After two major floods in little more than a month, Lismore is facing an existential crisis. Should residents stay or go — and where?
Joel North is sitting on a steep staircase like a ladder that takes you up to the bridge where a captain would steer the wheel of a ship.
But this is no sea-going vessel — it's the house Joel and his wife Anita have been building since 2012, bit by bit on the Wilsons River in North Lismore.
Their dream was to make their home flood-proof.
"So we re-pitched the roof and then put a level in there and had a deck so we could get out if we ever had to," says Joel.
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He climbs the ladder to a very special room built a full 14 metres above the ground — that's roughly the height of a semi-trailer standing end on end.
This room in the roof cavity is the family's "flood refuge room".
"If there was a big flood in the house, then we could get up and sleep here."
That's not the only modification.
"We've got bookshelves up high, pretty much at the ceiling. We have hooks in the ceiling, so our lounges, our mattresses can all be suspended."
Joel and Anita bought this place for just $170,000 and have worked on it ever since, says Anita.
"We've spent 10 years sort of crafting and sanding and building and dreaming, and it's like this running joke with everybody when they come to our house — ‘Is there a new deck now … or like, another room?'"
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In 2017, when a huge flood did come through Lismore, their hard work paid off.
"It totally works. Yeah, we saved everything. We didn't lose a thing that flood, not one thing," says Joel.
But in 2019, their idyllic life by the river was shattered. And not by a natural disaster.
One day while Anita was pregnant with their little boy Heath, Joel had a sudden seizure.
He was diagnosed with brain cancer. Doctors gave him two years to live.
That was three years ago.
Surgeons removed a golf-ball sized tumour from his head. The procedure temporarily paralysed the left side of Joel's body and left him with a limp.
That limp was with him when in late February this year, storms upon storms saw the Wilson river rising quickly again.
It was Sunday the 27th when Anita and Heath moved to higher ground and Joel began moving things higher up in the house.
"We have phases in our flood strategy," explains Anita.
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"Phase one: water over the slab under the house — OK, lift it above that. Phase two: water above the factory space — we also work from home — lift it above that."
Joel kept moving things up, just as they'd planned.
"We kept getting more and more updates, and it was like 10 metres, then 11 metres, 12 metres …"
"It must've been like two o'clock [am] … it said 13 metres. And I was just so exhausted and started stacking things higher, but the water was already in the house. My stack started falling over and I was just like, I'm going to sleep, came up here, slept for maybe an hour."
Joel woke and realised he too was about to go underwater.
He called Anita, and she told him it was time to leave.
"He called me and I said, 'Honey, whatever you've saved is enough.' And he just went quiet on the other end of the line. And then he started crying and he said, 'I haven't saved anything, it's all underwater.' And I could picture him there and how exhausted he was."
Joel was standing in a foot of water, in his flood refuge room, in the house they thought was flood-proof.
He mentally froze.
"I had to talk him through putting a life jacket on because he was having such a panic attack," says Anita.
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"Put your phone in your bag, paddle our canoe from the roof of our house to our neighbour's house. Get to people."
Joel had recently bought a lightweight kayak that he'd stashed in his flood-proof room.
He'd even built a small gate on the side of his uppermost deck.
He opened it, kicked a floating fridge out of the way, put his kayak in the water and paddled away.
Joel, Anita and two-year-old Heath are now staying in a house in Ballina lent to them by friends.
The one thing they know for certain is they can no longer live in their Lismore home, says Anita.
"Now I'm sort of dreaming up more like a buyback situation where possibly the government is able to buy back these places and we can use those funds to try and start somewhere else."
Something similar happened in the tiny south-east Queensland town, Grantham — the government offered residents blocks on high ground after the devastating 2011 floods.
So far, Lismore's mayor has rejected calls to relocate the town's CBD to higher ground.
Whatever happens, the fracturing of the community adds another layer of loss for its residents.
"That's what's broken my heart, really," says Anita.
"It's not the destruction of stuff in my home, which is replaceable. What's broken my heart is that I have to find somewhere else to live, which isn't just as simple as finding another roof over our heads.
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"It's like, my dad lives around the corner from us, our closest friends on the land next to us — we have a hobby farm together.
"I birthed my baby at home. It's rich and it's deep.
"[But] I feel like it's going to flood again like that. I don't want to live with that fear every time it rains heavily and every time the water comes up."
The rebuilder: Peter
Bright sunlight shines through the stripped walls of Peter Speeding's home in South Lismore.
He and his childhood mate Gary Browning are bare chested and sweaty, feverishly ripping the sodden gyprock sheets off the bare bones of his house.
It's three weeks since February's record-breaking deluge, but Peter's unflinching in his determination to rebuild the place he's lived in for 22 years.
"I could sell up. But then that money would squiggle away on rent."
"Look at rent today — you're looking at $400 to $500 for a room. I get this house back in order, I could rent this for $500 a week. But where do I go? Around Australia I think, in a caravan."
Like many of South Lismore's people, Peter was not insured for flood.
"I've had house and contents insurance for the last 22 years. But when it comes to flood, it's an extra $15–20,000 [per year]."
Peter's back living in his house on an inflatable mattress on the upstairs floor. Outside the window is a massive pile of debris — just about every house in South Lismore has one.
It's like the rotting innards of a once-living home have been coughed up to stink up the street in the humidity and heat.
"A lot of memories in that pile, all my photos. I've lost the whole lot. Everything. It's all out there in a pile of rubble."
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A video camera was all he saved.
