When preparing for the worst is no longer enough

Lismore Report (New South Wales, Australia)

It looks like a ghost town. Restaurants, malls, banks, offices… In Lismore, everyone has closed their stores. It has been more than two months. On February 28 the city sank under water. Never experienced floods of this magnitude before. On March 30, it was again hit by a flood. Today, in the almost deserted streets, only improvised merchants are active construction workers, electricians, or still-shocked residents, who have witnessed the river level rise to 14.4 metres. The result: 3,000 uninhabitable homes, entire neighborhoods destroyed, four people killed – about two dozen across the country. Yet everyone was ready for it.

In Lismore, a city of 45,000 in northern New South Wales, life seems to be clinging to one last hope of downtown. As if the latter caused so much suffering, overwhelmed by so much repetition, and that the question now arises is to leave it, rather than rebuild it again.

In Lismore, more than a month after the second flood of 2022, rubble still littered the streets. © Leo Russell / Reporter

It will take at least Three or four years before seeing the city recover »According to Steve Craig, mayor of the city since 2021 and owner of a downtown café. More than a month after the second flood of the year, Lismore is beginning to recover. Piles of debris and waste still litter the sidewalks and some business It will never reopen ».

Lismore, the eternal flood

Built at the edge of the junction of two rivers – Leicester Creek and the Wilsons River – Lismore has had a distinguished history of flooding. The city is built in a basinMargaret Cook, a historian specializing in the history of natural disasters in Australia explains. The rivers were good for trade and navigation. But due to its location, the city is also flooded a lot. »

So at the end of February, when torrential rain hit the northeastern coast of Australia, the situation in Lismore seemed fairly normal. The inhabitants knew that the city would be subject to immersion, and prepared for it out of habit. The houses are tall and the shops in the city center are on several floors. Everything is designed to withstand flooding. We live in floodplains, and we understand the risks »Says Steve Craig.

Most businesses downtown have closed, and some will likely never reopen. © Leo Russell / Reporter

The city witnessed its most important events in 1954 and 1974, when the water in the river rose to about 12.15 meters. In 1999, the decision was made to build a dam, which is supposed to prevent water from reaching the city center when the river level rose between 10.60 and 10.95 metres. Work completed in 2005 kept the city center dry during several episodes of rising rivers. But on March 31, 2017, during a new heavy rain, the water level rose to 11.59 meters, surpassing the level of the dam, overflowing and submerging the entire city center. The most important event in Lismore forty-three years ago… and a first warning.

Near the junction of the two rivers, the home of Chris and Victoria Hedge in southern Lismore was flooded. © Leo Russell / Reporter

Improved prevention after 2017

When you build a dam or a dam, people think that there will be no more floodsMargaret Cook, historian, continues. Sometimes a form of complacency appears. »

However, after 2017, studies conducted in Lismore led to new preventive measures, as well as a revision of flood preparedness or evacuation plans. Because every home and business has an individual plan, that varies depending on their location in the city, land height, etc.

In the city center, sandbags remain on the sidewalks, the work of which will be in vain. © Leo Russell / Reporter

Widely revised after 2017 », reassures the mayor. These plans, which will be drawn up at the site of the state’s emergency services, consist of a series of precautions to be taken based on the height of the river, and instructions to be followed in the event of an evacuation. For companies in the city center, this may be moving their inventory and equipment to the second floor »Mayor details.

Flooding in Lismore is normal, but not like that »

Recommendations that many residents supplement by making their own arrangements. Jade Page has been living with her family in Lismore since 2019. The interior of her home, which is built on stilts, has been completely absorbed by the water. The day before we put everything on our balcony. There is nothing left under the houseas you say. We kept the kayaks, in case we had to evacuate. »

Jade Page thought her house wouldn’t overflow, but the water finally came to the porch. © Leo Russell / Reporter

Equip yourself with a lifeboat, which is an option many residents choose due to the number of canoes, kayaks, or turrets in the parks. But few expected to actually use it. Our house is right on the edge of the flood zone, so it escapes small floodsJade continues. When we bought it, everyone told us “The water will pass under”. »

Despite the height of their home, Chris and Victoria Hedge have to completely rebuild the interior. © Leo Russell / Reporter

On February 28, the kayak served well. After Jade’s husband was left home alone, he had to evacuate in the middle of the night, even to help his neighbors. Moreover, the home of Victoria and Chris Hedge also flooded despite its height. In 1974 there was a little water in it, not 2017 », explains Victoria, originally from Belgium. When the couple invested in this home in 2019, they expected minor flooding inside. But this time the water almost rose to the ceiling, destroying the entire interior. Being submerged in Lismore isn’t a bad thing, it’s normal, but not that much »she completes.

Traces of water are still present in the streets. © Leo Russell / Reporter

events “ more frequent »

For Eli Bird, a member of the Municipal Council and Ad Hoc Flood Management Committee, the current priority is to support residents in finding a roof over their heads. The Solidarity movement, which brings more than 30,000 people into a Facebook group, is also key to supporting the reconstruction effort. But it’s also time to think about the city’s future. People care about Lismore, but we need to support the decisions they want to make to stay safe », she explained. One avenue that has been studied is To help some people get out of the flood area »by moving some housing.

A hope for the future driven especially by a possible expectation More recurring events of this kind »Recent expert reports on climate have also predicted, according to Eli Bird. It seems clear that frequent rains and floods have something to do with global warming. »says Kate Stroud, who runs a creative studio in the city.

In Lismore, in the face of the frequency of natural disasters, some residents have deplored the Australian government’s inaction on the climate. © Leo Russell / Reporter

But in an exhausted country, which has already been plagued by fires for two years, government inaction on the climate issue does not pass with some. When he came to Lismore on March 9, Prime Minister Scott Morrison was challenged by residents and protesters, calling on the government to recognize the problem and improve warning systems.

But residents admit it to many, like the mayor Lismore has never been so well prepared » to deal with floods. Thanks to the reaction of the people of the city and the surrounding area, who came to help during the evacuations, the city undoubtedly avoided even greater casualties. Victoria Hedge assures him: Had the civilians not boarded their boat to save the others, there would have been hundreds of dead. favorable. »

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