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Maitland residents feared repeat of 1955 floo -

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Maitland residents feared repeat of 1955 flood

Reporter: Scott Bevan

As floodwaters rose yesterday, the people of Maitland in the Hunter Valley region of NSW were
fearful that history would be repeated and their city would be inundated as it was during the
devastating flood of 1955.


KERRY O'BRIEN: Welcome to the program.

It's been the longest of long weekends for the people of the New South Wales Hunter Valley.

At the mouth of the Hunter River, the city of Newcastle was belted by a ferocious storm on Friday,
with winds and huge waves pushing a forty thousand tonne bulk carrier onto the beach. Authorities
are still trying to work out how to salvage the ship.

Then over the past 48 hours, it's been the communities up river that have had to contend with the
threat of major flooding.

Maitland sits on the banks of the Hunter, a river that has repeatedly put Maitland on the map for
all the wrong reasons; particularly with the devastating 1955 flood.

As waters rose yesterday, the people of Maitland were fearful that history would be repeated and
their city would be inundated.

Scott Bevan reports on the experience through the eyes of three Maitland families.

BARRY MEAD, MAITLAND FARMER: It's me livelihood. If we didn't have the river to pump out of it, we
wouldn't be able to grow the vegetables that we have grown over the years, or make the hay that
feeds the horses.

SCOTT BEVAN: Having spent all of his 74 years on the banks of the Hunter, Barry Mead knows just how
generously the river can give, and just how quickly its waters can take it all away.

BARRY MEAD: $1,100 worth of seed went on there, and didn't get off the ground. We've lost that.
It's probably $20,000 worth of hay at the price it is today.

SCOTT BEVAN: Contemplating what the deluge late last week has already wiped out, this farmer
yesterday was preparing for the Hunter's rising waters to consume so much more.

The family home is just 100 metres from the river.

BARRY MEAD: Them trees there, that's on our side of the river.

SCOTT BEVAN: So, the river itself is normally 200 metres that way?


SCOTT BEVAN: Barry Mead remembers all the big floods that have erupted over the banks for more than
half a century. But the terrifying benchmark is the 1955 flood which claimed 11 lives.

So where did the 1955 flood come up to?

BARRY MEAD: Just up there, right up the centre of that window.

SCOTT BEVAN: Just down the sodden road at the village of Largs, another farmer, Ian Mack, is
experiencing his first flood in this region, and planning new crops.

IAN MACK, MAITLAND FARMER: At the moment we are thinking of some rice or a new fish farm.

SCOTT BEVAN: He retrieves the tractor, while his children paddle the tinny back from what was,
until a couple of day's ago, a distant river.

JONATHAN MACK, SON: The Hunter River starts to block up, the Paterson River is blocking up too, so
it will spill at little bit more over the levee banks and we'll see some pretty serious flooding
tonight I would expect.

SCOTT BEVAN: A few kilometres away in the historic suburb of Lorne, the Megarrity family hears talk
on the street of evacuation.

ROD MEGARRITY, MAITLAND RESIDENT: If we are directed to leave, I guess we will leave. But if it's
only advice, we'll stay.

SCOTT BEVAN: How are you feeling at the moment?

GAIL MEGARRITY, MAITLAND RESIDENT: Quite safe, quite comfortable.

SCOTT BEVAN: Sure enough, just on dusk, State Emergency Services officers start advising people to

Across the road, the Allen family, with three small children, is contemplating what to do.

MRS ALLEN, MAITLAND RESIDENT: It's a dreadful choice. I think that children are a little bit

SCOTT BEVAN: But the decision is made for them and about 4,000 other Maitland residents. The police
order them to evacuate.

ROD MEGARRITY: They're not expecting it to be a flood to rise, but only if the levee banks should
give way that we could have a wave come through the towns.

GAIL MEGARRITY: Now I'm shaking, now I'm feeling really jumpy.

SCOTT BEVAN: The Allen's pack up and head for a friend's place.

