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21 September 2022


When devastating floods ravaged northern New South Wales in the early weeks of 2022, the world watched in horror as lives and histories were washed away by the rising water. Yet within the carnage, true community showed its face. Two neighbours from Lismore share their story of transformational friendship through catastrophe.

This story originally ran in issue #70 of Dumbo Feather

Kate Stroud

Gravel compresses beneath a bike tyre beyond my walls. I am late again. Emma, my neighbour, rolls in unfazed, escaping the vibrant chorus of little people’s voices next door. Perhaps I’m not late after all. I hit save, close the lid of my laptop and change into my yoga gear. Greeted by her bright, wide smile at the foot of my stairs, we embark on our twice-weekly ritual together.

It’s been like this every week since she and her beautiful family moved in next door, six months ago. Now there is electricity in the air: the kind that disrupts routines, distorts time and erases to-do lists. Emma and I are chatting over our fence about our flood preparation. We’re not too bothered – our homes, parallel, are high in the sky on their old Queenslander legs.

Lights are out as I walk out onto the deck that wraps around and between us, the driveways now a rapid brown causeway. I yell to wake Emma and break the bad news that the brown water will soon be bubbling through our floorboards: the highest tideline in Lismore’s History.

She leans out her stained glass window. I call her on the phone as I can’t hear her shouts above the rushing water. We hold each other’s eyes in disbelief with heads shaking, then disappear back inside to move things higher, again.

Two hours pass. The water is in. Time is elastic, sped up yet stretched long. The carpet comes alive underfoot, pushing our footsteps in waves across the room, tumbling furniture into the brown liquid under darkness. It’s rising fast.

My phone rings. It’s Emma. She is a force with two babies aged under three. There is panic in her voice as she asks what to do. The only thing we can: go up. I attempt to sound poised and rattle a list of essentials for her to take into the roof cavity and assure her we are doing the same. It’s too cold to stay in the water and we have saved all that we can.

Emma’s husband’s voice reverberates through our tin roof. Concealed in the roof cavity, we can’t see the outside world. We can only hear the water lapping the walls, sounding like a giant wave crashing. The hum of boats in the distance taunts, and I am exhausted. Everyone I know is trying to get us a boat. I feel reassured, as Emma is on the Priority SES list due to having small children. Whoever gets a boat first will make sure the other gets one too – we have a pact.

My phone rings. Emma’s daughter is screaming, “My house, my house,” in complete hysterics. They are in a boat. I hear her voice drop as the person driving tells her there isn’t room for us, but her heightened tone assures us they are coming back. We climb down and through the flood waters, now neck deep, and wait at the kitchen window for the boat’s return. I didn’t see Emma leave.

I take a photograph before I board a Jetski about an hour later. Centred floating in the water that had eaten my entire life: a zinnia flower, from a bouquet grown, picked and gifted to me by my neighbour and friend Emma. Goodbye, cute home.

We return two days later, the water drained from the bones of our homes. Destruction laid bare, nothing is where we had left it. Furniture barricades the back kitchen doors, collected by the water’s mustering force. Instead of a growth chart, the tide line is clearly marked on the wall. So high. Little has been spared. My life, soggy, two-inch fudge-like brown mud cakes every surface. This is much bigger than we imagined. Every house redecorated by the same stylist, Wilsons River.

Big blue eyes look deep into mine, brimming with disbelief. There’s another layer now – trauma. Gumboots to gumboots we hug. It’s been three days since we last saw each other, holding one another up as the apocalyptic backdrop unfolded. Our little corner of the world lies in ruins.

We make slow progress to rebuild, an attempt to get back what we once had. Everything has changed, our homes have been ravaged and the displacement has splintered the moments which once enveloped the daily. Sounds of heartbroken construction fill the air as we try to find a clear path forward through the mud to our future, however that looks. Emma is over the fence, pottering in the garden, planting toward the new chapter. We wave through the falling fence. It’s going to be okay.

Emma Lang

It’s a Tuesday afternoon. I hop onto my bike a touch earlier than needed – anything to escape the loud banter of my kids– and ride next door to my neighbour Kate. I call out my hellos, excited for our ride together to our regular yoga class. Kate finishes up her work, grabs her helmet and we set off, chatting about our day.

We feel calm about the impending floods. The SES came around to both our front doors the night before, in the pouring rain, to let us know where the evacuation centre is, yet encouraged our decision to bunker down for the night. We’ve both chosen to stay at our homes. Previous record-breaking floods, in 1974 and 2017, only went a metre through our backyard.

We wake to hear Kate and her partner, Adsy, yelling across our driveways. It’s about 4am and pitch black, because we’ve lost electricity. Dividing our properties is a three-metre timber fence, there’s a flowing torrent of brown murky water three palings from fully engulfing it. I stare at Kate from my window in shock and disbelief. Our double-storey Queenslanders look like houseboats.

It’s going to come in the house. We scramble to lift our belongings higher again, trying to work out what to save and what not to. I call Kate in a panic.

The water is still rising rapidly: we must go up into the ceiling, she tells me. As scary as this is, there is also something profoundly calming about knowing we are in this together.

We talk multiple times while in the roof cavity, bouncing off each other’s energy, being what the other needs at the time. After six or so hours in the roof, I’m starting to get a bit anxious. My phone’s on 20 per cent battery life. I call Kate. She’s calm, she’s always calm. My husband, Anthony, is yelling on the roof, trying to get the attention of a passing boat. Whoever gets a boat first will come and get the other. We’re getting out of this together.

Anthony calls out, he’s got a boat! They tell me they’ve already rescued 20 or so people before us. I’m heartbroken we can’t fit Kate and Adsy on the boat with us, but our rescuers assure me they will come back. It’s all happening so quickly. I’ve been in our dark roof for so long I haven’t seen how high the waters have risen now. I phone Kate and tell her she needs to come out of her roof and wade through the water so they can be found. The water is neck-deep and freezing cold.

Those early days post-flood are such a blur. The water recedes enough to walk through what was our life. Everything is covered in a thick layer of mud.

Nothing can prepare you for that initial walk through. I have the fondest memories of taking my mud caked gloves off, wandering down my stairs and making my way over to see Kate, just because I could and because I really wanted to see my friend across the fence.

I have a sense of my new reality. We have to keep on going. Every day following, Kate and I meet at our homes, have a cuddle and start to rebuild our lives.

Read this story in Issue #7o of Dumbo Feather or find us at your local independent retailer. 

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