Historical image of flood in Lismore

The flooding of Lismore in the early hours of Monday 28 February 2022 and the following days has had a devastating impact on the city, the settlements downstream and rural landholdings. Many parts of the Northern Rivers were affected by the heavy rainfall but it is the region’s ‘capital’ of Lismore, much of it located on the Wilson’s River floodplain, whose future must now be carefully considered. Many believe it can never be rebuilt in its previous form and the time has come for a radical reconfiguration.

Robin Osborne reflects on the latest tragedy to hit Lismore and what might happen next.

In an article titled “Historical tales of a floodplain town” Margaret Henderson from the Richmond River Historical Society – which was massively impacted by the 2022 flooding – concluded by saying, ‘There is always a human touch to every flood!’
Truer words have never been written about a natural catastrophe that has descended on Lismore all too often since the settlement was founded. Even then, the basin’s propensity to flood was well known by the Aboriginal people whose land it was part of.
‘Periodic flooding has always been part of life on the Richmond River [of which the Wilson’s forms the early part],’ Mrs Henderson continued.

‘There were three floods on the Richmond in 1861. Then, in 1863, Casino took the brunt of the flooding, with Lismore again being inundated in 1864. The 1870s and 1880s saw more flooding, especially in 1889. In 1893 there was a major disaster when the river peaked at 29’3” (8.92m), started to fall, and then rose rapidly again to 34’3” (10.44m)…
‘During floods of the 1940s and 1950s, stock was often seen racing down river with the current to Ballina and the open sea: pigs, cows, horses, poultry, sometimes on rafts and often with a snake or two clinging to a piece of driftwood.’
Lismore’s esteemed historian elaborated on “the human touch”, writing ‘As with all disasters, however, there are the accompanying stories of courage, goodwill and humour in times of flooding...
‘The June 1945 flood was one of the worst in the history of the town … Many people were caught in their homes, especially in North Lismore. Boats were needed urgently and police sent out an SOS. Ballina fishermen answered the call and, with their boats loaded on to Mick Feros’ big lorry, they rallied to the rescue. Hour after hour they rowed people to safety. Then the next day they returned with food and blankets.’
This should sound familiar, as during the days following the 2022 flood an informal flotilla of craft, ranging from powered tinnies to paddled kayaks, set forth in the perilous floodwaters to rescue the stranded, many clutching their pets, and ferry them to the safety of higher ground. Fijian contract workers from the closed abattoir in Casino added some muscle and tuneful singing. Courage and goodwill, indeed.
Eighty years ago little assistance was offered by the military or the police (the SES didn’t exist), let alone rapid responses from political leaders, state or federal. Now, everyone wants more for their taxes and people aren’t happy. Local government, with the advantage of being just that, has been quicker to respond, at least in words. Promising money is not within Lismore City Council’s purview: it has been in dire financial straits for several years, and the general manager’s position has been a revolving door.
Lismore’s recently elected Mayor Steve Krieg has predicted that the disaster, which reached a record 14.37 metres, two metres above the 1954 and 1974 levels, will change the city forever.
‘It has to change to survive,’ Krieg said. ‘This was our Cyclone Tracy, this wasn’t a big flood event: this was a demolition.’
Unlike in the aftermath of the historical floods, the criticisms this time have been fast and furious: the potential of the flooding was underestimated and warnings came too late (similar views were expressed in 2017); the 000 phone line was inadequately manned; rescue measures were inadequate and more people would have died unless community members had moved to save those at risk.
And the levee bank, built after years of controversy over its height and cost, was overtopped, predictably, meaning it was useless when the inevitable ‘big one’ arrived.
Among the many questions being asked is the crucial one about what should be done to ensure Lismore has future viability as a riverside town. Mayor Krieg – who lost his business and his home - says it has to change, and few would disagree. But how?
