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From the torrent

From the torrent

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Lismore builder and businessman Joel Jensen experienced the catastrophic floods in summer 2022, but his close bond with the community left a lasting effect.

Anne-Maree Brown

General Manager of Content

In early 2022, Lismore – and most of the Northern Rivers region – was enveloped by floodwaters in a one-in-100-year weather event. Homes and businesses were underwater for the first time in history, and the Lismore CBD was effectively cut off.

For Lismore-based builder Joel Jensen, the size and scope of the influx of water was unprecedented. ‘My family goes back four generations in this area,’ says the Director of Joel Jensen Constructions.

‘The locals always say the farmers up in the catchment areas can tell how bad the floods are, based on the amount of water in the causeways. When a mate of mine rang and said, “Get ready, Joel”, we started stacking our office up high. Then the water level kept rising; it completely wiped us out.’

HIA member Joel Jensen, director of Joel Jensen Constructions.
Around 400 people grabbed their boats and helped locals in distress.

While Joel’s house was safe, located on higher ground, many of his family, team members, and other locals lost their homes in the floods.

During this crisis, Joel’s thoughts were not about property but people. With a close mate, they set out in a two-person dinghy at 5 am to search for the stranded. He estimated they moved around 70 people to safety. At one stage, they had six adults, their belongings, and two dogs on board. There were often difficult decisions he had to make.

‘It was surreal – something well beyond what I’m designed for,’ explains Joel. ‘We could see someone banging, screaming for help as the water rose. Then, someone else was banging on the other side. Decisions were life and death.

‘Moment by moment, you had to decide who you’re going to save. Do you choose an elderly person or someone with kids? You picked up who you could, then raced back. By then, the water was up over the windowpane, and you hoped they either got out or another boat had rescued them.’

Over the following days, around 400 people in the area grabbed their boats and helped locals in distress. It was amazing that only four people were lost in the floods.

A barber shop built by Joel and his team won HIA’s 2023 Gold Coast/Northern Rivers Small Commercial Project.
Joel’s business and equipment were decimated but he managed to keep his team employed during and after the floods.

Joel ran on adrenaline during this stressful time, but it was only the beginning. ‘Our business took a massive hit. We lost all our office files, tools, equipment, plus frames, trusses, and windows. We were probably a week off closing the doors.’

Although he spent six weeks without being able to work, he didn’t stagnate. He went on a ‘rampage’, as he calls it. He and his team spent that time cleaning out people’s homes of mud and debris, doing inspections to assess that properties were safe, and visiting homes to see what neighbours needed.

‘We have over 20 employees. My wife Britt and I felt responsible for keeping things moving while ensuring they were paid, even if we weren’t. Helping other people took my mind off what was going on.’

With an outpouring of community spirit, Joel’s local clients helped him keep his business afloat. ‘They all rang to help in any way they could, from payments to plan changes,’ explains Joel. ‘Not one client kicked up a stink. They were under pressure too with construction loans and flood-affected sites.’

Amazingly, one project he worked on after the floods won HIA’s 2023 Gold Coast/Northern Rivers Small Commercial Project. Top Notch Barber Shop was badly damaged, but Joel and his team used recycled local bridge timbers and innovative design elements to create a space that became a beacon for the community. He used local suppliers for the build to help them get back on their feet.

Joel led and managed the project at no charge – his way of supporting the young family. ‘It was amazing to see the team following me into battle. We worked into the night to get everything done as quickly as possible and have the owner, Matt, earning money as soon as possible.’

‘Our business took a massive hit. We lost all our files, tools, equipment, plus frames, trusses and windows. We were a week off closing the doors.’
‘Looking back, I’m so proud of everyone,’ says Joel. ‘This has never been about money; it’s about being proud of what you do.’

Another project by Joel Jensen Constructions was a finalist for the 2022 HIA Gold Coast/Northern Rivers Bathroom of the Year. This shapely ensuite had travertine flooring, soft arches, and gold detailing with a panoramic view of the hinterland.

After the devastating flood, Joel suffered from a series of flashbacks, sleepless nights, and anxiety. ‘I don’t think anyone is made to deal with what we went through,’ he says. After spending time with others who were part of the rescues, he is acutely aware of managing his mental health issues. He also spends as much time as possible with his wife and children. ‘It truly re-set my priorities,’ he says.

‘Looking back, I’m so proud of everyone. I’m only 33, and my wife and I have been running our business for nine years. We have four kids, and everything I do is for them. This has never been about money; it’s about being proud of what you do.’

Not only did Joel manage to keep his team employed during and after the floods, but he also hired his ninth apprentice. ‘A lot of people will whinge about the lack of skilled trades coming through. But what are they doing to make a difference? You have to be involved, put your hand up, and be part of fixing the cracks.’ 

Joel admits he spent time training them. ‘It can be hard on them, but I always say, “I’m not here to have you coming out just a number, but a highly skilled top-shelf builder”. Some days are tough. It can be 40 degrees or you’re tracking through the mud. But, if they want to invest time in me, I will seriously invest time in them over the four-year journey.’ 

While resilience and hard work are essential in this industry, Joel also treats family as a priority. ‘It might say Joel Jensen on the award or a vehicle logo, but our business is much more than that. It’s like coming to work with a family each day. My team are integral to everything we do; it’s pretty special.’

First published on 4 April 2024

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