Dispatch

The view from the ground.

The ‘Rain Bomb’ That Could Shape the Australian Election

Devastating floods have yet again revealed the country is at the sharp end of climate change.

By , a journalist based in Sydney and the Australian correspondent for Agence France-Presse.
Gerry Rutterman and his daughter Kensey walk through floodwaters to return to their family home in Sydney on March 9.
Gerry Rutterman and his daughter Kensey walk through floodwaters to return to their family home in Sydney on March 9.
Gerry Rutterman and his daughter Kensey walk through floodwaters to return to their family home in Sydney on March 9. Lisa Maree Williams/Getty Images

SYDNEY—Politicians took to calling it a “rain bomb,” a massive weather system that crawled southward on Australia’s east coast for more than a week last month, dumping record volumes of rain on towns and cities and killing 22 people. Regions that had survived a yearslong drought only to ignite, tinder-dry, during the Black Summer bushfires two years ago were suddenly violently consumed by mud-brown floodwaters. Some areas saw 3 feet of water fall in a few days. As far south as Sydney, Australia’s biggest city, people were told to evacuate their homes by the tens of thousands.

On Feb. 27, the storm arrived in force in Lismore, a regional hub that straddles the Wilson River. It had flooded before—in 1974, the water reached a 39.8 feet—but many locals believed they were prepared for the worst. Lucy Wise and her husband bought their home there in 2017, two weeks before the last bad floods passed through, and they had saved for years to lift the house above the recommended 42.6 feet. The young couple never imagined a house as high as theirs could be inundated.

As the water rose and the rain kept beating down, that sense of safety soon dissolved. Sirens rang out in the night, a warning of the last chance to evacuate. The town was flooding, quickly—the levee had been breached. Wise’s neighbors, who had sought shelter with her earlier in the day, watched as their home on lower ground across the street disappeared beneath surging floodwaters. “It was so fast,” Wise said. “I just said, ‘Everyone get ready to get in the ceiling. Get something to smash a hole out of the roof if we have to.’”

SYDNEY—Politicians took to calling it a “rain bomb,” a massive weather system that crawled southward on Australia’s east coast for more than a week last month, dumping record volumes of rain on towns and cities and killing 22 people. Regions that had survived a yearslong drought only to ignite, tinder-dry, during the Black Summer bushfires two years ago were suddenly violently consumed by mud-brown floodwaters. Some areas saw 3 feet of water fall in a few days. As far south as Sydney, Australia’s biggest city, people were told to evacuate their homes by the tens of thousands.

On Feb. 27, the storm arrived in force in Lismore, a regional hub that straddles the Wilson River. It had flooded before—in 1974, the water reached a 39.8 feet—but many locals believed they were prepared for the worst. Lucy Wise and her husband bought their home there in 2017, two weeks before the last bad floods passed through, and they had saved for years to lift the house above the recommended 42.6 feet. The young couple never imagined a house as high as theirs could be inundated.

As the water rose and the rain kept beating down, that sense of safety soon dissolved. Sirens rang out in the night, a warning of the last chance to evacuate. The town was flooding, quickly—the levee had been breached. Wise’s neighbors, who had sought shelter with her earlier in the day, watched as their home on lower ground across the street disappeared beneath surging floodwaters. “It was so fast,” Wise said. “I just said, ‘Everyone get ready to get in the ceiling. Get something to smash a hole out of the roof if we have to.’”

She put a lifejacket on her 2-year-old son and carried him into the roof with her. “We were just lying there, silently, and the rain was just pouring down. I’ve never heard such heavy rain in my life,” she said. It took four hours for an emergency services boat to arrive after they called for help. Around 6 a.m., the two families scrambled out of the roof to safety. In the end, the floodwaters in Lismore peaked at 47.2 feet, 7.4 feet above the 1974 levels.

As Lismore woke to the unfolding disaster, many locals launched their own boats into the floodwaters, setting off to rescue neighbors stranded on roofs or sheltering in ceilings. A flotilla of dinghies, jet skis, and even a few kayaks bolstered the small volunteer emergency service presence in town. The 67-year-old local member of parliament, Janelle Saffin, had to swim from her flooded home and cling to a tree until she was rescued.

On Feb. 28, just a few hours after Wise and her family escaped their flooding Lismore home, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released its Sixth Assessment Report, which described Australia at the sharp end of climate change. The report warned the country could see one-in-a-hundred-year flooding events occurring several times a year without mitigation. “We are living with a climate changed Australia now,” said Brendan Mackey, a lead author for the chapter on Australasia, who revealed that he too had family in Lismore who had to be rescued from their roof during the floods.

