Ballina Shire’s current Citizen of the Year, threatened species conservation ecologist Maria Matthes, escaped the flood in Bagotville by heeding her late father’s warnings. For many others though, there was no safe refuge.
Maria began preparing early for the flood, when she saw the intensity of the rain in the catchment. ‘I was ringing people in Broadwater to let them know that this was serious.’ She said that while newcomers took notice, many old-timers thought they would be safe on their second floors.
‘My dad was in SES for 45 years,’ she said, as well as RMS flood and community consultation committees. ‘He was very meticulous and detailed. I got that from him!’
Unfortunately, in their construction of the new highway, the RMS did not do the work Jack Matthes and other experts repeatedly advised them to do, in order to avoid a flooding disaster at Woodburn in the case of floods equal to or higher than 1974 or 1954.
Maria has been revisiting her father’s correspondence to the RMS and Ombudsman as she tries to salvage papers and other personal items which went under in the flood.
Her father was pleading for a response even as he went in for heart surgery.
Engineering has made things worse
It now appears that human interventions along the path of the river, including bridges, banks, and development in flood prone areas, have all made the flood disaster much worse, particularly around Woodburn and Broadwater.
Maria remembered her father saying that if Lismore got X amount of rain in X amount of hours, then that’s what happened in 1954. ‘And so two days before it got here, I was thinking these are the numbers that are ’54. And now we’ve got the highway and everything else.
‘So I put a little pop-up tent on the roof with a tarp over the top of it and took my laptop and box of mum’s old treasures. She’d kill me if I didn’t do that!’
Maria’s other priorities were rescue dog Miss Angie, and a dog bag, and some food and a thermos. Access to the roof was via a trellis her dad had built so she could clean the gutters.
Steadily, the water kept rising, far beyond where it had reached in the last big flood, 2017. At 2am that night it reached the water tank behind the house.
‘I thought gee, that’s quick. And then I started getting more stuff and taking that up.’ Maria remembers her friend Rob waking up and asking what she was doing. ‘I said, well, you can make your own choice!
‘He thought I was panicking, like all the other people. We’ve had all this rain, but it’s never flooded before…’
The Bagotville house was isolated by floodwater on the Sunday, with water over the barrage in one direction, and also covering the other roads and surrounding vegetation.
‘At three o’clock in the morning, it was on the back footpath,’ remembers Maria. ‘It was like, wow, that was quick. So we got organized. Rob went up in the ceiling.’
At 5am it was above Maria’s knees as she was ferrying stuff higher. ‘And it just kind of kept coming. So I rang my SES deputy controller, and he was in Woodburn. He said, “Oh, it’s madness. And you’re cut off. We won’t be able to come and get you to do anything. We’re just sending people around to evacuate the whole of Woodburn.”
‘Half the SES were isolated and couldn’t get in to help. He suggested that if I could get out now, to get out.’
Maria didn’t have a boat. ‘At about six o’clock, I rang my neighbors up on the hill, and said, What’s it like?’
Luckily the mobile signal was still working at that stage, and also texts. Another neighbour brought his dinghy over to help. ‘We unloaded everything off the roof and took it over and did several trips.’
The neighbour’s house was slightly higher, so that’s where Maria and Rob evacuated to.
The flood ended up coming almost to the top of her doors. Maria doesn’t yet know if the house is ok.
Stories of survival
Although all her possessions are now outside, mostly flood-damaged, and she’s camping in her yard, with food being brought in by volunteers from Lismore, Maria is still smiling and pushing on. Like most people whose lives have been turned upside down by the flood, she says others have had it much worse.
‘I’ve been listening to some of the stories from the swamp out the back. Two storey houses that never gone under before.’ She says one farmer’s house which had been a refuge for the community from previous floods had farm animals and people inside when the water rose. They had to be rescued by boat.
‘Another couple were up in their house, and they said it just came so quickly. Every half hour it was going up a step and they kept thinking it’ll stop, it’ll stop and then they were stuck inside.’
They were eventually rescued by a neighbour. ‘They’d be dead if it wasn’t for Neil and his boat,’ said Maria.
She says another couple had a canoe tied to their window. ‘They ended up using that to get to a cherry picker. They were hoping that the water tanks they were watching rolling down didn’t knock them or the house off its stumps. They spent the night on that cherry picker.’
Maria says the difference between this flood and previous disasters is almost everyone in her community has been affected. ‘So the people that would normally be there in a flash to help me out, are all in the same situation.
‘I’ve been really lucky that so many of my neighbors up and down the road have come in to help, because all my friends have lost basically everything.’
