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Stay or go? Lismore floods leave optometrists with tough choice

A principal optometrist in Lismore is unsure if his business will return to the centre of the disaster-stricken NSW town, stating it would be difficult to relive the devastating impact of recent floods, one of which destroyed his practice that was designed to withstand such events.

Lamas + Brown Optometrist owner Mr Fernando Lamas has described the sense of shock, overwhelm and community spirit since the record-breaking February-March floods wiped out his Lismore business along with four other optometry practices, including a Specsavers store which will be rebuilt at a new location in the town. He has also detailed the impossible insurance situation facing Lismore businesses.

Fernando Lamas.

Lamas, a therapeutically-endorsed optometrist, established his business in 2005. He expanded to acquire another practice 30km away in Casino, which also closed, but for a short period, due to the floods. Overall, the business employs 15 staff, including four optometrists. He was always aware of the flood risk in Lismore, but figured it could be mitigated with flood-proofing measures.

In 2013 he purchased a two-storey building located at one of the highest points of the Lismore CBD, with its front door 10.4m above the river height. With the Wilsons River levee breaching at 10.65m and the previous peak being 12.4m, he had the practice specially designed to cope with floods entering the ground floor.

Additionally, it was unviable to insure the building. When his broker sought a flood policy, only one insurer would agree to it – with a $107,000 annual premium.

“We spent a long time with the builder to make it flood-proof. For example, downstairs, all walls are Besser Block, all fixtures are either on wheels or split hinges, and we even devised a written, laminated flood plan,” he said.

“Upstairs was well and truly out of any previous flood by a good 1.7m, and we installed a hydraulic lift for patients which was also flood-proof.”

This plan was tested in a major 2017 flood that reached 11.59m. Within two and a half hours, the practice had moved all its equipment and stock upstairs rolled up the carpets and underlay and packed up the cabinets and desks. The business was back operational within a week.

On Sunday 27 February 2022, the practice performed the same protocol and Lamas thought it would pull through again.

“And then it just started bucketing. Over the next 30 hours we got something like 700mm,” Lamas said.

“I woke up at 2am, looked at the river heights and the Bureau of Meteorology was saying 12.4m, which was equalling the highest record, but I looked at river heights further upstream and knew it would be closer to 14-15m. That wasn’t a good night because it meant the water would be up into the second storey, and that proved correct, with a final river height of 14.4m.”

After completely submerging the ground floor, the water level reached 400-500mm in the second storey, destroying the suspended ceiling between the two floors, including a new air conditioner system installed nine months ago, as well as carpets and fixtures.

Thankfully, expensive devices like an OCT, topographer, visual fields system, $30,000 server, and equipment from its two consulting rooms were stored on tables above the water height.

“Another one foot of water would have caused another $350,000 damage,” Lamas estimated.

Lamas + Brown shop interior before the floods (above). Flood waters collapsed the suspended ceiling along with the wiring and air-conditioning ducts.

Noting the Lismore rebuild would be a months-long ordeal, he immediately sought a new location. He learned of a non-practising osteopath with rooms 15km away in Wollongbar, who happily transferred her lease to have the optometry practice operational within a few weeks.

In a cruel twist, once Lamas began clearing his Lismore practice, the town was hit with a second flood. It was the final straw for a town that, in the past five years, has endured floods (2017), the worse drought in a century, worse bushfires in 50 years and COVID.

“We were walking through the flood waters for the second time in four weeks, and that’s when my wife and I looked at each other and agreed that it seemed crazy to keep putting it all at risk. We own the building. It’s a big decision but we have decided to relocate to Wollongbar and see what happens with Lismore over the next six to 12 months – whether they move the town or put in place flood mitigation measures.

“We may end up with three practices, but right now I can’t keep risking so much money and the stress it’s putting on staff. It was fine when we had a good plan, but we now know 12.4m isn’t the maximum – it is 14.4m.”

Consistent with other business owners, Lamas was disappointed with the lack of support from governments, but has been heartened with the community response.

“It’s very overwhelming, but I’ve learned to do just a little bit each time, but still with the big picture in mind,” he said.

“I have realised this is my home. The community is what has driven the recovery. It shows the benefit of living in a rural area. We have had so many people help us. Our community, patients, and friends have been the driving force that has helped us through this. We have to thank ACBO, Optometry Australia and suppliers like VMD and Luxottica.”

Elsewhere, Specsavers confirmed its entire Lismore store and equipment were lost in the floods, requiring a full rebuild.

Despite this, Specsavers staff provided replacement glasses free for customers who lost them in the disaster.

“The team, both optometry and audiology, including retail dispensers, have been able to provide important healthcare services at Specsavers Ballina and Tweed City,” a spokesperson said.

“We are very excited to announce that we will be fully rebuilding in Lismore Square in a much larger relocated premises – where Mathers/Noni B were previously located – to provide essential healthcare services to our much loved Lismore community. We anticipate re-opening in July 2022 and look forward to seeing everyone again then.”

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