Historical tales of a floodplain town
Written by Margaret Henderson, Richmond River Historical Society. Research material and photographs courtesy of the Richmond River Historical Society.
Periodic flooding has always been part of life on the Richmond River. The early cedar-getters used flooded creeks and streams to float their logs downstream to mills, or to the ships which carried them to markets in the cities. In a major flood in 1861 a large number of logs broke loose, swept down the river and crashed through South Beach at Ballina. The logs continued on their way to become a major shipping hazard at sea.
There were three floods on the Richmond in 1861. Then, in 1863, Casino took the brunt of the flooding, with Lismore again being inundated in 1864. The 1870s and 1880s saw more flooding, especially in 1889. In 1893 there was a major disaster when the river peaked at 29'3" (8.92m), started to fall, and then rose rapidly again to 34'3" (10.44m).
As with all disasters, however, there are the accompanying stories of courage, goodwill and humour in times of flooding. These stories are usually remembered long after the danger has passed, and many have been recorded in local newspapers.
In 1931 flood refugees were housed at the Lismore Showground. The Northern Star reported that there was a mixed crowd of about 250, together with their cats and dogs, canaries and parrots. Constable McInnes, who was stationed at North Lismore, was in charge of supplies and paid regular visits to see whether anything was needed.
On two occasions he “removed undesirables to less crowded quarters”. The Railway Station Master provided some railway carriages as sleeping quarters while some people were taken each night by goods train to a railway shed where they could sleep comfortably.
In 1945, even the World War struggles going on in the Pacific Islands and New Guinea jungles took second place to the flood. The Northern Star in those days was published in Molesworth Street. It too was affected by the flood but managed to bring out a special flood broadsheet which contained only two or three small paragraphs of war news.
The June 1945 flood was one of the worst in the history of the Richmond. Many people were caught in their homes, especially in North Lismore. Boats were needed urgently and police sent out an SOS. Ballina fishermen answered the call and, with their boats loaded on to Mick Feros' big lorry, they rallied to the rescue. Hour after hour they rowed people to safety. Then the next day they returned with food and blankets.
In addition, in 1945 the residents of North and South Lismore were like the Ancient Mariner, when the water supply was cut off! The water pumping station had been considered out of flood reach when built. However, the floodwaters rose swiftly and it was realised that the pumps were in danger of being covered. With the access road covered in water the supervisor, Mr Thorncroft, led his men up and over a hill to reach the pumps. It was a dangerous job as floodwaters began to pour in on the men as they struggled to dislodge the equipment. They succeeded just in time. Presumably they then retreated back over the hill again!
Food supplies in the 1945 flood had the added problem of wartime rationing. The Mayor of Lismore telegraphed the Deputy Commissioner of Food Rationing asking for special consideration under the circumstances. In the meantime he authorised NORCO to distribute butter without coupons.
Local communications became a problem when Radio 2LM lost its signal from its Molesworth Street studios. This was even more serious because the police telephones (in the police station opposite) had ceased to function. Staff at 2LM were taking police messages and shouting them across the road to the station staff!
The situation was solved when an emergency studio was set up at the Goonellabah transmission station. The telephone exchange transferred police calls to Goonellabah where they were sent on to police via radio. When setting up at Goonellabah staff tried to ease the situation by introducing themselves with the theme music Ol’ Man River.
It is not only people who suffer in floods. There are always many stock losses.
During floods of the 1940s and 1950s, stock were often seen racing down river with the current to Ballina and the open sea: pigs, cows, horses, poultry, sometimes on rafts and often with a snake or two clinging to a piece of driftwood. Brave souls tore after these poor animals and tried to rescue them, and many succeeded.
At least one bull did not take too kindly to the whole operation and, finding himself safely on solid ground, immediately charged his saviours!
Then there are the people who think a flood is great fun. They go swimming in the murky waters, while others go sightseeing, blocking emergency traffic and holding up would-be rescues. Some paddle around the streets, while others tear around in motorboats not thinking that the wash from their boats can smash plate glass windows.
In 1954 and 1974 there were major floods and people coped with them as they had done in the past. And, as in the past, there were the funny stories. One of these concerned a bank whose manager prided himself on keeping up with the times.
He had been advised of a new product which would completely seal the strongroom and prevent water from entering.
For once staff did not have to move all the precious items from the strongroom and after the flood, the clean-up completed, the seal was removed and the strongroom door opened. To everyone's astonishment (and the manager's embarrassment) a great wave of water rushed out at them, and the clean-up had to start all over again! Many hands were apparently ironing banknotes and other precious items for some time afterwards.
Yes, there is always a human touch to every flood!
Important information for residents during a flood
Road closure information is available via MyRoadInfo.