Broadwater hit very hard
‘That’s where I grew up, and got my love of koalas,’ remembers Maria. ‘Driving in, you see this beautiful property that was magnificent on the riverfront, and it’s now sand. It’s like it’s sitting on the beach. There’s a van down in the ditch and a 4WD up on its end and covered in sand.’
Broadwater was once known for its large koala population. ‘Yes, it was huge. Probably in the ’80s it started declining, with the highway and the big trucks,’ she said.
Maria has saved a few childhood relics from the flood, including a T shirt she made for a bear with her school logo on (which was a koala). ‘We had the koala park, and the hotel/motel had the big koala.’
For the koala population at Bagotville, a few kilometres away, traffic continues to to be a major problem.
Many speeding drivers are ignoring the flashing signs and koala warning markers installed along the road late in the last term of council, although Maria is sure koala lives have been saved by the initiative, which took five years of lobbying to happen.
Flood impacts on animals
Across the Northern Rivers region, wildlife has been hit very hard by the latest emergency, as well as livestock and water-dwelling creatures. In some areas, koala habitat trees have been knocked over by floodwaters, and an orphaned koala joey was found near Alstonville, but species who are unable to climb have suffered the most.
In Bagotville, two dead koalas from elsewhere were found, apparently drowned, but most of the locals have stayed in their trees. For now Maria Matthes is staying focused on her ‘little pack’.
Her greatest concern is what will happen when those koalas have to leave their trees and cross ground which has been underwater for two weeks, now covered in mud and large numbers of dead, decaying fish and other creatures. There is a high risk of infection, particularly if there are existing health issues.
She currently has one special koala very close to the house who arrived just before the flood. Coral is 15 years old (old for a wild koala) and is pregnant with her tenth joey.
How to help
Maria Matthes asks that people across the region continue to report all koala sightings to Friends of the Koala, either via the website or 24 hour hotline (02) 6622 1233.
She says people should be particularly alert for koalas who are moving or breathing strangely, with heightened risks of pneumonia and bacterial infection in post-flood conditions.
Discharges from eyes and nose are a particular danger sign, she said.
Maria says people wishing to donate financially can support Friends of the Koala and the International Fund for Animal Welfare who have a useful app and have also been funding health check rescue missions.
With koala habitat loss continuing to be a major issue, Maria says local landholders can be great allies for the species. When properties in the area are sold, she tries to meet the new owners and educate them about koalas, especially when they are people from the city who might not have lived with koalas before.
She says habitat loss can be caused by ‘clearing up’, fire, severe storms and many other things, which have cumulative effects.
‘Individual koalas have an attachment to the individual trees and when they’re affected, they get quite stressed. I’ve even seen little ones have a go at defending their tree,’ she said.
What happens if they lose their tree?
‘They stress,’ said Maria. ‘We had a case at Meerschaum Vale a a few years ago where a fellow chopped down a tree that grew the wrong way over his house and was dropping branches.’
That tree was home to a koala called Sweetie.
‘It wasn’t a huge tree, but he dropped it down. She did go and eat a little bit elsewhere. But every time you saw her she was always sitting in a nearby jacaranda or palm tree, just staring at where her tree used to be.
‘People always fail to recognise that strong attachment individual koalas have to their chosen trees.’
Looking out from her driveway, Maria said, ‘From that corner there to 500 meters up the road, it was nothing to see 23 koalas pre-January 2016.
‘Then we had a mini tornado go through and they were still there but over the next six months, they all started getting retrovirus and cystitis and it was like wow, that was a big lesson for me in what stress does to them.’
The main cause of the stress in this case was the loss of food trees. Maria says almost all of those koalas are now dead, with only about six remaining.
‘What we saw with the highway, it’s very clear that with loss of habitat, stress levels really quickly escalate.’ She says all koalas need to be valued, no matter where they live.
For Maria, her connection with nature, and particularly koalas, is a two way street. ‘The koalas have been my saviour through this, being able to just keep an eye on them and watch how they’re responding. And they’ve been around for the whole flood.’
Although her family has been urging her to throw damaged things out since water came right through the house, there’s one item Maria is very proud to have rescued.
‘I walked out with my binoculars and was told I really can’t save them. They were covered in mud, with water inside. You could see it jiggling around.’
Maria remembers buying the binoculars with money her father gave her when she finished her HSC, ‘to buy something to remember him by when he wasn’t around anymore.’ The Carl Zeiss binoculars have been with her for koala-spotting ever since.
‘I said, “I’m not throwing them out.” And my neighbor up the road, he said “I’ll take them and I’ll fix them for you.” And he did so much research online. He knows everything about Carl Zeiss binoculars now.
‘He shined them up and I can see the koalas with them and it’s fantastic!’