October 3, 2023

Lismore flood: hundreds rescued and thousands evacuated as NSW city hit by worst flooding in history | New South Wales

5 min read
Lismore flood: hundreds rescued and thousands evacuated as NSW city hit by worst flooding in history | New South Wales

Residents of Lismore have been left reeling after “unprecedented” floods inundated the New South Wales regional city with rescue efforts expected to continue throughout the night.

State Emergency Services have also advised everyone along the entire New South Wales coast to prepare to evacuate with spokesperson Adam Jones saying the conditions were primed for flash flooding.

“We have storm warnings that could become current up and down the coast,” Jones said. “And with the earth as saturated as it is, and our river systems and dams full, we need everyone on the coast of NSW preparing for flash flooding.”

A small flotilla of volunteers in boats, kayaks and canoes joined State Emergency Service first responders in rescuing people who had become trapped on rooftops or in their homes to safety.

Perrottet said those living in one of the 12 areas subject to an evacuation order should leave immediately while those in areas subject to an evacuation warning should leave if it is safe to do so.

“We are seeing unprecedented flooding, particularly in northern New South Wales, and we expect that flooding to get worse,” Perrottet said.

“If you are in one of those areas where there is an evacuation warning in place, please begin planning and preparing for evacuation.

“And if you can leave, and it is safe to do so, please, please leave. We know that these areas where there is an evacuation warning in place can become an evacuation order.”

The premier also said emergency services were doing “everything we can to provide help and support as quickly and as safely as possible”, with the state drawing on support from flood rescue experts in South Australia and Victoria.

Though it is too early to know the full extent of the damage, stories of survival, loss and near misses have begun to emerge, with some people describing having lost everything.

Lismore flood: hundreds rescued and thousands evacuated as NSW city hit by worst flooding in history | New South Wales
The SES has now asked people with boats to stop reporting to their local station as the increased traffic is making it harder for rescue teams to move around. Photograph: Jason O’Brien/AAP

Northern rivers local John Vanderstok, who joined a flotilla of private boats rescuing residents trapped in flooded homes across the town today, said authorities had been overwhelmed by the scale of the rescue operation.

“The emergency services are around but I’d say the locals outnumber them 20 to one, anyone who has a boat is just out there trying to save anyone they can. It’s just so sad, so terrible for the people trapped,” Vanderstok said.

“There would have been – hanging out windows, on roofs – hundreds. There are people everywhere and there are also a lot of boats. I reckon about 200 to 300 boats are there, even heading back, I passed another 15 boats heading in.”

Vanderstok said he arrived in south Lismore just after 10.30am, and saw many people in elevated houses who looked as if they were standing in three to four feet of water.

As of 2pm on Monday SES services had made 545 rescues on Monday, with 1,500 calls for assistance as flood waters peaked at 14.4 metres. With the levee having a capacity of roughly 10 metres, the flood waters are nearly double what was recorded during the next nearest records.

By Monday night, the water level had begun receding.

Previously, the worst flooding event in the region occurred in February 1954 when flood waters rose to 12.27 metres. Another flood in March 1974 saw the river rise to 12.15 metres.

North Lismore local Aiden Ricketts lost his house to the raging waters on Monday, but then used his tinnie to rescue 16 locals and five dogs.

Ricketts said he had barely slept in the 48 hours since the flood warnings began.

“I guess you have to stop somewhere but the rescuing thing is addictive because every time you go down a street and get one person you see five others,” he said.

“We took couples, individuals and five dogs. I had to keep bailing the boat because it is still raining.”

Incoming NSW Greens upper house member and Lismore resident Sue Higginson said while she had evacuated on Sunday night, many of her friends stayed behind and were now trapped.

“In Lismore, we do floods. This is not a flood, it’s a catastrophe,” Higginson said. “This is climate change. My friends are now risking their lives, they’re going from roof to roof and they’re picking up traumatised, screaming people. There’s just not enough boats.”

Higginson said people of the city had been warned but many did not understand the danger.

“People got peppered with warnings, but the warnings were too conservative, too slow,” Higginson said. “It wasn’t until about midnight that they started talking about flood levels higher than 1974.”

Flooding occurs in the town of Lismore, northeastern New South Wales, Monday, 28 February 2022
“This is the most serious situation we have ever faced in terms of flooding in Lismore and the number of people who have been affected,” said Keith Williams, a Ballina shire councillor. Photograph: Jason O’Brien/AAP

NSW SES gave the order to evacuate the city around 2am, telling residents flood waters were rising rapidly and that the Lismore levee was expected to overtop.

With the event still unfolding, it was not known whether there had been loss of life, but NSW police were attempting to resume the search for a man who disappeared into flood water on Sunday afternoon.

Approximately 40,000 people live in the catchment area around Lismore.

As locals compared the feeling of catastrophe in Lismore to that during the black summer bushfires, Keith Williams, a Ballina shire councillor who oversaw water management in the region, said “the word ‘unprecedented’ doesn’t seem like a big enough word”.

“We’ve not seen this before, it’s off the charts,” Williams said. “I’m just constantly hearing reports of people standing on furniture, standing on roofs waiting for rescues.

“This is the most serious situation we have ever faced in terms of flooding in Lismore and the number of people who have been affected.”

Williams said Lismore sits at the joining point between Wilsons River and Leycester Creek. Normally floods occur when one is at record levels, but because the current deluge is hitting both sides of the catchment, it is causing both to flood simultaneously.

“Right off the bat, a dam isn’t going to make any difference at this point in time, What’s happening in Lismore, it would be a tiny speck on an absolute deluge,” Williams said.