A second levee has been suggested, along with diversion channels. All very well, but even if the federal government underwrites a massive property insurance scheme there seems little chance that businesses or residences will be able to afford to rebuild on the floodplain. Most were uninsured when this flood came, as premiums had become prohibitive. The cost of rebuilding will be out of reach for many, as would insurance should they decide to take the risk.
Could, and should, all the owned land be acquired – and if so, by whom? Should a moratorium be placed on rebuilding on the floodplain? How would that even be made legal – can people be prevented from building on land they own? Would displaced residents be subsidised to move elsewhere? Even to neighbouring LGAs?
Many have suggested the floodplain should be abandoned.
One is Gordon Balfour Haynes, now living in the relatively flood-free, although not weatherproof, location of Federal, who wrote to the EchoNet Daily, ‘I lived through the ’54 and ’74 floods in Lismore – my home was under what is now Lismore Square – and nothing that’s been done in the way of flood mitigation has proven worthwhile when the big ones come. The entire CBD and its adjacent residential areas ought to be demolished and turned to parklands, never again to be built on.’
It’s an appealing thought to expand the attractive parkland bordering the Ballina Street bridge until one considers that around half of Lismore’s residents, perhaps 20,000 people, plus much of its business, industry and civic buildings and cultural institutions, are situated on the river valley floor, that is, the floodplain, elevated 10 metres above sea level.
The rest of the split-city is atop a plateau, 130 metres to 170 metres above sea level, east of the CBD, across two suburbs, Lismore Heights and Goonellabah. The other elevated site is the North Lismore plateau, the ‘Sleeping Lizard’ in Aboriginal lore, previously earmarked by Council for development but currently closed on the basis of cultural claims.
What could be the future location/s for all the displaced households, perhaps up to 2000, as well as the major structures – the new regional art gallery, the greatly enhanced City Hall, the downtown branch of the Richmond Tweed Regional Library, Lismore Square, the list goes on? All were flooded, despite once being thought impermeable.
Clearly, the answer is to go up, which is how to avoid floodwater, but might this mean even higher stilts (which don’t protect cars, electricity and water supply etc) or higher ground, which is in short supply?
The reality is that Lismore was built in the right place when it was a junction for forwarding valuable timber downriver to Ballina, and thence to eager buyers beyond. The ‘Big [cedar] Log’ mounted on a stand opposite Lismore City Hall celebrates this phase of the city’s life.
As Margaret Henderson wrote, ‘The early cedar-getters used flooded creeks and streams to float their logs downstream to mills, or to the ships which carried them to markets in the cities. [She adds, ‘In a major flood in 1861 a large number of logs broke loose, swept down the river and crashed through South Beach at Ballina. The logs continued on their way to become a major shipping hazard at sea’.]
Nowadays, however, and for many decades, Lismore has been in the wrong place and when the wrong time comes there is hell to pay.
No doubt the city is at a crossroads and the next steps will require careful skill and close attention. Can this wait years? One doubts it. Calling the flood a 1-in-500 years or a 1-in-1000 years occurrence (Deputy PM and Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce called it a ‘one-in-3500 year’ event) does not mean the same couldn’t happen again next year.
Such terms foster complacency, and putting a time tag on floods is a disservice to the public that will delay the overhaul needed in infrastructure and planning, according to Suncorp Life’s former CEO Geoff Summerhayes: ‘That was an appropriate narrative when we lived in a more stable climate. But the past is no longer a predictor of the future.’
It is worth remembering that September is the only month in the year that Lismore hasn’t flooded.
Lismore’s future is a test case of what happens when an unstoppable force meets a seemingly immovable object. Nature is unlikely to be the first to blink, as many around the world have learned the hard way – think the residents of New Orleans and now, the NSW Northern Rivers, again.
Lismore, Coraki, Woodburn, Ballina, the ‘two Ms’, Mullumbimby and Murwillumbah, have all been hard hit, with billions of dollars of damage and immeasurable personal trauma. Community confidence has been rocked, and while resilience is an admirable trait, realism is just as important, especially when it comes to planning for the future.