humanity rising up from the mud…that will be the next post though…