“Currently, our adaptation to changing flood risk is mostly reactive, and it’s incremental in response to particular floods,” he said. “And that’s one of the things that needs to change. We need more proactive and anticipatory planning.”

By the time Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison arrived in Lismore on March 9, after a week spent in isolation with COVID-19, the floodwaters had receded, and the true extent of the damage was inescapable. A rotten, sickly sweet smell had set in. Piles of water-logged garbage lined the streets, waiting to be collected. The nearby towns of Woodburn, Coraki, Mullumbimby, and Ballina were no different.

All along the flood-affected coast, landscapes had been transformed by the unending rain: Roads dipped into wide expanses of mud-brown water; bridges and houses were swallowed up; and cars, possessions, and livestock were swept away. In Grafton, about 80 miles south of Lismore, an entire airport slipped underwater along with dozens of planes. Further south, in Sydney, shaky phone footage showed commuters driving through water as a major underground tunnel flooded. A trickling waterfall in a backyard in Sydney’s suburban north became an avalanche of water; the yard of a neighboring house was buried by a landslide. Everywhere, the same refrain: “We’ve never seen it like this before.”

Lismore was a high-stakes visit for Morrison. He is still trailed by the public’s memory of the Black Summer bushfires two years ago, when he was photographed on a family holiday in Hawaii as vast swathes of Australia burned. Many Lismore locals were angry. They felt abandoned, still bewildered that in one of the world’s richest countries, the flood response—from rescues to food, temporary housing, and cleanup—had been shouldered almost entirely by volunteers. Outside the prime minister’s press conference, protesters held up signs calling for climate action and chanted: “No more compromising. The water is rising.”

“Australia is getting harder to live in because of these disasters,” Morrison conceded once inside, after announcing financial support for flood victims. “Obviously, climate change is having an impact here in Australia, as it is in every country around the world.” But he firmly defended his government’s record, citing its commitment late last year to reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.

The specter of a federal election, due within the next two months, has loomed over the flood crisis. Climate change is a topic that’s long been taboo or only tacitly acknowledged in Australia, but in towns affected by the floods, locals are talking openly about it. Although the public broadly supports doing more—a 2021 poll by the Lowy Institute found 74 percent of Australians say “the benefits of taking further action on climate change will outweigh the costs”—for more than a decade, climate change policy has remained political kryptonite, not least because Australia is one of the world’s largest fossil fuel exporters.

“I think [the floods have] definitely brought climate back on the agenda, unquestioningly,” said Tom Wolff, who manned one of the motley rescue boats in Lismore. He recounted the “surreal” experience, floating through once familiar streets now rendered unrecognizable by the flood, trying to navigate his boat using Google Maps and any landmarks still visible above the water line. No one who lived through these floods wants to be back there again in a few years’ time.

Even after the devastation though, top pollster Peter Lewis, executive director of Essential, doesn’t see the election turning on climate policy because neither the government nor the opposition wants to have the fight. But he believes it could shape key battlegrounds, particularly with the emergence of independent candidates focused on climate change who are backed by Climate 200—an organization convened by green activist Simon Holmes à Court, the son of Australia’s first billionaire.

“In the seats where they are active, they have already shifted the needle,” Lewis said of these independents. Referring to the governing alliance of the Liberal and National Parties, Lewis said these independent candidates “have forced the coalition to (a.) turn focus and (b.) expend resources into seats they would normally take for granted.” More profoundly, Lewis said, the emergence of well-funded independents focused on climate have “acted as a real handbrake” on the governing coalition’s appetite to attack the opposition Labor Party on climate policy.

One such Climate 200-backed independent, Southern Cross University lecturer Hanabeth Luke, is running for the seat that encompasses Lismore, which coalition member Kevin Hogan has held for nearly a decade.

In the aftermath of the floods, front-of-mind basic needs are housing, food, and clothing. There are carpets that must be ripped out, walls that must be knocked down. Mold is becoming a serious issue. Some place must be found to dump the cascade of garbage. “The other day, they were like, ‘We need nail scissors because people have to go back to work to keep their jobs and they have mud under their fingernails,’” Tom Wolff said.

But the bigger picture is coming into view: the story of communities that rallied together to save themselves. Like the Lismore-based Koori Mail, Australia’s national Indigenous newspaper, couldn’t publish an edition for the first time in 30 years and instead threw its energy into organizing donations. Or like the Sikh charity that drove more than 30 hours to serve free meals to people in the flood zone. Or like the scores of ordinary people who risked injury and death to rescue their neighbors. “I don’t feel like that will be forgotten anytime soon,” Wolff said.

Maddison Connaughton is a journalist based in Sydney and the Australian correspondent for Agence France-Presse.

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