Lismore retailer Harris Cycle Co. has been hit twice by flooding within a month, only a year after moving to a new premise the owners thought would provide better flood protection.
Between flooding and COVID interruptions, store owner Darryl Pursey says he’s been able to trade for a total of about three weeks since the start of the year.
More than half of the store’s bikes and virtually all its P&A were affected by the first flood at the end of February, when the water rose more than two metres above previous record levels – in a town very accustomed to flooding.
Darryl said virtually all Lismore businesses had flood strategies, based on legendary floods in the 1950s and 1970s, but those plans unravelled when February’s levels far surpassed anything the town had experienced before.
Darryl and his staff had quickly moved stock to the second and third floors of their North Lismore premises but then had to watch from their third-floor refuge as the water rose to around a metre above the second floor.
“We finished packing up three times during the night, then heard another update on flood levels and we’d do again, just a bit higher. Eventually, we had nowhere else to go,” he said.
The team is still waiting for collapsed walls and ceilings to be replaced, and electricity to be restored before the store can reopen.
However, Darryl and his partner had been stripping down and repairing bikes at their home and had started progressively returning them to the store – then the second flood struck last week and half a metre of water went through the store again.
“We didn’t take any risks with the second flood. We got in early and moved all the stock,” he explained.
Darryl said the flooding and recent effects of COVID had brought the biggest hit to the family-owned business in a history spanning more than a century. Prior to its relocation last year, it was believed Harris Cycle Co. could be Australia’s oldest bike store operating in its original premises.
Darryl bought the business in 1991 from his then father-in-law, Si Witherspoon, and last year sought to move it to a less flood-prone location.
“One of the reasons we picked this place was it had better flood storage and higher flood storage, and the floor is higher than our old shop,” he said.
“We really should have been high and dry but this flood was just so much higher than anything Lismore has experienced before.
“We definitely tried to get out of the flood area completely but this was the best I could find. There was one shop Goonellabah that remained high and dry but I missed out on that one by a couple of days.”
He said there were very few options in town for higher ground with the space needed for his business.
“Our new store has a ground flood one metre higher than our old location, which puts us up out of the nuisance floods,” Darryl added.
“The building’s owner had been there for 40 years and had only experienced three floods – and two of them were just over the ground floor.
“I’ve been there for 12 months and had two floods already – and one was a metre above the second floor.”
More Than 100 Bikes Damaged
He said the new location still made flood insurance too expensive to be viable – and he estimates he had over 100 bikes affected by this round of flooding, including a recent shipment of e-bikes.
“We had about 40 or 50 bikes up on the third floor and they were safe, and we managed to save about 40 bikes from the second floor, but the rest went under,” Darryl explained.
“I usually carry 200-plus bikes in stock.
“We are pulling a lot of them down and cleaning them up. We will salvage some and a number of bikes we will look to sell as flood stock.
“It takes two to three hours to do them properly, so any bikes worth under $500 are not worth doing.”
He estimates about 50 of the flood-affected bikes will be worth salvaging.
“I also had 40 customers’ bikes in the store, 20 that had been done and 20 waiting to be done. They are our priority to get them back to their owners,” he said.
“Almost all our P&A was a write-off. We’ve washed hundreds of tubes and we will be able to sell them but that’s about it. Because everything had gone under, it was too big a job to clean everything.
“We have had an army of people helping us with the clean-up – family, customers and just random people.”
Darryl said one family was travelling down from Brisbane each day on weekends and setting up a barbecue for everyone helping.
“It was incredible. There were so many people out helping and that’s Lismore,” he added.
“The floods always bring that out in Lismore. Everyone knows what you are going through. But this one pushed everyone to the limit because it was so big.”
Floods a Part of Doing Business
He said dealing with floods is part of operating a business in Lismore.
“You know you are going to get affected by floods, you just hope to get a few good years between them,” Darryl explained.
“We’ve been lucky and at one stage went 20 years without a flood.
