You can smell Woodburn long before you catch a glimpse of its first houses across the cane fields. A fetid, overpowering stench of sewerage and toxic muck that seeps in through the car’s aircon vents and seems to leave a film of rot on your tongue.
It’s only the second day the town has been accessible by road, cut off for eight days by floodwaters when the Richmond River burst its banks on Monday the 28th of February.
What was once a quiet riverside township now looks like a war zone. Not one building is unscathed.
Mounds of putrid, waterlogged furniture and belongings lie in front of every house. Mud-soaked mattresses, splintered cabinets, and mouldy rolls of carpet jumbled up with Barbie dolls and piles of collapsed gyprock; the sum of a family’s worldly possessions reduced to a festering heap of junk.
On top floor balconies and fences, a few salvageable items recovered in the rubble are laid out to dry in the sun. A military tractor clears up debris from the main strip whilst fire trucks stationed on street corners help pump water out of the lowest-lying homes, hoses criss-crossing over the road.
But thankfully, Woodburn residents are far from alone. The streets are teeming with groups of volunteers who since yesterday have been travelling in from parts of NSW and Queensland to help in the recovery effort.
There are midwives from the Gold Coast Uni Hospital, landscapers from Byron, teachers from the Sunshine Coast, all working together. Some of them have been boots-on-the-ground all week, making their way up and down the coast to flood-affected areas.
Amid the emotions and the devastation, the vibe here is can-do and get-shit-done.
One such team, a group of eight tree loppers from Alstonville, is here for the second day in a row. They tirelessly clear wheelbarrow-loads of belongings and furniture out from Belinda Horn’s house. The mother of two decided to evacuate with her daughters and cats on Monday morning when the floodwaters reached halfway to her knee, only narrowly making the drive out of town.
Belinda knew they would lose what she had stored under the house, but expected, like most of her neighbours, that anything on the top floor would be safe. When the waters finally receded enough for them to return, Belinda says it looked like a bomb had been set off in her house.
“I was ready to see the house and the material devastation, I can get past that. I helped out my sister who lost her house in the 2017 flood, I know what to expect,” she says. “But I wasn’t ready to see my personal belongings, the things you can’t replace. My family photos. My grandma’s crockery.”
“We’ve salvaged six milk crates. That’s all I’ve got left. Out of everything I own. My business stock is gone. I don’t know where we’re going to live. And there’s a lot of fragile people living out here who are even worse off.”
Belinda says it’s the community spirit that’s getting her through.
“I drove out here this morning saying – I can’t do this. And it’s not like me to ask for help, I’m a strong woman. Then these guys show up at my door, these total strangers, and they’ve just moved all of this.”
“Their compassion, their understanding, their humour… they’re just unbelievable.”
Belinda says the hardest thing has been the lack of presence and support from the Government, and how difficult it is to try to access services for help.
“We haven’t heard from anyone official saying to us – do you need an evacuation? Do you need a place to stay? You try to ring Centrelink with the bad reception here and you wait on hold for six hours, only to be told you have to ring a different number,” she says.
“We need someone to come in here and just say to us – we haven’t forgotten you and we’ve got your back. Why isn’t anyone offering that reassurance?”.
A few streets away, Paul Stanley-Jones takes a break from the heat, leaning against his garage wall. Upstairs, a crew with members from Pottsville, Casuarina and the Gold Coast is busy clearing out the second floor of his home, throwing shower screens and rotting drawers out the window and onto the growing pile below.
Paul’s home on Richmond Street is in what’s considered the high part of town. Woodburn residents usually park their cars nearby to keep them dry during floods, and for as long as he’s lived here, floodwaters typically never even make it up high enough to trickle into his garage.
“The worst flood we had in 1954 was an anomaly, and that would’ve gone about one metre into my garage. This flood went almost up to my top floor window, just under four metres. Every single car parked in the usual spot was flooded,” he says.
“This wasn’t a flood. It was a natural phenomenon. Local families who have lived here for generations are calling it a one in 10,000 year flood. And it’s not just here; Broadwater up the road is just as bad”.
Paul’s family evacuated on Monday, after lifting everything they owned to the second storey. He decided to stay put overnight, just in case.
“I lost power at about 10 o’clock, so I was here in the dark and all I could hear was the water cascading over into the drains and running into the cane field. It sounded like the Niagara Falls,” he says.
“The scariest point of my night was when all of a sudden that stopped, because from here to the new freeway became a dam. At first light, I could see the water was at the top step inside my house. That’s when I realised I had to evacuate”.
Paul recounts how the SES were inundated with calls and so he ended up flagging down one of his neighbours, who picked him up from his balcony on a tinny.
He then spent the next four days at the local preschool, with 600 evacuees and 160 dogs, all coordinated by one local police officer and four SES.
“Our local police officer, Adam Bailey, the last conversation I had with him he’d been awake for 90 hours plus. His body must have been at the shut down stage.”
The town was still in a major rescue mode and cut off from food and water supplies, so they started shipping people by boat to the evacuation centres at Evans Head, taking care of the injured.
“There was obviously drama with running that kind of operation on a skeleton crew with so many people, but it was sort of semi under control, to the best of everybody’s ability,” says Paul.
Paul explains how overwhelming it’s been to see the community coming out to help. Over the past two days, they’ve had 40 to 50 people coming through at different times, just showing up in their Utes and getting stuck in.
“People were saying – wait for the army, the army is coming. Mate, with crews like this, they are the army, in my eyes. Just moving down the street doing one house after another, getting shit done.”
“And then at lunchtime, all these vans come down the road and start handing out bags of food and water. That’s all community initiative. The good that we’re seeing is phenomenal.”
“Everyone keeps saying we should’ve had flood insurance. Now I’ve got a job, I can pay bills, but nobody in this region can afford spending $3000 a month to insure for something that’s never really happened before,” he says. “So, we’ve lost our home. Had to throw out so much. How do you begin to rebuild?”.
Paul’s daughter, Bella, walks over to give him a hug.
“The amount of sadness hasn’t quite hit yet. I just can’t afford to think about it at the moment, because it’s a lot. But the community is counteracting it. When you see what’s going on around you, it lifts you so much to… to keep you going.”
“What I’m scared of is that we’ll be forgotten. That everyone will forget this happened once it’s out of the news.”