With nothing to do except wait for the Murray River to reach its flood peak, the residents of Echuca set about letting off steam on Saturday night.
Crowds gathered on the banks to compare how much the river had swelled from the morning. Kids swam in motel pools, cooling off from the heat. The Caledonian hotel – known as The Cal – one of the historic town’s much-loved pubs, was packed.
It felt like a regular Saturday evening – except just around the corner, houses were already under water.
Residents from the “wet” side of the levee sat in their flooded front yards, with eskies full of beer, carrying plates of tuna bake between homes.
“Don’t come over here unless you’re bringing slabs,” they yelled at visitors clambering over the huge mud wall.
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 are going under.
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.
In bare feet, the unlucky ones now walked through flood waters to check on each other, on the pumps keeping the insides of their homes dry, and delivering essential supplies – mainly booze.
Inside the fortress of sandbags keeping the water out of her home, DJ Jemima Lewis was doing a set. With her deck set up on the wall of bags, she was blasting tunes for the street – half of which was already underwater.
Her husband, James Hayes, posted on the community page for everyone to come down. A crowd gathered and in flood water, they bopped to the beats.
“She’s a weapon,” Hayes said of his wife.
“She does some pretty good gigs actually, she was at [music festival] Groovin the Moo, now she’s at the floods.”
The pair had to buy their own sandbags to save their house – they spent thousands of dollars on keeping their heritage-listed home dry.
Despite this, they’re not angry about the levee.
“I think it came to crunch time, and it was like ‘Shit, we actually need to do something, we’ve left it too late for these guys’. And we are left holding the bag this time,” Hayes said.
“We’ve got a really good community behind us. Some of them have insurance, some don’t. But I don’t think we should waste our time trying to point the finger.
“I think we just need to see what happens. Get over it, get it sorted. And then move on to everything we need to know and just learn from it.”
One of those without insurance is Haye’s nextdoor neighbour, Matt. With the help of friends, he is pumping out water from his house.
“One of my mates watched the pump while I took a nap at my mum’s place yesterday. I woke up thinking my feet were wet,” Matt, who did not want his last name used, said.
“When you’re surrounded by water for so long, that’s what happens.”
Someone let off fireworks. Cheers erupted from front yards. The police made a half-hearted attempt to find the culprit.
Then the rain came – huge drops pelting down. The water level rose, and the party was over.
Everyone was talking about the levee – but no one had the answers they wanted. Bransen Gibson writes for the local newspaper – the Riverine Herald.
“Questions are going to need to be asked as to why it wasn’t built sooner,” Gibson said.
“Why, after the 1993 floods, more action wasn’t taken to put it in place? What’s going to be done to safeguard this community in the future?”
Authorities have shrugged off questions, saying the levee was built where it was because that was the best place for it. Unsurprisingly, people are dissatisfied.
At a meeting last Monday, the Echuca community was told they had 48 hours to prepare for a massive flood that would swallow the town. People panicked.
“From that, we’ve seen the peak forecast stretch out from the middle of last week, to the middle of next week,” Gibson said.
“And now it looks like it’s meeting somewhere in the middle. It’s been a waiting game.”
On Sunday morning farmers Kate Burke and John Kelly stood at the edge of their paddocks, 30 minutes out of Echuca, surveying the damage.
The area got 110mm of rain on Thursday, flooding the crops and the roads. It’s only just started to recede.
The people who have leased Kelly’s farm sowed peas – all of which has been destroyed.
“Yep, they are buggered,” Kelly said. “There are 300 acres there and it’ll be a write-off, a complete write-off.”
Kelly is 91 years old and this is not his first time at the rodeo.
“In 2011 I had peas in here and the same thing happened,” he said. “We lost the peas completely like that, with water lying everywhere.”
Burke quickly does the math.
“It’s about $120,000 worth,” she said of the crop loss.
This is just one paddock, in some of Victoria’s best farming country. In the paddock up the road, Burke is growing wheat. In between the green heads, you can see streaks of yellow, where flood waters have killed the crop.
Like a big oil slick, it stretches through the paddock, wiping out any wheat caught in its way.
“There are about 12 hectares that look like that,” she said, referring to the dead crop.
With more rain on the way, the outlook is grim. Everyone is waiting for the peak to come. At dinner the previous evening Burke bet with her mates about how high the river would get.
“The women went high and the men bet lower, so we think the men are in denial,” she said.
Down the road, John Williams is anxious.
In charge of extending the Torrumbarry levee before the floods hit the area next week, the fate of more than 2000 homes is on his shoulders. The clock is ticking.
“When I walked out of the meeting two weeks ago, I knew it was going to be the battle of a lifetime because it’s such a long area,” he said. “We’re looking after 29 kilometres of river.”
Torrumbarry is 20 minutes west of Echuca, a small community now in charge of saving the surrounding farms.
Working around the clock, they’ve built 20 kilometres of extra levee – hundreds of people are helping out. At one stage, guys were eating their dinner on excavators so they could keep working.
Around the clock, every two hours, patrols go out to each section of the levee – to check it is OK, that it hasn’t been breached. For the time being, farmers have become the watchmen.
“We just can’t afford to let it go, there are too many people depending on us,” he said before pausing, “I haven’t had a drink in weeks.”
About 25km outside Kerang, Tania Sutherland and her husband are already isolated on their farm.
“We can only get out with a tractor as the water is too deep in lots of places,” she said.
“We knew that we would be cut off for a while, so that’s OK.”
The couple has spent weeks getting ready – they moved 2000 merino sheep and 150 cattle to higher ground. But they’ve lost crops.
“We have lost all our wheat but we are still hoping we might be able to save our barley and beans,” she said. “Our stock are safe but most of the farm is under water.”
They’re managing their own crisis – and are worried for friends in Rochester, and Echuca.
Contrary to initial reports, people can still get in and out of Kerang – but they will probably be completely isolated when the floods hit.
“It has been a whole community effort and the people in Kerang are doing such an amazing job getting the town ready.”