The Floods in South-East Australia
In the beginning, the rain was welcome. After years of drought and bushfire, the thrumming on the roof brought hope. Our plants resembled parched extras in a desert shoot-out. Rain sounded like the cavalry arriving just in time.
That was the first La Niña. Last year, there was another. This year, for the first time in recorded history, there’s a third La Niña in a row. In the town of Lismore, in north-eastern New South Wales, it rained so heavily on 28 February that the river broke its banks. Water seeped under doors, then pushed up through the floor, and as people’s belongings floated before them, they knew it was too late to leave. Children stood on tables as their parents scrambled to bludgeon holes in the ceiling. In the dark, they waited together in or on their roofs, rain pounding down, knowing their possessions, or the pets too heavy to lift, were below them in the floodwater.
Further south, in Melbourne, we saw the footage of a town made into a brown lake. Overnight, the river had risen 14.4 metres, and locals in kayaks and dinghies were navigating past treetops and submerged houses, listening for the banging from the people trapped in roof cavities.
When the town re-emerged, it was sepia-toned. Buildings, roads and gardens were coated in pink-brown silt, as if carved from the riverbed. There were other tricks for the eye: caravans parked on roofs, trees wearing chairs and other furniture, branches laden with clothing and toys. A community hall where the local farmers held their dances had floated away leaving brick stumps.
Six months later, I travelled near Lismore for work and took a detour to look around. The town had flooded many times before. High on a hill, old gravestones had been pushed into tight rows after a relocation some years earlier. Each had a watermark. The latest flood, though, was the worst on record and Lismore, which previously had a population of 28,000, was half deserted. Road signs were rusted from being under water. They pointed to streets of derelict houses – houses on stilts that hadn’t been high enough. They were known to be on a flood plain, and virtually uninsurable. This was where the region’s poorest had lived. Thousands were still displaced, most having lost everything.
Countless truckloads of carpets and cabinetry, mattresses and white goods had been towed to landfill. For kilometres in every direction, household goods and children’s toys, covered in oily brown mud, had been piled along the curbside. The stench was inescapable.
‘The Hearts of the People Cry Out to the Lord,’ read a dilapidated sign outside the Presbyterian church. Drawings of red love hearts had been stuck in shop windows around the main street as a cry of thanks to the rescue workers. Many stores were vacant. They all bore a mark of rot, or a buckled veranda, or a corroded roof. The authorities feared that older structures, such as the Deco red brick municipal buildings, might slowly crumble. Mould was spreading in the mortar making everything unstable.
Up and down Australia’s east coast, and inland on the hills and plains, most people have a story about mould. Black mould, brown mould, grey mould, green, pink, orange, yellow. The worst strains release toxic spores. Mould grows on clothes and furniture. It grows in air-conditioning vents and pipes. With the earth still sodden, it comes up through floorboards: or, as a woman in Sydney told me, down from the roof. Her children had woken to see mushrooms growing from the ceiling of their bedroom.
When the sky darkens, especially in a place like Lismore, people’s chests tighten. One moment the horizon is full of mild-looking cumulus, the next, it’s as if black ink has been spilled. Grey storm clouds bloom. It might be a light shower, but it might also be a torrent. An inconsistent pattern of drips is one form of water torture. Across the country the rain keeps tapping out messages not everyone wants to hear. In council documents relating to the flood, the mayor of Lismore had struck out a ‘political’ reference to climate change.
In early October, southern Australia began flooding too. This weather, a hallmark of La Niña, was also foretold by a negative Indian Ocean Dipole. The IOD is the difference between the sea surface temperature at a western pole in the Arabian Sea and an eastern pole south of Indonesia. Greenhouse warming has lead to more frequent and extreme Dipole ‘events’. The positive IOD brought drought and fire to Australia. The negative IOD is dunking us over and over again.
On the day Melbourne started flooding, I listened to the yowling of the rain, and it was clear why vengeance is a recurring theme in flood myths. In the Epic of Gilgamesh a god sends a flood because humans are too noisy. Zeus sent a flood because humans would not stop warring. Noah got his deluge tip-off after God decided he was the only righteous guy around. What had we done? Nothing … other than elect successive governments who told us not to worry, that everything would be all right, as the extraction and burning of fossil fuels continued.
Whole towns of people had wished for rain but now every drop they’d ever wanted was being released all at once. Our house in Melbourne is on high ground, but in every room we heard the rain’s roaring white noise. Trees were crushed by the weight of the water. The local creek burst its banks and became a river. In aerial images, a network of lakes and streams took the place of suburban streets. (It was estimated that repairing the state’s roads could take years.) The emergency services’ ‘Watch and Act’ alerts kept multiplying. River towns had an ‘Evacuate Immediately’ warning, those in other places were urged to ‘Move to Higher Ground.’
Through the dry, we hadn’t known there was so much water. That was one shock. The other was that despite our weirs and dams and walls, this water would not go where we wanted. It couldn’t, say, be stored for when the gods or the positive Indian Ocean Dipole frowned on us again. And anyway, the water was riddled with E. coli and other bacteria. Sewerage systems had been knocked out and would take months to fix. For the rest of this year, at least, it will not be safe to swim in rivers or at beaches around Port Phillip Bay. Flooded petrol stations have leaked hydrocarbons, mixing with pesticides from flooded farms. Crops up and down the country are under water.
Each day, as we inch towards the Australian summer, I keep expecting some lever to switch off the rain. It keeps sheeting down though, hitting already saturated ground that can no longer absorb it. In the last few days, an area the size of Switzerland has been cut off by a new flood. In the town of Eugowra, in central west New South Wales, 120 millimetres of rain fell in an hour, creating an inland tsunami. Houses were ripped from their foundations, and cars flung around like toys. People clung to roofs and trees. A woman survived by floating on her mattress.
With more flooding predicted, there’s a picture I can’t get out of my head. It’s a photo taken last month showing a woman a few suburbs from where I live. She is pushing her pram through dank brown flood water. Her legs and the pram’s wheels are submerged, but otherwise she has the preoccupied look of any new mother hustling to get her baby to an appointment. It is an image of resilience, of ‘keeping on’, but it captures something else. The way we do just keep on.
As the sloshing water grows higher, we need to act. Each of us should stop what we’re doing and start building an ark. In the ark, let’s put every last tool used for digging and siphoning coal and gas. We’ll hammer them away, out of reach, then send our rickety ship onto the rising seas. We need to do this now, because even as I write, I can hear the rain falling, on and on and on.
This piece is part of the LRB’s collaboration with the World Weather Network.