Hundreds of residents of the small Riverina town of Moulamein have elected to stay and defend their properties against the rising flood waters even though authorities have warned they may be isolated into December.
The State Emergency Service warned the whole town to evacuate by 2pm Tuesday or face weeks being cut off as the Edward River, which joins with the swollen Billabong Creek in the town, was expected to peak at 6.2 metres on Thursday.
The saturated catchment would see the river levels hold steady near that peak “well through December”, the Bureau of Meteorology senior meteorologist Miriam Bradbury said.
“Unfortunately, these flood waters are just so slow moving that those peaks may take a number of weeks to start to ease back,” Bradbury said.
Cassie Jackson, whose family owns the IGA supermarket in Moulamein, was among the many who decided to stay.
“I would say probably 85% of the town has stayed,” Jackson told Guardian Australia. “Most people are here trying to keep the town running, protect the town and stay to help and keep businesses running, and just to be here to help when needed.”
Jackson said she spent the last few weeks stocking up the IGA in anticipation of the town getting cut off.
“I’ve had to go across and meet a few trucks on the other side of the flood waters in the four-wheel drive to go pick up bread, milk and that kind of thing,” she said.
“You just had to pre-order everything in weeks and try and guess what we’re going to need.”
Her father and three sons were in a more precarious position – they chose to stay and defend the family farm, which had already been cut off by flood waters on Wednesday.
“My mum is in town because it’s so unsafe to be out there,” Jackson said.
Katarni Lipp lives with her husband and two children, Harry, nine, and Louis, seven, on a property on the Niemur River about 40km out of Moulamein. Their home was below a two-metre-high dirt levee bank. The water had nearly overtopped it on Wednesday.
“At our house there, we’ve probably only got about another 10cm of clearance,” Lipp said. “But there’s areas where my husband said it’s lapping this morning and starting to leak or spill over.”
If it does burst, Lipp said, their home will be destroyed.
“All the houses along there, we’ve all gone,” she said. “But we all work on the same farm together, so it’s a small community out there.”
Lipp is one of the owners of the Moulamein newsagency, which is also the town’s only service station. She moved to town with her kids last week and was able to get emergency accommodation.
She said the town was “eerie” and “dead” quiet after the evacuation order took effect.
“I know quite a few families with young children, either mum and the kids are gone and dad’s still here sandbagging,” Lipp said.
“I respect anybody that has stayed and those that have gone, it really comes down to a personal decision.
“We’re healthy, we’re able, we can still help, and we also have the local service station that needs to remain open. So we’ll do what we can until we can’t.”
Residents spent Wednesday building small levees in an attempt to protect houses closer to the river, and monitoring river heights. The town does have flood levees and the greatest risk, according to the SES, was that residents would be stranded as roads in and out of the town go underwater.
“It’s a beautiful little community and the moment someone sings out help, someone hears it,” Lipp said.
She said farmers outside of the town were also trying to protect their crops.
“There’s cereal crops that are yet to be harvested, and rice crops that have just been sown,” she said.
“So there’s a lot at stake and it’s a real high-pressure situation.”
The Moulamein grower Jeremy Morton said he had been “flat out” trying to deal with the flooding situation on his farm.
Morton, the chairman of the National Irrigators’ Council, said the roads around the town had been subject to flooding for weeks and “extensively damaged”.
“The roads are closed for a reason,” he said.