A number of beachfront homes in NSW are facing further collapse after suffering more damage from a weekend of battering rain and wild surf as residents brace for flash flooding in the state’s south.
“It’s pretty scary stuff,” Ron told news.com.au before the recent sotrms, as he walks his dog along Ocean View Drive.
“It’s all anyone talks about around here. That and COVID.
“My home is behind the surf club so if that goes, I’ll know I’ll be next.”
Ocean View Drive, in the beachside suburb of Wamberal about 100 kilometres north of Sydney, is a pleasant, but not flashy, residential street the kind you might find in many parts of Australia.
A collection of tidy apartment blocks and stand-alone houses – some snazzy, others less so – line the road. A hairdresser and cafe hug the corner.
But the closer you get, cracks – many literal – appear. Some of the houses are barricaded behind fencing and stern keep out signs; SES warning tape draped over the gates like Christmas tinsel.
And then there’s the 72 metre high crane in the middle of the road. It’s nosily, yet delicately, hauling aloft wire bags, each one containing four tonnes of rocks.
A deep, thunderous rumble echoes down the street as the bags crash onto the beach below the stricken homes. It’s a desperate stop-gap attempt to stop the homes from falling into the sea.
But the next storm has already hit.
On Sunday, new pictures emerged showing further cracks and erosion to the houses due to the state’s wild weather over the weekend. Three NSW towns were evacuated due to flooding fears and a severe weather warning for damaging winds and damaging surf was issued for people in metropolitan Sydney, Illawarra and parts of mid north coast, Hunter, south coast and Central Tablelands regions.
Residents in low-lying areas of Sussex Inlet and those within Moruya’s CBD area, on the state’s far south coast, were being directed to leave by the SES as flooding was expected.
Some houses have already partially slid down towards the beach, victims of a relentless series of fierce low pressure systems that have pounded the New South Wales coast this year.
Three weeks ago as another storm hit, 18 households were given just hours to evacuate. Five homes remain sealed off.
Everyone agrees a decision needs to be made about Ocean View Drive. But what that decision is – and who pays for it – has caused tension for years, decades even.
‘THIS STORM WAS DIFFERENT’
Resident Gordon Cahill says Ron, like the other locals, have reason to be scared.
“On some blocks it’s just 30 metres from high tide to Ocean View Drive,” he tells news.com.au from the granny flat his teenage daughter Matilda now calls home after they had to evacuate their home last month. He is kipping in a caravan next door.
“If the dune goes, Ocean View Drive is gone. This is a main road; it has gas and NBN and on the other side of the road are 400 homes that are less than five metres above sea level.
“People say you should do nothing, that all these rich bastards on the beach deserve it. But that’s not the whole story.”
Mr Cahill’s family have lived here for 35 years. They moved in some years after a huge storm in 1978 that sent several houses into the Pacific.
“Everyone has a place that feels like home, for me it’s where I can smell the salt.”
The favourite room of his house, one of the oldest overlooking the sea, wasn’t a room at all but the deck.
“We would have coffee there, have friends for dinner on beautiful summers night and, if a storm rolled up, we’d wait for the big warm drops of rain to come crashing down.
“But the storm in July was a different to the last couple. In 2010 there were big waves, up to 13 metres.
“This time the biggest wave was seven metres, but they were more frequent,” said Mr Cahill.
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“They were these huge white-water rolls, racing in and grabbing huge handfuls of sand and sucking it out. There was 20cms of sand going every time, two or three times per minute.”
Then he noticed his beloved deck was rising up to meet the house, see sawing and buckling as the ground beneath it shifted.
“That’s when I thought it was a bit of a problem. I was worried it would crack one of the cantilevers beneath the house. So, in 90 km/h winds, I hung out and with my chainsaw cut off the deck.
“My house is on top of the dune and used to have a slope at both sides, Now it’s a slope on one side and a cliff on the other. I’m luckier than some; two doors up their kitchen is now in the ocean”.
HOMES SHOULD NEVER HAVE BEEN BUILT
University of New South Wales coastal erosion researcher Dr Mitchell Harley said this year Wamberal has been pounded by a trio of storms, two of which were the fifth and sixth most severe the area had ever seen.
“It’s been a triple whammy of storms. The first stripped away a lot of the sand and that’s made it vulnerable to more recent storms.”
In a tweet from last month he said what was happening at Wamberal was “like watching a disaster movie in slow-mo”.
It wasn’t so much that the shore was receding, Dr Harley told news.com.au, but rather that the coastline was “dynamic” where large storms strip away the sand and carry it out to sea only to bring the sand back again in calmer conditions.
“You shouldn’t build houses on sand dunes. The problem in Wamberal is the dunes were zoned as residential 100 years ago when we knew a lot less about how beaches change so we now we’re dealing with the consequences of poor planning decisions.
“One option is a managed retreat, where you accept these legacy issues will only get worse. The council could buy the properties and turn it into parkland but that’s very expensive,” he said.
“A properly designed sea wall will protect these homes and everything behind it but it’s also very expensive.”
Dr Harley said he wasn’t convinced the entire street was at threat from the ocean. But if sea levels did rise, that was a possibility.
NOT A ROW OF MILLIONAIRES
A 2017 report prepared for the NSW Government similarly found that while Ocean View Drive was unlikely to be permanently flooded, it could become choked by sand if the dune was allowed to fail.
However, a rise in sea level could result “in the inundation of many, if not most properties surrounding Terrigal lagoon and the loss of Wamberal beach”.
The report looked at various sea defences, from rubble mounds to a full sea wall and sand replenishment, and costed them at between $5 and $14 million. A planned retreat was by far the cheapest option.
Mr Cahill bristled at the notion that all the homeowners were rich and should pay for the work themselves.
“There are some people with ludicrous amounts of money here. But this is not a string of multi-millionaires. I’ve been in a position I’ve had to sell stuff just to eat.
“There are people who moved into a family home or used every penny and worked off their arses to be here.”
He said a house had sold for $4 million once. “But now the properties are probably worthless until it’s all fixed,” he said.
“Would I put in a proportion of paying for a solution? Yes. Would I pay all of it? No. It should be proportional given people use the beach and there are houses and amenities down Ocean View Drive that we need to protect,” said Mr Cahill.
‘THIS WAS PREVENTABLE’
He’s most angry at Central Coast Council, and its predecessor councils, which he claimed have prevaricated and done little to find a solution for the entire strip leading to piecemeal shoring up jobs.
His house was built with boulders in front which Mr Cahill insists has left the property structurally sound despite its precarious position. But his neighbours were only able to bring in extra sand to protect their homes and the sheer number of recent storms swept that way.
“I watched 35 years of council incompetence and it’s just not fair. We have been denied the right to build a one in 100-year protection for our homes and this storm was not even that. This was preventable.
“Everyone feels like they are banging their hands against a large concrete wall – yet we’re not allowed to build one.”
Central Coast Council did not answer specific questions from news.com.au but pointed to press statements including one from last week detailing the placing of 1800 tonnes of basalt rocks on Wamberal Beach.
“The success of this response will hold us in good stead as we plan further recovery works and a longer-term solution at both locations,” Council CEO Gary Murphy said.
The NSW Government has also set up the Wamberal Taskforce to figure out a permanent resolution to the problem.
“The taskforce is the only hope we have,” said Mr Cahill.
He, his daughter and two dogs are waiting to be told when they can re-enter their home. But he wants back in at some point.
“I want to live her until the end of my days. The house has good bones, she hasn’t moved, she doesn’t want to fall over. You don’t knock down a place that’s determined to stay and I’m going to respect that.”
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