NO ONE had ever seen a flood like 1954: faster, powerful, and more deadly than any other deluge in the region’s history.
This week marks the 60th anniversary of the infamous disaster, which inundated Kyogle, Casino, Lismore, Coraki, Woodburn, Broadwater and Wardell, leaving destruction and 15 lost lives in its wake.
People of this region are accustomed to heavy rains and floods – but this was more like an inland tsunami than the more typical steady creep.
The floodwaters rose more than twice as fast as previous floods and at its peak flow, the volume of water gushed three times the rate of historical precedents.
“Little warning was given to Murwillumbah, Lismore, Kyogle or Casino before floodwaters entered these towns,” the NSW Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission noted.
“It was inconceivable to older residents that the rivers with which they were familiar could rise from low stages to dangerous levels in less than half the time taken by previous floods.”
The weather system responsible was named Tropical Cyclone 195303, before the weather bureau started giving cyclones alphabetical names.
Like the flood it created, Cyclone 195303 was a unique beast.
It formed a seven days before the disaster, beyond the Coral Sea near modern-day Vanuatu, 1800km off the Australian mainland.
Charts from the Sydney Weather Bureau on February 16 reveal the vortex moving southwesterly, away from Vanuatu and towards Queensland.
Then it turned southward, proceeding to rip apart the Queensland coast from Rockhampton to the border.
By midnight on February 19, torrential rain was falling over the whole of the Far North Coast along with gale force winds.
Winds increased to cyclonic strength – beyond 120kmh – even before it made landfall at Tweed Heads late on Saturday, February 20.
The still-intact cyclone headed southwest across the Border Ranges, just north of Kyogle, unleashing a deluge of rain into the Richmond River catchment.
Elevated locations saw phenomenal rainfall – Whian Whian had 430mm in 24 hours, while Doon Doon saw more than 800mm in the 48 hours between the February 19 to Sunday morning, February 21.
Afterlee received 235 millimetres in a few hours on the Saturday night alone.
Despite a prior nine months of drought, a tropical low had impacted the coast seven days prior, so the catchments were “primed to flood”.
Michael Bath from Northern Rivers Severe Weather Events said unlike the year of the region’s other infamous flood, in 1974 – which saw several major rainfall events through the year – the February of 1954 was a “one-off” flood disaster.
“Most cyclones, unless they are slow moving and hang around near the coast for a while, won’t usually produce record rainfalls,” Mr Bath said.
“But this managed to dump 500-600mm in a very short period of time.”
By the time the cyclone blew itself out into a rain depression southwest of Tabulam on the Sunday, the skies across the region were sunny again – less than three days after the torrential rain began.