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'It was terrifying': Small Tweed community still reeling from freak flood, dramatic escape

Margaret Burin, Wednesday April 12, 2017 - 09:55 EST
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Muddy floodwater remains in Johnny and Therese Karam's pool from flooding. - ABC

These families were fast asleep when floodwater came raging down their street and into their homes. As they clean up and try to get their lives back to normal, they are still processing that horrifying night.

A bright blue sky and autumn sunshine make it hard to believe what happened in Burringbar, a tiny town tucked away in NSW's Tweed Valley, just a couple of weeks ago, when ravaged the state's north.

Therese and John Karam were fast asleep in the early hours of the morning when they received a phone call from a family member up the street.

She thought they had better move the cars because water was across the road down the street.

When Therese climbed out of bed, she stepped into ankle-deep water. And it was climbing. Quickly.

They woke their kids and two-year-old granddaughter, Scarlett, and decided to go next door to Therese's elderly parents.

But it was a terrifying few minutes that followed.



"We got all the kids up, they were dead to the world," John said.

"We made our way across there in the dark, so there was seven of us, we all held hands. It was about 3-foot. All I had was the little light ahead of us."

John is acutely aware that things could have turned pear-shaped.

"I thought about it later. I had an avocado tree chopped down and all the stumps were under the mango tree. As we were walking across, they could've come across and hit us," he said.

"If something like that had've hit us, one of us would have got washed away.

"It's a scary thought. It's something we don't want to go through ever again."



The floodwater then came into the house next door.

The women climbed up in the manhole with Scarlett, while the men sat on tables and waited and watched the water rise.

Meanwhile next door, Alastair Gibb and his wife Sue were also panicking.

Water was knee-deep throughout the house. Unsure of how high it would come up, they made the decision to leave.



Luckily his son had decided to store a dinghy in their shed a few years back.

Alastair pushed Sue and their cats and dog out into the main street, where they didn't know what awaited them.

"Once we got out we were in pitch dark," Alastair said.

"The water went from my waist up to under my armpits. That was pretty scary.

"It was flowing extremely fast down the road. It was frightening, it was just so quick."

Halfway through the escape, he lost his footing as powerful torrents of water rushed down the street.

"I actually hit a street sign with the boat, regaining my footage. We then hit the neighbour's garage, putting a dent in his downpipe," Alastair said.



Long road to recovery begins

As these families power through an exhausting whirlwind of Centrelink, phone companies and mud — an endless supply of it — both families are still very emotional about that night.

As Alastair walks into their bedroom where an industrial heater is working to remove as much dampness as possible, he breaks down.

"This is pretty heart-wrenching," he said.

They are trying to move on, despite having lost most of their creature comforts, and livelihood.



Alastair, who lost the ute that tows his mobile coffee business, as well as most household items, is waiting to hear from his insurance company.

He is covered for storm damage but not flood.

"I got a quote years ago and it was well over $10,000," he said.

"It's very expensive. Over the period of 10 years you could probably buy a house with flood insurance, and when you get told it never floods, you think you should be right.

"We're just hanging in limbo."



Tears every day

Burringbar has never flooded like this for as long as locals can remember.

They say it caught them completely off-guard.

"We just hope it was something freak that happened and it won't happen again," John said.

"My father-in-law's been here 76 years and he's never seen water over this road."

Tiny matchbox cars lie out on the back lawn, each of them individually cleaned. They are special memories of John's son's childhood.

The couple is making brutal decisions about what to toss and what to try and salvage.

As they try to get their life back to normal as quickly as possible, they say they have been crying nearly every day.

But John said it had helped them all appreciate the most important thing in life.

"We've still got each other," he said.


- ABC

© ABC 2017

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