Riding Shotgun With A World Champ During Australia’s Flood Catastrophe
Pro surfing’s elite find themselves on either side of Australia’s unfolding flood catastrophe – Parko in the rescue effort, Noa Deane cut off for six days and running low on food.
After pulling 12 straight hours on a jet ski whisking people to safety, 2012 World Champ, Joel Parkinson, returned home to find his wife’s car had been stolen and his house ransacked, all while his family slept. It barely bothered him.
“I’ve been laughing about it all day,” he says.
“I’ve just watched families – like one guy with his misses who was pregnant about to have a baby… legend of a bloke, getting everything sorted for his fourth kid. He has lost everything. I just went, for me, losing a car – whatever. They lost their cars, their house, they lost their toothbrushes! Everything,” he says.
Parko was part of a contingent of pro surfers on jet skis that included Mick Fanning, Mikey Wright, Bede Durbidge, Ryan Hipwood, Nathan Hedge, Mark Mathews, and Luke Munro, who raced on jet skis to join the rescue effort during the ongoing flood disaster on Australia’s east coast. Working alongside a vast civilian fleet known as the ‘tinny army’ and in conjunction with the SES workers and volunteers, they undertook a task as dangerous, as it was surreal, as it was essential.
“I went over this thing and I looked to the side and thought, ‘Oh, it’s a line.’ Then I looked to the side and realised it was a power line! I’m going over the dip in the two power lines either side. The water was up there!” says Parko.
The flood is the worst in recorded history in this region, surpassing the previous record of 11.7 meters set just five years ago, maxing out at 14.9 meters. Not only has it shattered every record and metric available, it’s blown the minds of the most seasoned watermen, women, and emergency workers.
“I never expected the Tweed River to do that – I’ve seen it do its thing, but I never knew it had that in it,” says Parko, struggling to find the words.
“I just didn’t know it was possible for it to be that wild. I feel confident I know that water but that one I just went – I’ve never seen it like that,” he says.
After receiving a call of distress from the mother of one of his wife’s friends that she was trapped in rising flood waters with her dog, Parko slipped into his wettie, jumped on his ski, and set off up river.
“I was like, ‘Do you want me to go get her? This was like ten o’clock (am). The Bureau of Meterology had said maybe 10 to 15 mm on the Sunday. Not 840mm!” he recalls.
When he arrived the older woman took one look at he ski and said no thanks. By then there were signs a catastrophe was unfolding. Parko along with his good mate, Api Robbins, husband of comedian Celeste Barber, set out to do what they could, which turned out to be a lot.
“It was full on. One to the next to the next to the next,” he says.
“I got to Tumbulgum and it was just so hectic. That town has two rivers that meet. One’s a creek but it’s a fucken big creek. It was just decimated. It was like nothing they’d ever experienced. The previous high spot – this was another meter and a half higher.”
“Every house was completely inundated. Maybe half the town had dry second stories, and the other half the second story was under. We got there, there weren’t too many people there (helping). One lady on a boat helping out but her boat was a real weak boat and couldn’t get around the full part of the flood because the current was raging too hard,” he says.
Soon the SES would put out a call for every man and his boat to join the rescue effort – what would become known as the tinny army. But they rescinded that call soon after, as it became clear how dangerous the task of retrieving people would be. It was too late. The flotilla had launched and just as well. It was all hands on deck as people in boats and on jet skis raced to retrieve people from homes, roofs, roof cavities, cars, caravans and anything else that managed to stay above he water.
With petrol stations submerged, large amounts of fuel were released into the water, along with all manner of industrial and agricultural chemicals, countless dead animals and debris. The potential for injury or death was significant for everyone. Even a simple cut could complicate into something much worse.
“(You’re) looking at the water going, ‘Alright is there anything there? Every time you pull into a house, ‘Hello! Is there anything in front of me? What am I going to hit? Are your cars parked anywhere?’ I bumped into that many cars,” says Parko, adding, “I had to swim into this thing to get some fuel and hit my leg on an excavator. I didn’t know what it was.”
While door knocking, he and Api were greeted at the entrance to one house by a four year old in his lifejacket. Both men, fathers themselves, were overcome with emotion. The pair then spotted some cattle in trouble and tried to use their skis to herd them toward their calves. As the afternoon grew late, the pair called it a day citing poor lighting and safety concerns. Or so they thought.
“I said to Api at 4:30 or 5, it’s raining still, it’s fucked, we should get back to the boat ramp because we’re on jet skis, I’ve got a headlamp, he’s got a torch, there’s cows floating down, tree logs floating down the river, we can’t run into one of them at night on a jet ski,” says Parko.
On their way home they stopped into the small river town of Chinderah where they were flagged down by SES workers who set them to work once more, now with better lights, more fuel, and a list of locations and addresses where people needed assistance.
“It was just chaotic. There’s three full caravan parks and a retirement village. The SES were there and they’re going, go there, go to that address, go to this address,” recalls Parko.
