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After the flood: ‘No tourists please. Help welcome’

On a journey through northern New South Wales and southern Queensland, Warren Murray meets locals contending with the aftermath of Cyclone Debbie

Light to moderate traffic is easing along the Pacific motorway connecting the Gold Coast and the Tweed, with no particular sign of storm damage or delays. But in Chinderah, just inside New South Wales and just off the highway, John Anderson is in full-tilt disaster recovery mode, contending with the aftermath of the flooding rains that ex-cyclone Debbie sent south.

At the Gateway Lifestyle Tweed Shores over-50s community, in between dealing with a stream of tradies coming in and out the office door Righto mate, do what youve gotta do, well pay for it Anderson describes how last week the water went through probably 140 cabin-style homes in this complex that he manages.

On Thursday the tide met the downstream flooding and we were inundated with a metre, metre and a half of water not a flood, but slowly rising water.

By Friday afternoon evacuation was well under way for those residents happy to go.

Gas bottles ripped off their moorings, leaking gas, electricity in residences filled with salt water, Anderson recalls. By 10 oclock Saturday night the park was basically isolated and only accessible by rubber ducky. He and his wife, Beth, opted to stay and keep an eye on things, sleeping on foam mattresses on the upper level of their manufactured home, with water swilling around on the floor below, until they could get out and about to assess the damage.

Days later, theres still so much to be done before things even faintly resemble normality. A jotting on the desk blotter says Copper gas line missing gone. Andersons mobile rings and flashes up the caller details: Shade Sail Andrew.

Out front of the park is a pile of ruined possessions that stretches for maybe 100 metres down the road. It represents in a lot of cases everything that people own, or did own. The villas are about 85% privately owned, 15% rented. Some people are insured, a lot are not because of the cost, being flood-prone.

Anderson lauds a magnificent response from the community, individuals who are pitching in to help out. The ladies from nearby Cudgen public school have been turning up with hot food, and in the top bit of the Gateway park where the water couldnt reach we had ladies there cooking sausage rolls and bringing them round. Just the most magnificent response.

Cleaning
Cleaning up after the flooding in Tumbulgum on the Tweed river, northern New South Wales. Photograph: Warren Murray for the Guardian

Double whammy

A short drive away in Tumbulgum its clear from the comprehensive inventory of household goods in jumbled heaps at the end of every driveway that some people lost more or less everything. A woman throws her hands up in resignation as a man adds more ruined belongings to one such growing pile. Everywhere is silt and sludge. At the entry to Riverside Drive a chalked sign says Please stop to help residents. Nearby a woman, looking newly arrived on the scene, unloads from her car a little yellow water blaster. It seems hopelessly dinky for the mammoth job at hand, but every bit helps and you know she will not go unthanked.

Compounding the heartbreak for Tumbulgum is the death on its doorstep of Stephanie King, 43, her son Jacob, 7, and daugher Ella Jane, 11, after their car plunged off Dulguigan Road and into the swollen Tweed on Monday afternoon. Daughter Chloe May, 8, managed to escape from the sinking car. I arrive on the other side of the river at 11.45am on Tuesday and line up with the rest of the media in a sludgy riverside park. We are being kept at bay as police divers continue their work after having to stop overnight. Even at this distance the water can be seen roiling with bubbles from their difficult work in the murk.

Pixie Bennett clutches a Jack Daniels in a can as she stands near me watching the recovery effort. Like everyone else she was stranded by the waters and stripped of everything that she couldnt get upstairs.

Sorry were drinking in the middle of the day but were still in shock its a double whammy for the little town of Tumbulgum, she says, nodding towards the emergency services at work on the opposite bank. She moved her car on to a high bridge before the water came but lost boxes of possessions when the water rose two steps from the top of our 13 steps. A plastic box floated past and she grabbed it, to find a Barbie dolls clothes packed inside. Our neighbour rowed over in a canoe and rowed us back next door so we could have dinner with them.

Further back from the river in Bawden Street, earthmoving contractor Ben May is opening the jaws of his Bobcat loader, plunging it into those roadside piles, clamping down on whatever he can pick up a fridge, a hot water system and then mechanically hoiking it into his tip-truck. Hes guided by concreter Geoff Percy, a 16-year Tumbulgum resident.

John
John Anderson, manager of the Gateway residential complex, with ruined belongings piled along the roadside waiting for collection. Photograph: Warren Murray for the Guardian

Good over-the-road mates, they have both been badly hit I lost my ute, lots of white goods, it was about seven feet deep through here on Friday but have turned away from their own troubles to help others. Nah, well be right, says Percy. The tip-truck went under but once the water receded Ben just changed all the oils and got it going. Well do this load and then head further up the street.

The words and phrases that come out at these times like resilience and community spirit can sound like cliches until you walk into the sort of situation that gives rise to them.

Two ancient pinball machines sit outside a neighbours place waiting for disposal. In their heyday, Duotron and Firepower cost you 20 cents a go. The owner bustles back and forth clearing up, not wanting to be photographed. Hes had enough, says Percy. Here for 18 years. Hes leaving. Had enough of the floods.

Three quarters of an hour after I arrived, the grim task down by the riverside is more or less done. The bodies have been removed and a crane waits to fish out the still-sunken family car. For a while this site has been the focus of the east coast flood story. Now the cameras will swing north to Rockhampton, where the Fitzroy river is approaching its flood peak.