DAVID ALLEN, MAITLAND RESIDENT: Oh, we've just grabbed the obvious essentials, sleeping bags and
bedding and clothing and torches and things. People survive for a few days without a problem.

SCOTT BEVAN: The Megarrity's teenage daughters also go to friends'. While Rod and Gail Megarrity
accompany his 90-year-old mother first to an evacuation centre in a community hall...

ROD MEGARRITY: No-one we know has anyone that's suitable to take her with stairs and the like, so
we'll camp here the night.

SCOTT BEVAN: ...But then they're directed to a nearby high school gymnasium that's a makeshift
refuge, before a motel room is found for the trio 20 minutes away.

GAIL MEGARRITY: I wondered if it was necessary, but I guess that's the way the system works and I
guess we just have to go along with it.

KATHLEEN MEGARRITY, MOTHER: It's been an experience, but one I don't want to have again.

SCOTT BEVAN: Now, Maitland waits to see if the flood reaches the expected 11.4 metre mark
overnight, which could mean water in the main streets and homes.

(EXCERPT FROM ABC LOCAL RADIO): ...Major flooding slightly higher than the 1971 event expected at

SCOTT BEVAN: The sun shines on a new day, and so have the weather gods. In the early hours the
waters peaked at 10.7 metres.

MARK GODFREY, MAITLAND SES: This was probably a little bit less than the 1971 flood, so nowhere
near 1955 havoc proportions, but just below 1971.

SCOTT BEVAN: The Meads stayed put in the family home overnight. The levees held the waters at bay.

BARRY MEAD: The kids were there laughing and joking. They weren't at this time last night.

SCOTT BEVAN: What was going on?

BARRY MEAD: They were frightened and water was going to break and they were going to get washed

SCOTT BEVAN: Barry Mead doesn't believe the evacuations were necessary.

BARRY MEAD: A bit overdone to be honest with you, like from an old fella's point of view. It
frightened the life out of a lot of people in Lorne. They evacuated and whole of Lorn for no reason

MARK GODFREY: The need for the evacuation of Lorn was we thought we were going to go under.

SCOTT BEVAN: This morning for Lorne residents there's initial confusion. First, the SES announces
it's all clear to return. Then they're stopped by police road blocks.

The Megaritty family finally arrives home and finds everything intact and dry.

ROD MEGARRITY: It's easy to feel relieved now that there is no problem. If there had been I might
be feeling slightly different.

SCOTT BEVAN: Then their neighbours, the Allen's, get to turn the key in their front door.

Eight-year-old Grace Allen has devised her evacuation plan.

GRACE ALLEN, DAUGHTER: That's our house. And that's where you go for the evacuation where you're
staying, and then that's the map back home.

SCOTT BEVAN: But the family has no complaints about the authority's plan.

DAVID ALLEN: If ever they wanted to test a plan and find out if it works they've done it, and done
a sensational job.

SCOTT BEVAN: The worst may have passed for Maitland and the big clean up is about to begin. But for
those who live by or they can their livelihood from the river, they know this won't be their last

In fact, many accept all of this as part of the ebb and flow of life on the Hunter.

BARRY MEAD: We're just leaning with the punches. Sometimes you get good seasons, sometimes bad
seasons. Sometimes a kick in the bottom, other times a few bob in your wallet.

SCOTT BEVAN: Four generations of the Mead family have worked this land.

BARRY MEAD: This is my young grandson, next farmer.

SCOTT BEVAN: So, Barry Mead can't imagine breaking his bond with the river, no matter what it does.

BARRY MEAD: That's me life. I love the open outdoors, I can't work indoors.

SCOTT BEVAN: So a little bit of water isn't going to scare you away?

BARRY MEAD: Oh no, I can't swim real good, either. I can manage to keep my head above water.

KERRY O'BRIEN: And what the Murray Darling Basin wouldn't give for some of that. Scott Bevan with
that report.

NB: This transcript has been edited for accuracy.

(c) 2007 ABC