Bungawalbin in flood: locals who lost everything help others

ABOVE: Jimmy Malecki from Bungawalbin with one of his dogs. Photo: Jennifer Joy

Susanna Freymark

For six days, Bungawalbin was cut off by floodwaters.

It is day seven and resident Jimmy Malecki can finally leave home and get to Whiporie Store for essential items.

Yesterday, he had some meds dropped off for a herniated disc.

A helicopter from Rotorwing Helicopters in Lismore, funded by actor Chris Hemsworth and other private donations, was able to land a few kilometres up the road from his place.

As well as the meds he was in desperate need of dog food for his four dogs.

“I’m in pain. My pump is on its last legs,” Jimmy said.

He was impressed by the dedication of the help that arrived.

“They wheelbarrowed in the goods,” he said.

Jimmy, like many others in the Northern Rivers still can’t believe how fast and furious the flood was.

“I didn’t flood,” Jimmy said about his property.

“I was inundated by storm water with nowhere to go. 

“The water that hit me did not come from a water course, it came from the sky.”

That’s how much rain there was.

Jimmy said he spoke with other locals and they’re saying the same thing.

“I’m 2km to the creek, 1.6km to a wetland, about 5 km to the nearest point where the road does get flooded by Jackybulbin Creek.”

It started on February 28.

The rain fell and Jimmy thought at the time: “Gosh the water is higher than usual.”

He moved what he could to safety. Then, he went inside and had a beer.

Within 20 minutes, the water rose to dangerous levels.

“I didn’t go to bed until midnight, I was watching the water levels,” he said.

When the dogs started barking, Jimmy let them outside thinking they wanted to go to the toilet.

That’s when he heard a loud “whoosh”.

“It sounded like a tsunami was coming,” Jimmy said.

He and the dogs ran inside. He deadlocked the door and braced himself.

“I thought I was going to be hit by the water, I thought I was a goner.”

Rising floodwaters at Jimmy’s place

It wasn’t until days later; Jimmy saw that a gigantic tree had been pushed over.

He reckons the whooshing noise was when the root ball of the tree became dislodged and water was released.

“The suction from the root ball most probably displaced the water,” he said.

Jimmy was alone for six days except for a kangaroo that sheltered on his veranda.

An Eastern Grey sought refuge from the floods on Jimmy’s veranda.

As a former rescue worker and ambulance driver in the US, Jimmy moved to Bungawalbin with his partner Richard Reeg.

His partner died, his mother died, his dog died and the bushfires tore through Bungawalbin in 2019. He has already been through so much.

During the flood crisis he rang the SES several times. Help never came.

“They said they were under-resourced,” Jimmy said.

“My phone went out in the middle of the conversation.”

Nearby Cate McQuillen and Hewey Eustace who created the children’s TV series dirtgirlworld, were dealing with the flood disaster.

Cate McQuillen and Hewey Eustace.

“The catastrophe is so huge and the Bungawalbin is so isolated there just isn’t enough official support to do it all,” Cate said

“Like other places it is the community and the community of strangers who are doing incredible things.”

Two young women organised private helicopters and boats to deliver food, supplies and medicines and send in boats, and vets to rescue and reunite pets and care for farm animals that have survived, Cate said.

Those two women were Jeannie Solar and Kate Coxall.

Kate’s house went under along with the bulk of her belongings.

Jeannie said her house, barn, and shed was still above ground when she escaped the flood.

“I left behind two horses and two sheep,” she said.

She immediately listed her phone number on Facebook for anyone who needed help, to call her.

This is what locals did for each other despite their own losses.

Cate said Richmond Valley Council, police and army were ramping up.

“I am hoping we can all step back a bit, shortly and deal with our recovery on a personal level,” she said.

Jimmy’s car is wrecked.

Jimmy is hoping tomorrow he can get to Casino Hospital to get the stitches out of his face where he had a skin cancer removed. He’s keen to get to the vet as one of his dogs has a large lump on its head. Jimmy suspects it is cancer but won’t know until the vet checks it.

His car is gone, buried in the waters. His insurance company offered him $100 a day for taxis.

He had to tell them there weren’t any taxis in Bungawalbin.

More and more of these stories where people felt isolated during the flood crisis are emerging.

There has to be a better way to deal with disasters like this.

As a cameraman and photographer, Jimmy is usually the one out there documenting what has happened.

He is tired and the recovery at his property will take a long time.

“You can smell death,” he said of what it is like out there.

Two fundraisers have been launched by friends – one for Jimmy and another for Cate and Hewey.

Here are the links if you’d like to donate.

For Jimmy go here.

For Cate and Hewey go here.

Bungawalbin underwater. Photo: Jeannie Solar

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