Washed-out Upper Colo Bridge impedes access to basic care and separates families

When the Upper Colo Bridge was destroyed during the Hawkesbury River flood in March 2021, Trevor Ward knew it would be a nuisance.

The scale of the problem was a total shock.

“We covered between 22,000 and 25,000 additional kilometers [since then] with the loss of the wooden bridge,” he said.

Usually, the six members of the Ward family would drive their cars across the Upper Colo Bridge to their respective jobs.

Now they have been forced to use a single access road which is plagued with potholes and landslides after successive bouts of rain.

The council had only just started preparing to rebuild the bridge before the most recent floods hit.(ABC News: Harriet Tatham)

While the diversion only added 12km to everyone’s journey, midweek family dinners were cut in half.

“Four family members stay in town all week and they come on the weekends,” said Lucy Ward, Trevor’s second oldest daughter.

“It’s too much for everyone. It’s too exhausting, too taxing.”

According to the latest census data, just 48 people live in Upper Colo, 90km northwest of Sydney.

Although the Wards accept that isolation is part of where they live, they say the damaged infrastructure has impacted family dynamics.

“It divided us, separated us, and you don’t see them every day… so [we’re] just walk away, really.”

‘Stolen’ from basic hygiene

Pete Cserhalmi, 36, lives on a nearby Upper Colo road that has been washed out four times since March last year.

Mr Cserhalmi, who was born with one arm and one leg, says the destruction and subsequent delay in repairs ‘deprived’ him of basic personal care.

“I have enough care through the NDIS [National Disability Insurance Scheme]… to have a person here every day … but with the floods, that’s not happening,” he said.

“You can’t let anyone in.

a man wearing a beanie watching the rain fall
Pete Cserhalmi says it’s frustrating not knowing exactly when access will be restored.(ABC News: Harriet Tatham)

Earlier this week, Mr Cserhalmi drove a tractor through 4km of paddocks before friends picked him up and took him to a carer, where he was able to take his first shower since the flood.

In 2021, the road was in such poor condition that he used a kayak to cross the flooded Hawkesbury River and pick up groceries.

“It’s hard enough to get up and live the way I have to live,” Cserhalmi said.

“It’s a struggle when you have these things that are supposed to be there to help, but can’t be. It’s like a tease.”

a man walking towards a makeshift shed
Pete is isolated from the care he needs after repeated flooding.(ABC News: Harriet Tatham)

Mr Cserhalmi said he was disappointed with the lack of clarity from Hawkesbury City Council on when his road and the Upper Colo Bridge will be repaired.

It’s a sentiment shared by Lucy Ward.

“I totally understand that there are heaps of problems all around Hawkesbury and there are other more populated areas,” she said.

“But to leave it so long, and they haven’t even started [to build a new bridge]… That’s crazy.”

a man and a woman walking on wet ground with a dog
Trevor and Lucy Ward say the swept away bridge separated their family.(ABC News: Harriet Tatham)

In a statement, Hawkesbury City Council’s Director of Infrastructure Services, Will Barton, said the roads were “sorted according to the severity of the damage and the importance the road plays in connecting our communities”.

Mr Barton said the council was aware of people with special needs in the Upper Colo area and “continues to offer them support during these difficult times”.

The council has hired a contractor to start building a “low profile concrete bridge” as a replacement.

In the weeks leading up to the last flood, the council had been working to clean up what was left at the site.

Weather permitting, Mr Barton said he expected the new bridge to open in January 2023.

This strategy, whereby repairs are prioritized according to their importance, is familiar to natural disaster experts.

“Councils are there to cover all voters, and quite often they have to prioritize the greatest number,” said Yetta Gurtner, James Cook University senior lecturer in disaster studies.

a woman looking at a damaged ground
Small communities can be overlooked when it comes to prioritizing infrastructure repairs.(ABC News: Harriet Tatham)

Dr Gurtner said that although unintentional, this “utilitarian approach” often puts small communities last.

“It’s hard to justify spending large sums of money on 100 people, versus spending the same amount of money on 100,000 people,” she said.

Until Mr Cserhalmi’s route reaches the top of this list, it is unlikely that he will be able to bring a carer to his property to provide him with his next shower.

About Antoine L. Cassell

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