Toward the end, he came close to losing his temper with a man who, for reasons only known to him, flatly refused to leave his car behind, despite the flood waters threatening to consume him.
“I’d been going for a while then. I said, ‘If you don’t leave I’m not coming back to get your body.’ I was pretty ruthless. I just drove away from him and went to he next one, he was more willing,” he says.
Having returned home from a 12 hour day to find his home and car ransacked, Parko passed out only to wake up, jump on his ski, and do it all again. Not that he’s interested in any recognition. That belongs to the SES, he says.
“A credit to the SES, they’re amazing, I wanna be an SES person, I’m gonna join it after that,” he says, while encouraging every able-bodied man and woman to do the same.
“If there is something like that again and they need help, we should all – anyone on dry land – should go help… From now one, that’s what I’m gonna do cos those SES guys are legends,” he says.
On the other side of the equation, Noa Deane, has been trapped on his property at Main Arm, near Mullumbimby, since Thursday. With phone and internet cut off, all that is known of his situation via sporadic communications with the outside world is that he is and his partner have – are beginning to run out of food, they need antiseptic, and one of his horses may have drowned.
“They’re fucking running out of food so me and Bug (Beau Forster) are gonna see what we can do because there’s no roads. We’re hoping someone on the other side can take us the rest of the way,” says Toby Cregan, the surf filmmaker, Skeggs frontmen, and close friend of Noa’s.
Toby, who is based in Mullumbimby, was another early responder in the rescue effort – as far he could tell he was the first person in his town to put a tinny in the water. As soon as he rounded his street corner and headed for the town centre, he caught sight of a group of horses struggling to keep their heads above water and their frantic owner trying to save them.
“There was this legendary horse lady on a kayak who just commandeered my tinny. She got on it and she’s telling me exactly where to go to round the horses up and get them to higher ground. It was so sad, dude, it was gnarly to watch,” he says.
When one got tangled in the property’s electric fence, the woman jumped in and started wrangling the animal with her barehands.
“It was the most gangster fucking thing I’ve ever seen. It was gnarrrrrly,” says Toby.
“I couldn’t find my knife. She’s like, do you have a knife, do you have a knife? She just jumps in. I’m pretty sure the fence is still live too…the horse is in the water fucking drowning, she’s trying to keep its head above water while it’s drowning, trying to grab is feet while it’s bucking to get it untangled from the electric fence,” he says.
“She got it free and then we rounded it up and then as quick as that it got up to higher ground and it was sweet. But she was worried it was still going to die because it had drunk too much water. Then later, when I dropped someone up there, I seen ‘em so I’m pretty sure at least a few of them were sweet,” says Toby.
He spent the remainder of the day put-putting down alleyways and streets he usually traverses by foot, checking on the elderly, and ferrying people to evacuation centres.
“It was pretty surreal. Going down the laneways felt like going down the Amazon or some shit with bamboo going over my head and these tiny little rivers. I’m whistling out seeing if anyone wants to jump in and every time someone wanted. I did it pretty much the whole day,” he says.
Throughout it all, classic banter and dark humour kept everyone’s spirits high. .
“There was so much funny shit as well, so much good Aussie banter, like, ‘Awww, bit wet out.’ I was pissing myself,” he says.
Closer to home, Stab’s own Film Director, Danny Jonson, had his house inundated and his partner and newborn child forced to evacuate to a refuge – all while he’s away on assignment for Stab. The region spanning the Gold Coast to Yamba, is a global Mecca of high performance surfing and shaping, meaning countless industry heavyweights, along with their families and friends, have been caught up in the natural disaster.
As the rain subsides and floodwaters begin to recede along sections of the coast, the origin of all this, a prized cyclone, is sending lines of groomed swell toward the many world class beach breaks and points in the area. Almost all are empty. In what is a a savvy move by the surfing community, they have decided to direct their energy to a more altruistic ends while also heeding advice from experts to watch out for a ramped-up shark feeding frenzy.
“As a surfer and someone who has spent a lot of time with sharks, I’d be staying out of the water for a few days, sharks will be seeking any food at rivermouths, be disorientated, and fighting hard to also survive, murky water, partnered with caracasses floating out to sea…give it a miss for a while even if it’s cooking out there,” wrote Marine Biologist, Brinkley Davies, on her Instagram.
Your author did not get that memo in time, however. After heeding an evacuation request from my place west of Wardell, I couldn’t resist the four to six foot tubes on offer in Byron’s Bay and snuck out for a quick one. Only for a six foot Great White or Bull Shark to come spiralling out of the water in pursuit of a fish. I returned home only for the floodwaters to rise as the huge volume of water made its way from the hills toward the ocean cutting me off from civilisation.
As overwhelming as all this sounds, however, it’s just the start. The clean up and rebuild process promises to be every bit as exhausting if not moreso.
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