Lismore (New South Wales, Australia), report
It looks like a ghost town. Restaurants, shopping malls, banks, offices… In Lismore, everyone has closed shop. And it’s been over two months. On February 28, the city sank under water. She had never experienced floods of such magnitude. On March 30, she was again hit by flooding. Today, in the almost deserted streets, only tradesmen are active who improvise construction workers, electricians, or still traumatized inhabitants, who have seen the level of the river rise up to 14.4 meters. Result: 3,000 homes are uninhabitable, entire neighborhoods have been destroyed, and four people killed – around twenty across the country. Yet everyone was prepared for it.
In Lismore, a city of 45,000 inhabitants in the north of the state of New South Wales, life seems to cling in a last hope to its city center. As if the latter had caused too much suffering, flooded with too many repetitions, and that the question now arises of leaving it, rather than rebuilding it again.
- In Lismore, more than a month after the second flood of 2022, debris still litters the streets. © Leo Roussel/Reporterre
It will take at least “ three or four years before seeing the city recover », according to Steve Krieg, mayor since 2021 and owner of a downtown café. More than a month after the second flood of the year, Lismore is just beginning to recover. Piles of debris and waste still parcel the sidewalks, and some businesses “ will never reopen ».
Lismore, the eternal flood
Built on the edge of the junction of two rivers – Leycester Creek and Wilsons River – Lismore has seen its history marked by floods. “ The city is built in a basinexplains Margaret Cook, a historian specializing in the history of natural disasters in Australia. The rivers were good for trade and navigation. But because of its location, the city also floods a lot. »
So at the end of February, when torrential rains hit the northeast coast of Australia, the situation seemed rather ordinary in Lismore. The inhabitants knew that the city would be susceptible to submergence, and prepared for it out of habit. “ The houses are raised, the shops in the city center are on several floors. Everything is designed to withstand flooding. We live on a floodplain, and we understand the risks »says Steve Krieg.
- Most businesses in the city center have closed, some will probably never reopen. © Leo Roussel/Reporterre
The city experienced its most significant episodes in 1954 and 1974, when the water in the river then rose to about 12.15 meters. In 1999, the decision was taken to build a dyke, supposed to prevent water from reaching the city center when the level of the river rose between 10.60 and 10.95 meters. A work completed in 2005 kept the city center dry during several episodes of rising rivers. But on March 31, 2017, during new intense rains, the water level rose to 11.59 meters, exceeded that of the dike, overflowed and flooded the entire city center. The most important event in Lismore for forty-three years… And a first alarm.
- Near the junction of the two rivers, Chris and Victoria Hedge’s home in South Lismore was flooded. © Leo Roussel/Reporterre
Enhanced prevention after 2017
“ When you build a dam or a levee, people think there will be no more floodscontinues Margaret Cook, historian. A form of complacency sometimes sets in. »
However, after 2017, studies carried out in Lismore led to new prevention measures, as well as the revision of evacuation or flood preparedness plans. Because each household and business has an individual plan, different according to their location in the city, the height of their ground, etc.
- In the city center, sandbags, whose action will have been in vain, are still on the sidewalks. © Leo Roussel/Reporterre
“ They were extensively revised after 2017 », assures the mayor. These plans, to be drawn up on a site of the State emergency services, consist of a series of precautions to be taken depending on the rise in the level of the river, and instructions to be followed in the event of evacuation. “ For businesses in the city center, this may be to move their stock and equipment to the second floor »details the mayor.
“ Flooding in Lismore is normal, but not like this »
Recommendations that many inhabitants complete by making their own arrangements. Jade Page has lived with her family in Lismore since 2019. The interior of her house, which was built on stilts, was completely taken by the waters. “ The day before we put everything up on our balcony. There was nothing left under the houseshe says. We kept a kayak, in case we had to evacuate. »
- Jade Page thought her house wouldn’t flood, but the water finally reached the balcony. © Leo Roussel/Reporterre
Equip yourself with a rescue boat, a choice made by many residents given the number of canoes, kayaks or zodiacs in the gardens. But few expected to actually use them. “ Our house is right on the edge of the flood zone, so it escapes small floodscontinues Jade. When we bought it, everyone told us “The water will pass under”. »
- Despite the height of their house, Chris and Victoria Hedge have to rebuild the whole interior. © Leo Roussel/Reporterre
On February 28, the kayak served well. Left alone at home, Jade’s husband ended up having to evacuate, in the middle of the night, and even to assist his neighbors. Further, the house of Victoria and Chris Hedge was also flooded despite its height. “ In 1974 there was a little water in it, not in 2017 », explains Victoria, originally from Belgium. When the couple invested in this home in 2019, they expected minor flooding inside. But the water this time rose almost to the ceiling, destroying the entire interior. “ Being flooded in Lismore isn’t bad, it’s normal, but not to this extent »she continues.
- In the streets, traces of water are still present. © Leo Roussel/Reporterre
Events “ more frequent »
For Elly Bird, member of the municipal council and of the commission dedicated to flood management, the current priority is to support residents in finding a roof over their heads. A solidarity movement, bringing together more than 30,000 people in a Facebook group, is also central to supporting their reconstruction efforts. But it is also time to reflect on the future of the city. “ People care about Lismore, but we need to support the decisions they want to make to stay safe », she explains. And one of the avenues studied is “ to help some people get out of the flood zone »by relocating some of the housing.
A reflection on the future motivated in particular by the anticipation of possible “ more frequent events of this nature »says Elly Bird, as predicted by recent expert reports on the climate. “ It seems pretty obvious that repetitive rains and such floods have a connection with global warming. »says Kate Stroud, who runs a creative studio in town.
- In Lismore, faced with the frequency of natural disasters, some residents denounce the climate inaction of the Australian government. © Leo Roussel/Reporterre
But in a battered country, already plagued by fires two years ago, the government’s 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 demonstrators, calling for the government to become aware of this issue and to improve warning systems.
But the inhabitants recognize for many, like the mayor, that “ Lismore had never been so well prepared » to deal with flooding. Thanks to the reaction of the inhabitants of the city and the surrounding area, who came to help during the evacuations, the city has undoubtedly avoided an even heavier human toll. Victoria Hedge assures him: “ If the civilians had not taken their boat to rescue the others, there would have been hundreds of deaths. Hundreds. »
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