Everyone in Tumbulgum has been at it for days cleaning up. But it looks like they have only just started. It smells like a muddy cattleyard from my country boyhood. Leaving town theres a hedgerow of household debris tangled in trees along the riverbank.

On the road towards Murwillumbah, through Condong, the same scene repeats itself over and over. Flood-ravaged sugarcane paddocks, pile after roadside pile of everything from barbecues to microwaves to baby strollers to chests of drawers and other buggered stuff. It is like an endless waterlogged forlorn jumble sale. Where will the council ever bury it all?

The makeshift sign in bedraggled Condong is a bit more firm than the one in Tumbulgum. No tourists please. Help welcome. Understandable in the circumstances.

Geoff
Geoff Percy at work cleaning up in Tumbulgum, with his mate Ben May working the loader. Photograph: Warren Murray for the Guardian

Above the floodline

A floodline can be a thin topographical boundary between chaos and business as usual. This is brought home when I pull into Murwillumbah. Nearest the river there are familiar scenes of mopping up. Competition for parking spaces pushes me further up the main street than I would have otherwise gone, until I find a spot in front of the old-fashioned Austral Cafe (Established 1919).

Inside, not so far above that fateful floodline, I get to enjoy a midday breakfast of bacon, eggs, and toast varnished with butter, all in perfectly dry surroundings. The walls are fittingly decorated with historical pictures of the districts past floods and fires, putting the current events in context.

Theres friendly chatter and laughter amid the tinkle of cutlery on crockery in the Austral. But snatches of the days inevitable conversations reach me as well. They found some of his gear on South Stradbroke Island It went floating past the boat ramp He slept through it, which is probably for the best Thats the hardest part. I mean were lucky, but

I think about the people in Tumbulgum making the most of their sausages on bread and whatever else neighbours have chucked together, volunteers have brought, or providence has left unspoiled. I hope they can dine somewhere like this when its all over.

The scenic route back from Murwillumbah to the Gold Coast is over the Queensland road that crosses the mountains via Tomewin to the Currumbin Valley. The road is damaged and open to local traffic only, but when a Falcon station wagon hoons impatiently past me and around the road closed sign, I decide to chance it. I have taken the route plenty of times on my motorbike, I know it well, Im in an all-wheel drive, it cant be too bad. And a trek back to the motorway through that landscape of muddied piles of ex-goods and former chattels doesnt appeal.

Its a mistake. The weather that caused all the devastation down below has left fallen trees, debris and landslips littering the road up here. Council crews are doing what they can to clear the way through, but like everywhere in these parts they are mere days into what looks like weeks or months of work.

At one blockage I wait behind a campervan for a bit, but then people start getting out of their cars, so I pull a U-turn. On the way down theres a Toyota 4WD lying on its roof at the bottom of an embankment. The Stop/Go man with one of the road gangs says things are better on the Numbinbah Valley Road, another of my favourite motorbike routes back to the Gold Coast. There are bad patches, he reckons, but you can get through.

And the road is indeed passable, but only just. It is still partly blocked or extremely damaged in sections. I find myself having to steer around tonnes of earth that a saturated hillside has disgorged into my path, or skirt patches where chunks of bitumen have been torn out by whooshing waters, or dodge areas where the road verges have collapsed away, leaving gashes that could swallow the car. On this familiar route it would be easy to lapse into an accustomed pace and come to grief. I remind myself to take it easy.

Theres a rural version of the recovery effort that is happening back in the Tweed Valley. Unsalvageable belongings being put out for collection, busted fences being put right. In one spot a little Suzuki ute is being used to pay out a coil of barbed wire along a boundary. Flooding has wrecked the road in areas where you wouldnt even have noticed a waterway before. Trees lie flattened in creek beds.

Not far short of Numinbah village theres been a huge cascade of boulders that looks like it should have swept the whole road away. Its down to one lane, marked by temporary guide posts. From the ridge above, the little waterfall that no doubt swelled to a roar and caused all this damage has shrunk back down to an innocuous trickle over the rocks.

Two
Two pinball machines that finally met their match when the swollen Tweed river flooded into Tumbulgum. Photograph: Warren Murray for the Guardian

Things arent fantastic further west in the Scenic Rim country either. Beaudeserts state MP, Jon Krause, has been on ABC 612 radio reminding us that rural communities are likewise dealing with the effects of this natural disaster. Crops have been lost and ruined paddocks will take a lot of work to rehabilitate before they can be planted again.

Pretty soon Im back in suburban Nerang and not far from home. Theres the odd tree lying on the ground here and there, whipped down in the high winds of the previous days, roots having given up their grip on the soaked ground. Wed already had more than a week of downpours when the remnants of Debbie arrived and upped the tempo.

In the park across the road from my house a council crew is mucking out the kids sandpit. But thats about as devastated as it gets round here. The park is part of the local stormwater drainage system, and when the rain arrives the boogie boards come out.

Last year we put on a new roof on our late 70s, early 80s brick-veneer bungalow, and consequently had to follow the 21st-century regulations. That meant threading steel cyclone rods down through the walls, tying the roof to the concrete slab foundation.

Many of the houses around us in this brick-and-tile suburb are of a similar era, but still have their original roofs. Which means they dont have those rods. This time around the winds were less than cyclonic. If more of north Queenslands most extreme weather comes south in future years as feared, we may see those structures tested. To the north, the south and the west of us, there are thousands of people dealing with such consequences in the here and now.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/australia-news/2017/apr/05/after-the-flood-no-tourists-please-help-welcome

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