It was 7.30pm in Port Macquarie, right in the heat of Whalebone Wharf Seafood Restaurant's dinner service, when executive chef Peter Ridland received a call from the police. The rains that battered New South Wales that March 19 had flooded the Hastings River. Ridland had two minutes to evacuate diners from the restaurant.
"All customers had to go, leave everything on the table, and get out to their cars and drive before the water came over the road," says Ridland of that fateful night.
Staff spent the next 30 minutes salvaging what they could – glasses and plates, abandoned by diners, were moved to the kitchen; dry goods and kitchen appliances to higher surfaces. When Ridland finally drove away from the restaurant, the floodwater came up to the bumper bar of his four-wheel-drive. "That's how quickly it turned. It came up so fast."
The restaurant has been part of the Port Macquarie landscape for 41 years and is one of many food businesses reeling from the March floods, when parts of the New South Wales North Coast experienced record rainfall.
When the rains subsided days later, Ridland and staff returned to the restaurant to assess the damage. "It was a train wreck. There was a thick layer of sludge over the whole floor, every cool room, freezer – the sludge was frozen onto the floor."
Thousands of dollars' worth of fresh fish, prawns and oysters, prepped in anticipation for a busy weekend service, was thrown out. "The water level in the kitchen was about a metre high, which meant every fridge, bench and a six-burner oven were destroyed by the water," he says, with the volume of floodwater enough to lift and capsize a fridge. He pegs the restaurant's total damage bill at $400,000.
What's more, the restaurant underwent an extensive renovation just three years ago. Like so many businesses in the area, Whalebone struggled through the 2020 bushfires and a COVID-induced lockdown, but bookings had picked up over the recent summer. They're now hoping to reopen mid-to-late April. "He's [owner Nathan Tomkins] just come back, finally feels like he's on his feet and ready to go again, and this is a big smack."
If there's an upside to the disaster, it's the "good samaritans" who helped turn around the carnage at Whalebone. "We had about 20 volunteers come in on the Tuesday [...] they stayed the whole day just cleaning," says Ridland.
It's a similar story in town at Gourmand Ingredients, where neighbours on the Short Street shopping strip helped with clean-up efforts.
"We've had staff come in with squeegees and buckets, get on their knees and scrub the floors," says co-owner Maryline Green. "It's very humbling that people will do that on their own accord. And they're all young people. They're not afraid to get dirty."
Granite mortar and pestles sullied by the floodwater were taken to nearby restaurant Bills FishHouse and Bar, where they were cleaned in the commercial dishwasher.
Post-flood, the entrance to Gourmand Ingredients resembled a lake of waist-high water; when Green and her husband John opened the door, packets of Scottish fudge and Italian biscotti streamed out. "We were in the street trying to chase the stock before it floated away."
Most of the clean-up has been completed, but invoices for goods delivered just before the floods are due. There are flood-relief grants to apply for, insurance paperwork to sift through. A hydrologist assessed the water damage to the business this week. "We have a collapsed ceiling and there's water in the air-con. We're praying every day that the ceiling doesn't collapse," says Green. "When it rains it pours, right?"
In Hollisdale, 45 kilometres west of Port Macquarie, pig farmer Andrew Hearne says the recent flood is the worst he's ever seen. "It's that wonderful word: unprecedented."
For the past 12 years Hearne and his wife Therese have run Near River Produce, where rare-breed Berkshire and Wessex Saddleback pigs roam the land and are hand-fed a mixture of grain (milled on-site), whey and vegetable scraps.
The Hearnes are lucky. The farm suffered only minor damage. They lost power for a few days, and their boundary fences were washed away. "Our pigs are a bit more free-range than they should be," dead-pans Hearne. Out of 160 pigs, only three perished. "I know there's some dairy farmers over in the Manning Valley who lost [a lot] of stock," he says. "In the scheme of things we're relatively unscathed."
And though the scale of the floods is extraordinary, it comes with the job description. "You're in business with Mother Nature. Usually she's pretty silent, but every now and then she comes along and whips your arse," says Hearne. "That's the dance that farming is."
Ross Fidden agrees. "Time and tide stops for nobody," says the Port Stephens prawn farmer. Every full moon, he catches school prawns in the dead of the night on the lower Myall River, which has broken its banks. He estimates the water will take two months to drain thanks to a complex system of creeks that feeds into the Myall Lake, and a single, shallow Myall River that draws the water out.
"Because the Myall Lake is so big and low-lying, when it fills with water it swells and breaks. The water goes back for miles and miles. You have to wait for it all to drain down the lower Myall River, which is only about 40 to 50 metres wide and about three metres deep. It's a long time for all that floodwater to drain."
Water has risen to just below the roof of his fishing hut, located mere metres from the riverside, and lowered by only 10 centimetres in the past week. He boated his children to the submerged hut – they sat on the roof and dangled their feet in the water. "I got a picture of that, thinking that this won't happen again."
Fidden, a fisherman with 46 years' experience, is surprisingly light-hearted about the disaster.
"There's no good crying about it because there's nothing you can do. These things happen and you've got to live with it." He chuckles. Besides, he says, all the king prawns that live in the estuary will wash out to sea. "It will make king prawn catches quite good."
Back in Port Macquarie, Green has recently thrown out three skip-bins' worth of spoiled stock. Just before the flood, the shop received pallets of frozen goods in time for Easter trade. "The stock arrived on Thursday [...] by Monday it was in the skip," she says.
Her business lost about 60 per cent of its inventory, much of it ordered in large quantities in the early days of the pandemic. The shop sells specialty ingredients from around Australia and the world – French mustard, Filipino adobo sauce, moon cakes in the lead-up to Mid Autumn Festival – while stocking up on pantry staples such as organic flour, yellow split peas and jasmine rice last year was a safe-guard from unpredictable shipping schedules.
For a time, it paid off. "During COVID-19 when the supermarket shelves were empty, people were queueing at our doors. I know Coles and Woolworths have great prices, but when they ran out of stock, this was the little store that had enough for customers," she says.
Gourmand Ingredients reopened on Monday with limited power. On Wednesday the electricity, fridges and freezers were back in action, though Green is still without a point of sale system, and is working hard to restock items from Europe and Asia.
"I don't know how long it will take for the shop to come back to its former glory, and I ask all the Port Macquarie people to support the businesses on Short Street."
The grocery business is hard work and graft, but Green has an infectious enthusiasm for it. The margins are thin, but that's not why she persists. "It's the people," she says. "It's all about people."