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You raise me up: Lismore homes adapted to the flood plain

Photo essay by Margaret Burin, Wednesday April 19, 2017 - 09:28 EST
ABC image
A raised home in North Lismore. - ABC

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With the beauty of hindsight, one could argue that this town in NSW's Northern Rivers should never have been built where it was. But despite being caught off-guard recently, the community of Lismore has adapted to life on a flood plain.

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The quirky streetscape of Lismore is unique yet reminiscent of other pockets of Australia — such as Brisbane and Darwin — that also feel the effects of tropical cyclones.



Lismore's community has adapted to living on a flood plain.

From cute colonial homes to leafy Queensland bungalows, many of the houses in Lismore are boosted high up on stilts or besser blocks, protecting them from the volatile banks of the Wilsons River.

The are a reminder of just how volatile.

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Lismore , long before a levee was built to protect the CBD.

So why did this latest flood hit Lismore so hard?

There were a number of reasons, according to the council's planning coordinator Paula Newman.

The river came up so quickly, faster than usual.



The town is built right on the river. It was handy for transportation in the 1850s, but not so practical during tropical storms.

And while many residents in North Lismore are used to semi-regular flooding, the levee safeguard has made flood damage a distant memory for people in the city centre.

"There may have been some lack of awareness and complacency about the level of protection that the CBD levee offers," Ms Newman said.

"Over the years, we would all do it if we were in that situation. We start putting stuff under our houses, you put your laundry downstairs, you build it in.

"Even when the levee was built, there was a lot of discussion around being cautious that people don't become complacent about flood risk because there's a levee there."

While it may not feel like it to people badly affected by the latest event, Ms Newman said the disaster proved that Lismore was fairly well prepared for floods.

"What we've learnt is that, from a town planning flood control perspective, the flood controls that have been in place for some years work," she said.

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How high can you go?

Flood planning provisions include prohibiting new residential construction in high-risk areas, and providing all residents with their floor height in comparison to predicted flood heights.

Ms Newman said one of the most successful measures was a State Government scheme that helped residents lift their homes to above a one-in-100-year flood.



"There has been funding available in the past to assist landowners. That generally requires landowners to put in one third of the cost, and the State Government provides two thirds," she said.

Some houses are built up to 13 metres. And they cannot get much higher than that before they begin to become unliveable.

But there are still ground-level homes in high-risk areas that are often uninsurable, and wear the most damage.

In the past five years, fewer than five home owners have received funding to raise their homes.

"I believe we will be having more discussions with the state about obtaining more funding towards that program," Ms Newman said.

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Aidan Ricketts lives in one of the lowest lying parts of North Lismore.

His home of 30 years sits on steel posts that let the water rush through rather than resist it.

"It doesn't go into the house, but I can get up to five metres underneath the house in a flood like the other day," he said.

"I always stay. I never feel unsafe."

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Mr Ricketts loves where he lives and accepts that floods are a part of life there.

He keeps a boat tied to his fire escape ladder in case of an emergency, and makes sure he does not store anything underneath the house that he is not prepared to lose.

"People in North Lismore cop it all the time, so they're pretty flood savvy," he said.

"But a lot of the people in South Lismore or Girards Hill only cop these major floods, so for a lot of them there's never been a flood in their house in living memory, so they really do kind of discount it and probably invest far too heavily in what they put down there."

While the most recent flood caught many people unawares, Mr Ricketts believes Lismore fared relatively well because of how it has adapted over the decades.

"Lismore has it down to a fine art, really," he said.

"We've got it right in Lismore in terms of knowing the floor heights of our houses. When you go to buy a house, the real estate agents are usually upfront about what the flood height is."



With climate change, increasing development and other factors, Lismore City Council is aware it will have to keep reassessing those flood heights, and possibly prepare for one-in-100-year floods to be more frequent.

If Ms Newman could sit down with her planning forefathers, she would not go as far as suggesting that the heart of the NSW Northern Rivers be moved altogether.

But with the beauty of hindsight, she may put forward some recommendations.

"Going back a long time, if you knew what we know now, you'd probably say 'Hey, how about we move way back from that river and when we do build, we raise our houses and we build more on the fringe and less in those high-risk areas?'"


- ABC

© ABC 2017

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