"That's got the kids growing up. Got me grandson on it. But I haven't got a TV to play it on because I lost my TV too."
Peter was rescued after punching a hole through a tiny skylight, squeezing through and waiting on the roof.
He says the only thing that might break his determination to rebuild is if his house flooded again before he'd fixed it up.
Exactly one week later, it does.
"Water come up again, flood," Peter says over the phone. "I got rescued by the SES. More than likely the water will be gone into the house again."
The resilient and determined bloke of a week earlier seems gone, too.
"I had a fair bit of stuff in there still — stuff I'd got over the last month. Bedding, food, stuff to cook with."
"Back to square one."
"Just bloody shocking. All that garbage, that they didn't take initially. That'll all be flooded around the yard. So that's another thing that I'm going to contend with."
Peter says he's not eligible for the $20,000 grant NSW is offering to uninsured home owners and renters because he's waiting on the results of his application for a Disaster Relief Grant, which will take time to be approved.
"If I had a genie give me a million dollars, I'd sell and go to higher ground today."
"Not much bloody positivity coming out of these sorts of situations. I've not got too much to say after that, mate."
'They promised me it would never flood there': Cheryl
Cheryl Thomson stands in shorts and gumboots with a high-pressure hose in one of her rubber-gloved hands.
She's in front of a flood-ruined rented house, scrubbing the grime out of a bird cage — not so that she can use it again, but so she can sell it and make a few dollars.
Stacked and crumpled along the side of the house is a graveyard of other cages in which birds were bred.
Cheryl's visibly shaking and emotional well before she says a word.
"Lost all my birds, lost everything we own. I've got a disabled son, lost half of his childhood."
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Cheryl's a bird breeder. Or at least, she was.
"Yeah — had birds spread all over the place after the 2017 flood and I've lost them. I have nine… nine birds left."
"These aren't just birds. These are my pets. They're my babies, hand-raised, they used to talk. Cockatoos, Major Mitchells, galahs, ringnecks, lorikeets — you name it, I had it."
All but a handful drowned.
This is her partner's place. After 2017's flood, she moved to East Lismore where she was told it would never flood. But in February, it did.
"[The flood] got two houses away from us where they said it'd never, ever, ever, ever flood.
"My nerves are through the roof at the moment."
On the street is Cheryl's car. It has a wire mesh barrier separating the front seats from the back.
Cheryl's 16-year-old son has a disability and his behaviour can be challenging. She says the barrier is there to prevent him from hitting her or one of his carers while they're driving.
"He's looked after by the carers a lot, and he just doesn't understand what's happened here. He has no idea.
"He just realised that I'd lost the birds the other day and he just broke down, came over to me and gave me a hug. Yeah, he just … he doesn't understand."
Cheryl is still too rattled to consider what the future holds. She knows government relief grants are available but hasn't applied for them yet.
"I'd like to stay here, but we'll just see what happens over the next few months … I don't know what I'm gonna do now.
"I think it's broken a lot of people around here."
No home to lose: Daryl
It's fair to say that Daryl Reeve's life was pretty broken already, before the big flood drowned the caravan park by the river that he called his Lismore home.
"I came straight from Melbourne to Lismore and straight to the caravan park.
"I'll be honest with you, I got straight out of jail. Straight out of prison."
In Melbourne, Daryl had been writing to a friend in Lismore, Jen.
He now calls her his fiancee. She's been helping him clean up and salvage his few possessions.
Jen's letting him stay briefly with her at her son's place, but the arrangement can't last long.
"We live there because we're homeless and [there's] a lot of homeless people out here and some people take advantage of it … As of Friday, I'm living in me car again.
"Lovely town, but I don't think we'll ever get back to what it was.
"It's got me buggered how this town or the people are going to come back.
"It's going to take a long, long, long time."
To reopen or not: Kaye
Kaye McDonnell stands in the doorway of her former shop singing to herself as she scrubs river grime out of a brand new Weber barbecue. The floor behind is strewn with other Webers waiting to be meticulously cleaned up.
Her shop, The Kitchen Shelf, provides kitchen, barbecue and catering gear to the whole Northern Rivers region.
"They just pour in from everywhere to Lismore. So it's hard to give that up."
Her livelihood and retirement dreams rely on Lismore's CBD getting back on its feet.
"We've been in the business for 17 years and just grown and grown it. And yeah, so anyway …" Kaye laughs nervously, clearly trying to hold tears back.
The decision to clean up and reopen hasn't been an easy one.
"The day after the flood, we weren't going to. But now, now we've had time to think about it … we'll come back.
"Your heart and soul goes into your business. As my husband said, it's like a child.
"It's very hard to walk away and wonderful to have so many people helping. You couldn't walk away when they put so much effort into … helping us as well."
Kaye and her husband had plans to semi-retire soon and spend more time travelling in their caravan.
As uninsured small business owners without much super, those plans are now indefinitely on hold.
Kaye knows that the decision to reopen is not just about her future, but the future of Lismore itself.
"We can spend all this time cleaning it up and the money that you have to put into it again. [But] are people going to come, you know?
"If there's not enough places open up, if there's not supermarkets, there's not petrol stations … people leave. That's the scary part.
"But you know, we'll be here and see how it goes."
And she's tackling that uncertainty in the doorway of her shop, one Weber at a time.
This story comes from ABC RN's Background Briefing program. For more daring narrative journalism, listen for free on the ABC listen app, Apple Podcasts, Google Podcasts, or your favourite podcast app.
Reporter: Geoff Thompson
Photographer: Mia Forrest
Executive Producer: Tim Roxburgh