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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Cait Kelly in Echuca

After preparing for days, Echuca residents just want the flood to happen already

Claire Goodman stands in her back yard in Echuca, Victoria as flood waters rise
‘We don’t know whether everything’s going to hold. Everyone’s just bubbling with anxiety’: GP Claire Goodman in her back yard in Echuca. Photograph: Cait Kelly/The Guardian

The Murray River is bloated. Like the eastern brown snakes found on its banks, it slips slowly through the bush, past paddle steamers and into the port of Echuca. As it rolls through the town, it has started to swallow the trunks of gum trees and left only the tips of children’s playgrounds visible.

The great dividing river is now uniting border towns in apprehension, as it encroaches on their backyards and threatens their homes. The floods are here, but the forecast for the peak changes more rapidly than the currents can carry it.

On the Victorian border, Echuca is wedged on the west with the Campaspe River, which flooded last week, and the Murray on the east, which is expected to peak between Sunday and Monday.

The local GP Claire Goodman stands in her back yard. There is water everywhere and it is not receding. The house she shares with her husband, Matt, and two kids backs onto the Campaspe. They knew it would flood, but were not prepared for how fast and hard it came.

“Last weekend, the rate that it increased was just much quicker than we imagined. It was quite frightening,” Goodman says.

“We didn’t know whether it was going to stop or not. We’d never imagined it was going to get this far.”

The power is gone in parts of the house, the garage roof has fallen in and there is mud throughout the foundations.

“If the water comes up again, this is probably futile,” she says pointing to the sandbags. “Because it will come up through the floorboards.”

The emergency evacuation warning for Echuca has been in place for seven days now, but the town is buzzing.

Dressed in athleisure, people walk up the main street, takeaway coffees in hand. They take their dogs to look at the river, they visit neighbours and they go to the pub.

Utes full of sandbags file across town, the SES volunteers in their bright orange are everywhere and, someone points out, even the Queensland firies have made it.

Everyone is tired, though. Everyone is over the wait.

The flood levee built this week in Echuca
‘You can build a fortress, but once you’ve built it, what else can you do? Nothing but sit and wait.’ Photograph: Cait Kelly/The Guardian

The community has laid almost 200,000 sandbags, they have moved their furniture off the floor and cleared out every store selling gumboots.

Now, in the heat and humidity, those who have stayed wait to see how high the river will come. This is traditionally dry country, but it feels like the middle of the rainy season.

It hits 22C and the sticky air casts mirages across the roads. The illusions intersperse with large puddles of real water – sitting in potholes, covering driveways and smelling like sewage.

“It’s good to have a little bit of lead time so that you can bag a house,” Goodman says. “You can build a fortress, but once you’ve built it, what else can you do? Nothing but sit and wait.

“The town’s shut, nobody’s working. Everybody wants to be volunteering to help someone, but it’s kind of all done – and now we’re just in this limbo land.

“We don’t know whether everything’s going to hold. Everyone’s just bubbling with anxiety. It’s ridiculous, it’s absolutely ridiculous.”

At the hospital, Goodman is treating patients from Rochester who cannot go home because their houses have been destroyed. One of them, a farmer, is anxious to get out before the road closes and his wife is left alone. But he cannot because he is too sick. Another – a 26-year-old man – has severe pneumonia after spending hours in flood waters helping people out.

Goodman jokes about her work reaching biblical proportions before pausing. “But you know, we did have locust in 2010. On the community Facebook page someone said that there was a big load of wood outside Bunnings, waiting for a man named Noah.”

Everyone has a contingency plan.

“If it looks hairy we’ll send the kids a block over to some friends and we’ll lift the furniture and go, but you know … we’re quietly optimistic without feeling cocky.”

Across the other side of the town sits the levee.

The huge wall of dirt constructed this week stretches for kilometres, but it won’t save everyone. There are about 60 houses on “the wet side” and many of them already have water lapping at their doors.

Last week, when the council announced the levee would not surround everyone’s homes, people walked out of the meeting – they didn’t want to cry in public.

The Campaspe shire mayor, Chrissy Weller, says the decision was made by the Victorian State Emergency Service. Other shire leaders have gone to ground. The Echuca councillor Rob Amos hangs up on journalists when they call. He won’t answer questions.

High school teacher Julie Golledge lives on the wet side of the levee
‘We were told to look after ourselves’: high school teacher Julie Golledge lives on the wet side of the levee. Photograph: Cait Kelly/The Guardian

The high school teacher Julie Golledge lives on the wet side of the levee. Her driveway is underwater but her house is built high.

“The decision put us in the firing line,” Golledge said. “We were told to look after ourselves. Then there was a revised height – it was 95.9 – and we all just went ‘holy crap’.

“If it comes into the house we’ll leave, but prior to that we will stay and fight.”

Wet-siders who have stayed are looking out for each other. Every day at 4pm they meet for drinks and a debrief. They work out how to do normal chores despite water covering the roads.

Saturday was rubbish collection day in Echuca
Wet-siders who have stayed are looking out for each other: Saturday was rubbish collection day. Photograph: Cait Kelly/The Guardian

On Saturday morning it was rubbish collection. Taking around a stand-up paddleboard and a few boats they went from house to house to collect trash. Then they ferried it across the water and over the wall of dirt into a waiting truck.

Some of them will likely lose their homes to flood waters in the next 48 hours. They want to get it over and done with.

Then they want the government to build a proper levee to protect everyone’s property.

“It should have been built years ago,” Golledge says.

Despite the threat it has brought this week, Echuca is still a river town. Golledge looks around and points out flatweed floating past, laughing at the snails fornicating in the flood waters, and comments on how much the kookaburras are loving it.

“Even like this, the river is so beautiful,” she says. “It’s gorgeous.”

Just 20 minutes west of Echuca sits Torrumbarry, a small farming community which is next in line for the floods. On Friday afternoon residents met in the town hall – a sparse grey-brick building that was so stifling hot, people had to take breaks outside.

Rochester is their warning. The town, which flooded last week, is still covered in mud. The streets are lined with treasures turned to junk: beloved couches, the perfect pair of pants, old records. They are bracing for another wave of water to hit early next week.

“The lesson we learnt from Rochester is that people didn’t prepare,” a police officer, Paul Gordon, tells the crowd.

“It was dark and it was raining. People were waiting for seven to eight hours to be rescued. So prepare for the worst and hope for the best,” he says.

Torrumbarry has a levee and members of the community are keeping watch to make sure the water doesn’t rise over it. Those closest are told they should leave.

Someone asks about road closures, what to do if there is an emergency, and someone else asks about mental health support. Why aren’t social workers down at the pub? One woman wants to know if there will be money for those watching the wall.

The community is already fatigued from waiting. Everyone hopes the levy will hold, but no one would put money on it.

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