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

On a expedition through northern New South Wales and south Queensland, Warren Murray fulfils locals arguing with the consequences of the Cyclone Debbie

Light to moderate traffic is easing along the Pacific motorway connecting the Gold coast and the Tweed, with no particular sign of cyclone injury or interruptions. But in Chinderah, merely inside New South Wales and merely off the highway, John Anderson is in full-tilt calamity recovery mode, arguing with the aftermath of the flooding rainfalls that ex-cyclone Debbie sent south.

At the Gateway Lifestyle Tweed Shores over-5 0s community, in between dealing here a flow of tradies coming in and out the office doorway Righto mate, do what youve gotta do, well pay for it Anderson describes how last week the sea went through likely 140 cabin-style homes in this complex that he manages.

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

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

Gas bottles ripped off their moorings, leaking gas, energy in mansions filled with salt water, Anderson recollects. 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 degree of their manufactured home, with sea swilling around on the storey below, until they could get off and about to assess the damage.

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

Out front of the park is a stack of destroyed 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 replies from the community, the ones who are pitching in to help out. The dames from nearby Cudgen public school have been turning up with hot meat, and in the top bit of the Gateway park where the sea couldnt reaching we had dames there cooking sausage rolls and bringing them round. Just the most magnificent reply.

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

Double whammy

A short drive away in Tumbulgum its clear from the comprehensive inventorying of household goods in jumbled heaps at the end of every driveway that some people lost more or less everything. A lady hurls her hands up in abdication as a man adds more destroyed belongings to one such developing stack. Everywhere is silt and sludge. At the entry to Riverside Drive a chalked sign mentions Please stop to assist occupants. Nearby a woman, appearing newly arrived on the scene, unloads from her vehicle a little yellow water blaster. It seems hopelessly dinky for the mammoth chore at hand, but every bit helps and you know she will not move 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 vehicle plunged off Dulguigan Road and into the swollens Tweed on Monday afternoon. Daughter Chloe May, 8, managed to flee from the sink vehicle. I arrive on the other side of the river at 11.45 am working 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 sea 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 everybody else she was stranded by the waters and stripped of everything that she couldnt get upstairs.

Sorry were boozing in the middle of the working day but were still in surprise its a double whammy for the small town of Tumbulgum, she mentions , nodding towards the emergency services at work on the opposite bank. She moved her vehicle on to a high bridge before the sea came but lost containers of possessions when the sea rose two steps from the top of our 13 paces. A plastic box swum 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, fastening 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 Anderson, administrator of the Gateway residential complex, with destroyed belongings piled along the roadside waiting for collecting. Photo: Warren Murray for the Guardian

Good over-the-road mates, they have both been badly made 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 difficulties to help others. Nah, well is accurate, mentions Percy. The tip-truck went under but once the sea receded Ben merely 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 pennies a run. The owner bustles backward and forward clearing up , not wanting to be photographed. Hes had enough, mentions Percy. Here for 18 years. Hes leaving. Had enough of the floods.

Three quarters of an hour after I arrived, the grim chore down by the riverside is more or less done. The torsoes have been removed and a crane waits to fish out the still-sunken household vehicle. For a while this website has been the focus of the east coast flood story. Now the cameras will swaying north to Rockhampton, where the Fitzroy river is approaching its flood crest.

Everyone in Tumbulgum has been at it for periods cleaning up. But it looks like they have only just started. It smells like a muddied cattleyard from my country boyhood. Leaving township theres a hedgerow of household dust 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, stack after roadside stack of everything from barbecues to microwaves to newborn strollers to chests of drawers and other buggered material. It is like an endless waterlogged forlorn jumble sale. Where will the council ever inter everything there is?

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

Geoff Percy at work cleaning up in Tumbulgum, with his teammate Ben May operating the loader. Photo: Warren Murray for the Guardian

Above the floodline

A floodline can be a thin topographical frontier 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. Competitor for parking spaces pushings me further up the main street than I would have otherwise run, until I find a spot in front of the old-fashioned Austral Cafe( Established 1919 ).

Inside , not in 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 overflows and fires, putting the current events in context.

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

I think about the people in Tumbulgum inducing 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 road back from Murwillumbah to the Gold Coast is over the Queensland road that traverses the mountains via Tomewin to the Currumbin Valley. The street is injury 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 scenery of muddied piles of ex-goods and former chattels doesnt appeal.

Its a mistake. The weather that caused all the desolation 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 portions they are mere periods 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 draw a U-turn. On the lane 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 mentions things are better on the Numbinbah Valley Road, another of my favourite motorbike itineraries 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 exceedingly injury in segments. I find myself having to steer around million tonnes earth that a saturated hillside has disgorged into my route, or skirt patches where clods of bitumen have been torn out by whooshing waters, or dodge the zones where the road verges have collapsed away, leaving gashes who are able to swallow the car. On this familiar road it would be easy to lapse into an accustomed speed 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 under for collecting, 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. Inundating 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 stones that looks like it should have swept the whole street away. Its down to one lane, differentiated by temporary guidebook posts. From the ridge above, the little waterfall that no doubt swelled to a roaring and caused all this injury has diminished back down to an innocuous percolate over the rocks.

Two pinball machines that eventually satisfied their match when the swollen Tweed river inundated into Tumbulgum. Photo: Warren Murray for the Guardian

Things arent fantastic further west in the Scenic Rim country either. Beaudeserts country 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 only if it is 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 clutch on the soaked ground. Wed already had more than a week of cloudbursts when the remnants of Debbie arrived and upped the tempo.

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

Last year we put on a new roof on our late 70 s, early 80 s brick-veneer bungalow, and consequently had to follow the 21 st-century regulations. That signified weaving steel tornado poles 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 age, but still have their original roof. Which means they dont have those poles. This time around the winds were less than cyclonic. If more of northern Queenslands most extreme weather arrives south in future years as feared, we may discover 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.

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