As Victorian floodwaters peak in Echuca, a tight-knit community comes together

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Residents of Echuca are facing the worst flooding in their town in more than 30 years, as the water reaches its peak.

The Murray River reached a height of 94.8 meters above sea level on Saturday in Echuca and Moama, surpassing the 94.77 meters it reached during the 1993 floods that devastated the towns. It then continued its slow and steady ascent.

Evacuation orders were issued for the town and surrounding areas, but many residents remained behind to protect their homes and each other.

Some houses in Echuca are taken from the wrong side of the dike.(ABC News: Clint Jasper)
Water is pumped out of a flooded front yard
But residents have built formidable defenses against rising floodwaters using pumps and sandbags.(ABC News: Clint Jasper)

John McCann’s house is on the wrong side of Echuca’s new 2.5km flood dyke, leaving his home exposed to some of the worst flooding.

Sunday was his birthday.

A man holding a birthday cake in the street
John McCann celebrated his birthday during the flood crisis in Echuca. 10/23/22.(ABC News: Clint Jasper)

John’s friends baked him a birthday cake to celebrate, which he carried home through the floodwaters.

A man holding a birthday cake in a flooded street
John is no stranger to flooding, having also experienced the 1993 event.(ABC News: Clint Jasper)
A man holding a birthday cake in a flooded street
John says his only birthday wish is that the pump keeping the water out of his house keep running.(ABC News: Clint Jasper)

All he had planned for his special day was watching the pump keep the water out of his house.

A ute in flood waters
Evacuation orders have been issued for Echuca.(ABC News: Clint Jasper)

Jemima Lewis and James Hayes didn’t let the wet conditions dampen their spirits.

“We’re keeping our spirits up, but the water has certainly risen a lot here overnight, so we’re pumping it out every hour,” Jemima said.

“Friday was only on the nature strip, then Saturday was in [the front yard].”

A man and a woman leading over a sandbag wall in front of their house
Echuca residents James and Jemima endured a painful wait as floodwaters slowly rose to their home.(ABC News: Clint Jasper )

Jemima said the impacts of the flood had been a “slow burn”.

“Your tolerance as a human, you get used to things very quickly. It’s kind of normal now, even if it’s very abnormal,” she said, leaning on the sandbags protecting his house.

“It’s just the waiting game that’s painful. Lots of gossip!”

A man and a woman leading over a sandbag wall in front of their house
James pumps water from his front and back yards as water flows in front of their house.(ABC News: Clint Jasper )
A man and a woman leading over a sandbag wall in front of their house
James and Jemima have been forced to evacuate their dog for her safety, but are assured she is living ‘her best life’.(ABC News: Clint Jasper )

The couple said the mutual support from the community – whether by sharing food, drink or just stories – had been heartwarming.

“The effort of the whole community to get help from so many sandbags and so many people, it’s amazing,” she said.

“I really hope this stays and we continue this close bond that we’ve developed now into the future, because that’s what makes an area a wonderful place to live.”

The couple brought good vibes back to the community, throwing a rave in their front yard on Saturday night even as the water reached the ankles of visitors on the dance floor.

“People came out everywhere, standing and taking videos, even though they didn’t enter the swamp,” Jemima said.

“You just forget about the chaos around you for a few hours.”

A DJ performing in a flooded front yard
James and Jemima say they are in good spirits today, despite being hungover from their dance party.(Supplied: Bransen Gibson)

The community spirit manifested itself on every street corner in the city.

Kathy Kostoglou has lived in the area for 23 years and runs a pharmacy in town, keeping a vital supply of medicine open to residents.

While she said she considered herself lucky that on Saturday afternoon her home avoided serious flood damage, some of her neighbors weren’t so lucky.

“They’ve all been completely affected, the water is in their homes, they’ve evacuated to Melbourne because they’re so disturbed and they know it’s not over yet,” Kathy said.

“I don’t think we’re out of the worst yet and the anticipation is pushing us.”

A woman preparing a meal in a kitchen
Kathy Kostoglou (right) has lived in Echuca for 23 years.(ABC News: Iskhandar Razak)

In her spare time, Kathy said she cooked dozens of meals for neighbors affected by the floods, cooking Greek lasagna for anyone who needed it.

“Food is scarce right now here and obviously we don’t have a lot of things open,” she said.

“I’m already thinking ‘how are we going to help people in Rochester, how are we going to help people in Echuca?'”

A woman preparing a meal in a kitchen
The local community was inundated with people who volunteered their time to help.(ABC News: Iskhandar Razak)

Kathy said she’s been kept awake all night on adrenaline, constantly looking for ways to help a city that fills her with pride.

“We have the best community, I’m so honored to live here. I’m so privileged to be part of Echuca-Moama,” she said.

“What I witness of our city coming together…is this how they built the pyramids?” Many hands make life easy.

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