Holding fast

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The catastrophic Lismore floods took Chris waring to some dark places. But Buoyed by the support of his CSS family and others, he and his team have somehow found the strength to rebuild.

By Tracey Porter

There is a certain inevitability that goes with operating a business on a flood plain at the spot where two rivers meet.

It is expected that from time to time rain will cause the catchments to fill and flooding to occur. It’s also anticipated that if you build a business or home at least two storeys above ground level, that you will be kept safe from harm should the worst happen.

But it seems none of the usual rules applied when it came to February’s volatile Northern Rivers flood event.

For the best part of 25 years, Chris Waring and wife Linda have operated The Bolt Barn, a bolts and fasteners company based in South Lismore.

The Warings knew not to hesitate when the Bureau of Meteorology began issuing stark warnings about a major flood event likely to hit the town on or around the 28th of the month.

“We’d already had quite a few months of rain prior to that so the water tables were still fairly full, the ground was sodden and there was nowhere else for the water to go than to rise.”

Having rebuilt after the 2017 floods where the waters in the town peaked at more than 11.5 metres, he and his team spent the three days prior to that catastrophic Monday morning moving tools, batteries and safety kits up to the second floor of the business where it would be out of reach of the water.

Confident they had enough food, water and warm blankets to last up to three days, like many others Chris and Linda chose to stay on site to fend for their business because “as a community we like to be there when the water comes in and when the water goes out”.

It was 9pm by the time the couple got to bed. Chris awoke around 3.30am when he discovered not only had the water breached the lower level of the business but it was already making its way up the stairs, rising about a metre an hour. By 5am it had reached the top floor and was circling the pair’s legs.

“By this stage we were really worried,” says Chris. “It was dark and very dangerous and the peak was still coming. I thought, ‘We’re trapped here, this is not the place to be’. It was not so much a flood, but more a tsunami really. The whole situation just turned to shit within a matter of hours.”

Cutting a hole in the ceiling and preparing to climb up onto the roof should the water keep rising, by 6am when Chris’ frantic calls to the SES and triple zero went unanswered, he desperately began pleading for help via Facebook.

While the odd boat went past, it wasn’t until 9am that Chris managed to get hold of a friend who was on the water in a jetski and who managed to winch the pair across the flooded river to safety.

When he was able to return via canoe two days later, Chris discovered his business in ruins.

“Upstairs in particular was just a mess. There was nowhere you could put your foot because everything including fridges had just been floating around in the water. We had to physically climb over things to get in the doors. It was dreadful,” he says.

For weeks afterwards Chris, Linda and their five staff, assisted by an array of volunteers, cleaned and washed bolts, nuts and anything else salvageable via a “fairly sophisticated” wash bay. They were still going through this process when the second flood hit.

For the second time in six weeks the Bolt Barn team relocated what they could to the second floor and waited for the inevitable. This time though with one major change.

“We lifted again but we didn’t stay. I just couldn’t do it,” Chris says.

Despite dire predictions, this time only 600mm of water made its way through the shop. But it meant that yet again the Bolt Barn team were chained to wash stations. Still running on adrenalin at this stage, Chris says they were left “slightly annoyed about but mostly relieved” that the second flood was not more severe.

Chris says with the support of his own family, his staff, his CSS suppliers and neighbours, he was able to re-open his doors much earlier than expected.

Still processing the trauma of the two events, Chris admits to enduring many sleepless nights after his near death experience, as well as suffering from compassion fatigue having heard the many stories of others which he believes “are far worse than mine”.

However, he says six months down the track, he has much to be thankful for.

In the early days after the flood, Lismore was inundated with people wanting to help, he says. However, the longer the clean-up went on, the less people were involved so at this point Chris says he was “leaning fairly heavy” on family, staff, friends and customers.

He says it was this level of support that helped him navigate through the dark days.

“I guess I felt I could have easily just turned the key and walked away but people like that just keep you going. Even some of my customers would come and give me a day or half a day of work to help us get back on our feet. It was incredible. Some suppliers turned up and got on the wash tables. Some offered to replace stock at no charge while others offered me new stands to display items so we didn’t have to worry about washing stuff.

“My CSS family made phone calls, sent emails, even gave donations of money which was embarrassing for me. Sometimes I’d ring someone up and ask for supplies and they’d drive it down the next day. It was an exercise in the good side of humans.”

Chris says while it will be some time before things are back to normal, he now just needs to trade his way out.

“It’s been tough, but the past few months have been incredibly good from a trading perspective. I think it will continue to be fairly good and with them rebuilding the town there’s lots of stuff going on. Trying to get any tradie is fairly challenging at the moment though. We’ve all got to fend for ourselves a bit and just be a bit more patient with people.”