Ongmac Rise Above

Rebuilding after the Lismore floods

For residents of Lismore, there has always been an understanding that residing on a floodplain across from the Wilsons River in Northern NSW leaves them susceptible to flooding. Preparation has almost become a grim routine, in the face of the lingering threat of devastation.

But with this comes a steely resilience that has been built into the local community.

This resilience certainly extends to Dean and Shane Marsh, brothers and co owners of Ongmac, the machinery and parts dealership that resides in the heart of Lismore.

Growing up watching their father Alec grow the family business, to ultimately taking over in 2015, the brothers have always understood the necessity to plan for the worst, especially after the dealership experienced the effects of the major floods of 1989 and 2017.

“I JUST CRIED FOR ABOUT HALF AN HOUR.... EVERYTHING WAS TURNED UPSIDE DOWN, IT WAS LIKE A BOMBSITE.”

But nothing could prepare Dean, Shane or the broader community for what they awoke to on Monday, 28 February 2022, as the worst flood on record had descended onto their local town.

While the entire Northern Rivers region was badly affected, Lismore bore the brunt of devastation with flood levels reaching 14.4 metres, surpassing the previous highest level on record by two metres.

“We knew there was rain coming so we had initially moved some of the shop to our other warehouse and the rest of it to our flood mezzanine in the dealership. We were anticipating similar water levels to the 2017 floods but in hindsight, we didn’t stand a chance,” Shane said. “In 2017, the floods came in and filled the bottom floor of the workshop. However, this time around we spent the Sunday clearing the immediate area, moving the heavy machinery to our second warehouse on higher ground, thinking once the floods subsided, we’d just hose down the floors and we would be back to business. But that night I just couldn’t sleep.”

As news cameras beamed visuals of the town underwater, the residents of Lismore were under immediate peril.

“I’ve never seen the town so quiet. I couldn’t sleep that night. A friend and I took a boat out to see what we could do to help. And as we went down the main street I could see the shop, completely underwater. It was devastating to see,” said Dean.

“People were trapped both in and on their roofs – it just felt surreal, you see this kind of thing on the television but you never think you’ll ever live through it.”

It took four days for the flood waters to subside, revealing the extent of destruction left behind. From the Thursday, the Ongmac team and the wider community volunteered their time to help clear the wreckage and get things back on track – despite a number of the team losing their homes themselves.

“I walked through the gates, opened up the roller doors and just cried for about half an hour. We had a false roof which was on the floor, and everything was turned upside down, it was like a bombsite,” said Dean.

“When the time came to start the clean up, the amount of rubbish we had to throw out was massive. Our parts supply had either washed away or was damaged beyond recovery. Loading truck after truck, it’s pretty sad to see your livelihood washed down the drain.”

As the flood waters slowly subsided over many months, parts from their Lismore shop would be found in towns up to 40 km away.

“It will take time to rebuild but we are committed to getting back to where we were”.

But as the saying goes – “adversity does not build character, it reveals it”.

For Dean and Shane, it was important to get the dealership back on its feet – not only for themselves, but for the wider community, where they currently employ over thirty people.

“What do you do, pack up and go home? You’ve just got to get on with it; you can’t just walk away,” said Shane.

“Because we’ve been here for so long, we have a lot of community support which has been amazing, and a lot of family and friends helped chip in. From the day we started the clean up, there were about a hundred people wanting to help and get things back to normal,” said Dean.

While Ongmac was able to run its operations out of the warehouse to keep the business going, it took Dean and Shane four months to reopen their original location in town.

The flood will live long in the memory of the brothers, who have taken proactive steps to futureproof their business. The bulk of their heavy inventory is now stored in a warehouse located on higher ground. And colorbond walls have been installed to make it easier to remove and sweep out water in the eventuality of it happening again.

But much like the recovery of the business, the wider area has seen a resurgence too – in part due to the influx of city dwellers keen on a new way of living.

“We’ve seen people wanting a lifestyle change, who’ve decided to move up to the Northern Rivers area. We’ve probably seen a new family in every week,” said Shane.

For the town of Lismore, there is still a long way to go to get back to the way it was – there’s still hesitation to move back, and there are houses that need rebuilding.

The journey ahead is also a long one for Dean and Shane to get Ongmac back to the way things were, particularly after devastation of this magnitude.

But their character, optimism and commitment in the face of adversity, combined with support from friends, family and the local community, is their driving force. One that is strong enough to continue the fight and family legacy in Lismore.

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