“Businesses all have flood plans and usually you get your stock up and you’re right.”
All businesses in the area have a flood plan that includes somewhere to store product that is at least a metre above the previous highest level, recorded in 1954.
The water peaked at 12.27m on that occasion and reached 12.15m in another of the city’s legendary floods, in 1974. Last February’s flood climbed to 14.4m.
“We’d gone in with food and water and clothes to ride it out,” Darryl said.
“In a normal flood, the water goes down in a day and you want to be in there to start hosing down before the mud dries. That makes it so much easier to clean up.
“This one was so big, we ended up getting taken out in a boat on the second day because we knew we would have been there too long.
“There were rumours going around the dam was in danger of breaking and if that happened there would be an almost immediate two-metre rise in the water level. We were going to be in trouble.
“There were three of us there and we made the decision we didn’t want to go into another night because they wouldn’t have been able to rescue us once it got dark.”
Still Able to Bounce Back
Darryl said while he is optimistic about the resilience of the Harris Cycle Co. to bounce back from the disaster, he believes Lismore will struggle for quite a while.
“We will get up and running again,” he stated.
He said the compounding effects of shutting the store for two weeks during last year’s move to the new premises, multiple pandemic lockdowns for the city, his own self-isolation when he caught COVID, and now the floods had delivered a considerable financial blow to the business.
“I’m hitting 61 and our plan was to semi-retire in the next couple of years,” he said, explaining those plans were likely to be delayed a little by the run of financial setbacks.
“However, we’re lucky I’ve been in business for a long time and we own just about everything. We are not struggling with paying things off.
“If this happened 25 to 30 years ago – when we’re buying the business, paying for our house and stock – I would have been in big trouble, with big bills to pay.
“And there are a lot of businesses around town who are like that and are really struggling.
“We were also lucky to have a boom during COVID. That put us in a good position.”
Conversely, he lamented the fact the floods arrived soon after stock supplies started to recover from the pandemic.
“If this had happened a year ago, we would have been down to around 10 bikes in the store,” he explained.
“We had the COVID boom and then couldn’t get any bikes.
“It has been very difficult to get stock but it was just starting to arrive.
“Between lockdown and floods, we have traded for probably three or four weeks out of the past four months.”
Long Wait Ahead
Darryl expects it’s still going to be quite a while before his store can reopen.
“A few walls will have to go and we still don’t have any electricity. The issue is getting any parts and getting an electrician,” he said.
“Our electrician was due to come and work on the store the day the second flood hit.
“I’m waiting to see if we stay at the top of the list or whether we will just have to go to a new date.”
He said virtually every store in the CBD and 1,000s of houses needed major electrical repairs.
“I can’t describe what the CBD looks like. It’s a ghost town. I’ve never seen a flood that has caused so much destruction,” he explained.
“Normally the water comes up, it goes down and you house out the building. But this time every building has big damage.
“It’s over a month now and you walk around the CBD and there are only four or five shops actually back running.
“The rest have had next to nothing done. You just can’t get materials.”
So why persevere with a business in Lismore?
“I’m born and bred in the area, just 30km from Lismore,” Darryl says.
“We’re in such a great location, close to Brisbane and the Gold Coast, and our climate is as good as anywhere.
“We have places here that people travel from all around the world to see and it’s on our doorstep.
“We have a 30-minute drive to some of the best beaches in the world and we have world heritage rain forest.
“And it’s a relatively cheap place to live, although that’s changing as more people find out about the place.”
Brisbane store EveryBody e-Bikes has been trading in a number of pop-up locations and is currently operating in Lutwyche, after it had approximately four metres of water through its Wilston premises during the February floods.
Owner Andrea Herklots said the business – which specialises in e-bike mobility solutions, including bikes for people with disability – was fortunate a significant number of its special needs bikes were being stored at the company’s warehouse, which was unaffected by the flooding.
EveryBody e-Bikes and advocacy organisation Bicycle Queensland are still working through their insurances processes before they can return to their premises.