Flood-ravaged Rochester is fighting to get back on its feet


As Leigh Wilson walks through his childhood home in Rochester, northern Victoria, there’s not much left but floorboards, a few closets, and his memories.

“In my teens I was in this room… I used to sneak out that window,” says Mr. Wilson, pointing to the opening where the walls used to be in the house, now gutted after the spring floods.

About 1,000 homes and local businesses in Rochester – with a population of about 3,100 and some 110 miles north of Melbourne – were inundated when water overflowed the banks of the Campaspe River in October, peaking at 115.7 meters above mean sea level.

“The Campaspe River is the fastest rising river in Victoria,” said Wilson, a former mayor who now heads the city’s recovery commission.

A small line in an annex marks the peak – officially recorded as 115.4 m AHD – of the last major flood in 2011.

The October high water mark has not yet been placed, but on the outer wall, the silt and soil debris stops a few centimeters higher than the old line drawn in Texta.

Get by as best you can

His mother Lorraine, 83, will live in a caravan in the driveway while the house is repaired.

Lorraine has lived in the house and raised five children since her husband built it in the late 1950s.

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‘Mom is very excited. I’m not sure how she’ll be in a few months though,” Mr. Wilson told AAP.

“She just wants to be here. But the sad reality is… many of our older members in the community will not be back in their homes until they die.”

Emergency Recovery Victoria continues to help Victorians displaced by the record floods.

“ERV will continue to support local councils and partner organizations to provide personalized assistance to displaced residents as they transition from emergency and temporary housing to permanent housing,” ERV CEO Mariela Diaz told AAP this week.

Due to a lack of traders and materials, Lorraine and hundreds of others have no idea when they can move back to their homes.

“Without exaggeration, there will probably be somewhere between 150 and 200 caravans in people’s driveways,” Wilson said.

On Saturday, Mr. Wilson and his wife counted 250 caravans parked in Rochester driveways.

‘We need them more than ever’

Mental health services, builders, traders and laborers were already in short supply before the floods.

“Now we need them more than ever,” said Wilson.

“If people want a bit of a working holiday, and they have the right trading skills, there’s so much work on the way.”

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Mr Wilson, who is also a draftsman, said craftsmen and laborers found repair work rewarding.

“It’s not just renovating someone’s house, you’re helping them get back into their home after a disaster,” he said.

“But people are what we need, and we’re going to need them for 12 months to two years.”

Sharon Williams, who co-owns a flooded tire business in Rochester with her husband, is looking even further ahead.

Mrs. Williams and a small group of locals are part of a tidal wave targeting an early release mechanism upstream at Lake Eppalock.

“We wanted to be proactive, not reactive,” Ms Williams said.

“We just want to keep our little town alive and vibrant.”

Currently, there is no option for Goulburn Valley Water catchment authority to create airspace at Lake Eppalock to prevent future spills.

“It won’t stop the flooding completely, but it won’t be as extreme as it has been,” said Ms Williams.

“We can’t go through this again.”

The first step will require financing a feasibility study to assess the hydrological realities of the project, which will likely cost tens of millions of dollars.

The committee has raised the issue with the local council and has the support of their MP, Peter Walsh, the leader of the Victorian Nationals, who presented the study to Prime Minister Daniel Andrews on the final day of the state parliament in December.

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‘Don’t get cheap’

“It’s not going to be cheap, but look at the damage — the government loss account, the individual loss account in Rochester and Echuca … it’s an investment,” Walsh said.

In parliament, Mr Andrews thanked the Nationals leader for his constructive engagement on the issue, but has so far failed to give the green light to the study.

“These things are way above politics,” Mr Andrews, who visited Rochester last week, told parliament in December.

“I’m not a hydrologist and I’m not an engineer, but we have a lot of people in our public sector who have already started looking at this particular flood to see what might be done in the future. ”

Back in Rochester, as the mud on the banks of the Campaspe River cracks in the late January heat, residents continue to clean up and rebuild.

“There’s still a tremendous amount of goodwill… but a lot of people are just really tired,” Wilson said.

“It’s been a long journey to get to this point and we still have so much to go.”

Mrs. Williams agrees that Rochester will need help for a long time.

“Everyone keeps saying, ‘Don’t forget us’.”