In late February 2022, torrential rain hit the northern part of New South Wales, Australia, submerging the region under raging floods. I visited the area a month or so later to document the recovery process. Here is a photo essay on what I found.
Lismore, March 2022
When the rain came last month, Lismore pharmacy owner, Kyle Wood, thought his shop would be safe. It sits higher than the street above a small flight of stairs. But as the rain fell, water inundated Lismore and other towns across the Northern Rivers, running so deep that people had to climb onto their roofs.
The floods “went through and destroyed” Wood’s pharmacy, leaving everything but the top two levels of the dispensary a wet, stinking mess.
By 3pm on February 28, the level of the Wilsons River, which runs through the heart of Lismore and is the area’s main tributary, was 14.37 metres (47 feet) – more than two metres above the previous record high in February 1954.
The floods left Northern Rivers’ residents with broken, putrid, mud-soaked homes and belongings. People spent weeks gutting their houses and throwing their property onto the street to be disposed of.
The SES rescued Toby Bell (below) from his sister’s veranda as the floods rose to the second storey. Toby, a resident of Woodburn – a town about 34km (21 miles) south of Lismore – had waded across to her from his house while he still could.
“All we could hear was cows and calves [going] down the river,” he said.
Like Bell, hundreds of people across the Northern Rivers were stranded in their homes. In just 24 hours, the State Emergency Services (SES), a state government emergency and rescue service for natural and man-made disasters, received 927 calls for help from people in Lismore alone.
MJ (below), another resident of Woodburn, said before the floodwaters swamped the town, people had moved their cars to her street because it was “one of the highest” in town.
“And then the water just kept coming … and coming … and coming,” she said.
MJ, who is a bespoke toymaker, says the flood “destroyed my tools, gone, my lumber, gone.” “It was just so overwhelming to go and see my garden … dead,” she said.
MJ, and many other members of the Northern Rivers community, pulled together to provide volunteer help to residents, and donations of food, clothes, household items and other necessities.
Nancy Grimm and Daniel Clark, two SES volunteers in Coraki, about 24km (15 miles) south of Lismore, say it was almost impossible to respond to everyone on that day.
“It was three of us answering the phones and people walking in, in tears, saying “my relatives, the water [is] coming into their house”,” Grimm said, “and then coming back “did you get this person” and it was really distressing … for us to try to keep a cool head and get the information down.”
Clark and other volunteers took the SES boat out and community members on private boats joined the rescue effort.
“I feel like as a community, everyone sort of tried to do their bit,” Grimm said.
When the water cleared, more than 2,800 houses were deemed uninhabitable and some 1,234 people were in temporary and emergency accommodation. The Australian Defence Force (ADF) and other services were brought in, and volunteers from all over Australia flocked to the area.
State and national services, like the ADF, SES and Rural Fire Service (RFS) also stepped in. Much of the work has been about “putting people on the ground to physically help,” said Brigadier Robert Lording, commander of Operation Flood Assist NSW.
“But we also have specialist capabilities,” he added, from engineers to the “air force, [which has] done a lot of work to provide mapping and provide that geospatial information that will inform future planning.”
Army officers equated the damage “on a human dimension” to that of a war zone. “War, unfortunately, has a pretty dynamic effect on the people. It causes great trauma and so do natural disasters,” said Brigadier Robert Lording, commander of Operation Flood Assist NSW, adding that people in Lismore and the wider Northern Rivers region have “lost their homes, they’ve lost all of their possessions, in many cases, they’ve lost their livelihoods as well”.