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Byron Shire
September 26, 2022

The water started coming into the house

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Jono: I visit my family every week, I’m happy when I visit them. I came over to visit, it was raining, I didn’t think of it much. Photo supplied.

Jono was visiting his family in Lismore on February 28.

This is his story as transcribed by Anthony Eden, and the experience of managing director of disability consultancy service Karina & Co and Kelly Cox on that day…

Jono: I visit my family every week, I’m happy when I visit them. I came over to visit, it was raining, I didn’t think of it much, I was playing on the computer and wasn’t thinking about things much as I normally do. It was raining a lot, then the waters started coming into the house.

It all turned to shit, it did.

If I wasn’t visiting at the time the others would have perished. I was the only one awake when it flooded and the others were asleep.

I called Karina at about 4 in the morning and was on the phone with Karina for 6 hours straight and my phone was running out of battery.

She told me to keep calm and collected and to help the family as best as I could. She called the army and everyone was trying to help but we couldn’t get help because the flooding was so big.

This was one of the posts that Kelly Cox put on social media in the hope that someone would recognise Jono or go to his rescue in Lismore.

Knee-deep in water

Karina: Jono was knee-deep in water when he called me. Or at least I think he was. Concepts like depth and risk are hard for anyone when they are scared, but especially hard if you have an intellectual disability.

We measured on body parts – where is the water now? I thought Jono had it wrong, there was no way the water could be moving as fast as he was saying. Just one of the many things I’d be wrong about that day…

I thought when I told emergency services there were 5 people with disabilities trapped they’d be prioritised, but there were no emergency services.

I thought being in a two-storey house they’d be ok but there was too much water. I thought that getting Jono to show his family how to climb on a kitchen bench would be an easy job, not take two hours of convincing.

I thought they were all going to die but maybe, just maybe, Jono’s recent swimming lessons may give him a chance.

I thought when the boats heard Jono screaming they’d come, but they were too full.

I was calling out for help

Jono: I was calling out for help from the boats and they were all saying the same things, ‘get on the roof, get on the roof’ but there was no chance of that. The roof was not flat and most of the people in the house were either chunky or had poor health and couldn’t get up there.

I was helping the family cope with all of the stress and was helping them get up onto the kitchen benches. Helping in any way I could. Karina helped a lot too, encouraging me to stay calm and collected and to look after the family, that helped me a lot too.

Karina: Over the hours we counted breaths (to calm mum’s anxiety attacks) – we screamed for help together (because even yelling is hard when you’re scared) – we talked about what he had to do if the water reached the ceiling.

He had to swim out the door and leave his family.

And then, when the water was touching Jono’s chin we lost contact. It was an anxious six hours wait, an amazing social media campaign launched by our team and finally a phone call from a stranger.

Watching the situation in Lismore unfold

Kelly:  Karina called me after she had lost contact with Jono. I had been watching the situation in Lismore unfold on TV and on social media and knew it was bad, worse than ever before.

I was closely monitoring friends’ profiles who I knew were in the water’s path; it’s hard to explain what that feeling is like – over and over.

When the news of Jono being trapped came, there was no social media to monitor, no phone to call or text to check. Just a long silence and a lot of unknowns and trying to prepare for the worst and hoping for the best, not only for Jono but for his whole family.

I started posting on social media to let people know the address in the hope someone in a boat would go and look for them. Eventually, so many hours had passed and the water had risen so much that there were only two scenarios left. That they had been rescued or they had not and it was too late.

I posted on social media again, this time asking if anyone had seen Jono. There were so many posts like this that it hardly got any attention. I posted again, this time mentioning that Jono had an intellectual disability. I hated doing that but I knew it would get attention and that was our best way of finding out where he was. I was right, the post immediately started to get shared on Twitter and Facebook.

People started actively keeping an eye out for him.

We got on a boat

Jono: After all of the commotion we got on a boat and I was separated from the rest of the family, I didn’t know if they had perished or not because we were separated. I didn’t want to leave the boat. When I got off the boat I met a friend from way back in the past. She helped a lot keeping me warm and encouraging me, meaning happy-wise, keeping my marbles-wise.

Karina: Jono had made it, and thanks to his fierce determination had forced a boat to go back and retrieve his family trapped deep inside a house standing on a kitchen bench.

Kelly: At some point Karina got a call from a man in a boat who said he had rescued Jono but he didn’t know where he went after getting off the boat, he said he wasn’t in a good way, we had no context for what that meant so continued to worry.

Jono: Someone put me in a van and took me to the university evac, my family went to the other one but I didn’t know. How could I know? It took about six hours to find out where they were. I was distraught, I wasn’t a happy camper. I was wiggin’ out and Donna (a friend) helped me out in my moment of despair and depression. Comforting.

Kelly: We then found out that the rest of Jono’s family were in an evacuation centre but Jono wasn’t with them. All we could do was wait and continue to monitor social media.

At some point in the afternoon, Jono’s sister called me. She had seen my post and had also been trying to find out if her family were safe. I let her know that they had been rescued but i still didn’t know where they were.

Evacuation center was not happy and boring

Jono: The evacuation center was not happy and boring, not much entertainment but they had food there. We slept on air mattresses in a basketball court, but that’s alright for me. I was there for a week or so. My family was not happy and bored out of their minds but the food was good and they had their medical needs met. My family had lost all of their stuff because of the flood.

Kelly: At around 8pm that night I got a call, it was a woman at an evacuation centre who had seen my post and found Jono. She put him on the phone and I don’t think Ive ever had a better phone call than that one.

Jono’s only concern was for his family, he wanted to know if he saved them, if they lived. He made me promise that they were alive, and they were. They all were. Because of Jono. There were many heroes that day and while most will never be acknowledged for what they did, Jono was absolutely one of them.

A happy ending

Karina: Jono’s story has a happy ending, but it could have ended very differently.

For people with a disability, the complexities of disaster are far more pronounced, the risks significantly higher, as to are the lasting effects.

Jono is inconsolable when it rains, he’s certain it’s going to flood. Logic is an impossible concept when it happened before. He’s terrified of spiders and he’s frightened to be separated from his family for too long. But he was brave and because of that his family are alive. For now, thats what we are reminding him of every chance we get.

Jono: At the evac centre I had one regular visitor that wasn’t a complete random which made me feel good. I eventually got home and my family got some housing. My family was stressed and needed medical attention. They are still stressed and my mum has nightmares about the floods.

I worry about my family, all the negative things. I don’t forget something when I know something, that’s my brain and it’s my depression.

This story is part of a series about People with Disability and the challenge of surviving the 2022 floods. This story first appeared in: Impact of climate change & natural disaster on disabled people.

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