Mobile phone SMS flood messages are available. Register with us to get official alerts. Phone us on 1300 87 83 87 and register your phone number or fill out the Flood Alert SMS Registration.
People and/or property at risk: SES 132 500
Stay informed: listen to the radio
During a flood, listen to your local radio station for information, updates and advice.
|ABC North Coast||94.5FM|
|River FM||92.9 FM|
|Richmond Valley Radio||88.9FM|
Attention: By clicking the links below you will go to a page not part of Lismore City Council's website. The Council assumes no responsibility for the accuracy or suitability of the content provided on the sites.
Bureau of Meteorology (flood warnings, river heights and forecasts)
Links to local councils:
Flood evacuation: last roads to high ground
North – Keen Street then Leycester or High Street
East – Conway Street then Wyrallah Road
Casino Street – Ballina Street Bridge then Ballina Street and Wyrallah Road
Bridge Street or CBD then north through Keen Street and Leycester Streets. Residents furthermost away from the river may have access to Dunoon Road through the showground.
What to do in a flood
As a resident living in a flood-prone area, you need to plan what you and your family will do in the event of a major flood.
In fact, it is important that you understand the nature of floods in Lismore, the risk factors and the communication methods so you can make informed decisions about your family and your property.
Three basic measures you can take right now include preparing a family flood plan, keeping a list of emergency numbers near the phone and packing an emergency kit.
SES is the authority responsible for determining the need for an evacuation of residents in low lying areas. Once the decision has been made, official evacuation centres will be activated.
Making an early move
In major floods the safest option is to evacuate early. Make sure your house is secure, collect your pets and pack your emergency kit with valuables (important documents, photos) as well as any medication and sufficient clothing and personal items for several days.
Turn off the electricity and water as you leave, and turn off and secure gas bottles. Arrange to stay with friends and relatives who live in flood-free areas, or at the official evacuation centre at Southern Cross University. If possible, tell family members and neighbours that you are leaving. You should also advise the SES or other emergency services that you are evacuating.
At all times, your emergency kit should contain:
- A portable radio with spare batteries.
- A torch with spare batteries.
- A first aid kit.
- Rubber gloves.
- Candles and waterproof matches.
- A waterproof bag for valuables.
When flooding is likely, these items should be added:
- Important documents/photos.
- Special dietary needs or other special requirements.
Flood levels and floor heights
The documents below provide info on flood levels for homes and businesses in Lismore as well as historic flood heights from 1870 until 2009.
Lismore Floodplain Risk Management Plan
The Lismore Floodplain Risk Management Plan aims to minimise the community’s exposure to flood hazard in Lismore’s developed areas and ensure that new development is compatible with the flood hazard and does not create additional flooding problems. Controls that apply to new development in the flood-prone urban areas of Lismore are in Chapter 8 of the Lismore Development Control Plan.
A short history of flooding in Lismore
Lismore was first settled by red cedar cutters and farmers looking for high quality fertile land. All transport was by boat, using the river system as a major trade route to the sea.
Ships could not travel upstream much further than the junction of Leycester Creek and the Wilsons River. This junction was also suitable for the ships to turn around.
Lismore grew rapidly around the river trade, timber and agricultural industries, becoming one of the major North Coast towns. In the 1890s the railway linked the river and rail systems, further confirming Lismore’s status as a regional centre.
The importance of the river diminished as road transport improved after WWII. By this time Lismore was a major city, established adjacent to the Wilsons River.
While the location of Lismore is ideal as a service and trading centre for produce and freight, floods come very quickly and consequently have a major impact.
During heavy rain, rainfall from the high surrounding hills comes down the steep creeks and rivers meeting at Lismore, then slowing down and spreading across the floodplain before moving out to sea.
In 1954 and 1974 Lismore experienced very severe flooding, creating major problems for the community.
Following the 1974 flood, the government of the day commissioned a number of studies to consider ways to overcome the Lismore’s flood problems.
The then government assisted with the purchase of land at Goonellabah to create a new commercial area and new planning schemes to limit growth in floodplain zones. A voluntary purchase scheme aimed at assisting people to move out of the seriously affected flood zones was also introduced. The study concluded by stating that it would be very difficult to construct a levee system for Lismore.
Following the 1989 flood the concept of a levee to protect the CBD was again investigated. After examining the hydraulic effects of more than 20 possible levee schemes, it became clear that it was both practical and financially feasible to construct a limited levee system around South and Central Lismore.
In 1999 a government-funded scheme to protect the CBD and South Lismore from a 1-in-10-year flood event was approved. This proposal would mean that most of the smaller floods would not enter the central area of Lismore and substantially improve the time available for the evacuation of residents and the business community in larger floods.