STORM LEFT JO WITH NOTHING BUT PAIN
By CRAIG McTEAR
JO Amanda is terrified at the mere thought of coming to Coffs Harbour.
On the rare occasions he does visit, the hellish events of November 23, 1996, come back to torment him.
That's the night his sweetheart, Alannah, perished in the massive storm which left the city resembling a war zone.
A decade on, Jo still hasn't bounced back from his heartwrenching loss. He probably never will.
The constant nightmares won't let him.
The 55-year-old carries some enduring scars, and they're not just mental ones ? his legs are a mess from the injuries he sustained, to the extent he can only hobble, and his hearing is shot.
Things are so bad he needs a live-in carer to help him shower and dress.
Until now, Jo has never spoken publicly about his horrendous ordeal.
Jo and Alannah arrived at the Coffs Village Caravan Park on the Pacific Highway only three days before that fateful tempest.
Ironically, they'd sought sanctuary here in the wake of a storm which had pelted their caravan with cricket ball- sized hailstones in Armidale.
On the Saturday night, the couple were in their caravan when Mother Nature unleashed her worst.
"The water came up six inches, but still no-one told us it would flood," Jo said.
"Then, it came up above the metal step of our caravan, and came in under the floor.
"I said 'we have to get out of here'. When we stepped out together, there was a strong undercurrent.
"The next thing, she was gone. She just vanished. I never even saw her get swept away."
Jo spent what seemed to him an eternity in filthy, chest-high water as he struggled against the raging torrent.
In the process, a star picket gouged his right leg.
He eventually inched his way along a submerged gazebo and clambered out onto a service road to safety.
Emergency workers braved the floodwaters to drive Jo to the Coffs base hospital.
Later that night, police told Jo the body of a woman matching Alannah's description had been found washed up on Park Beach. She was naked, so forceful was the water which claimed her.
She'd also sustained a knock to the head.
"I had thought maybe there was a chance she'd be found alive. She could swim a bit," he said.
"I was wheeled to the morgue to identify Alannah. I was absolutely devastated.
"I was going through what they call hell.
"We were five months short of 16 years of marriage. That's a long time these days.
"She was a fun-loving person who liked a good laugh. She didn't drink, but she was happy with her tea and coffee and a smoke."
Jo was left with nothing, so the St Vincent de Paul Society paid for Alannah's cremation, and helped him out with clothes.
He was discharged from hospital two days before Christmas after intensive treatment which included antibiotic drips.
He stayed with his sister-in-law at Dorrigo for a week, and he bought another caravan with the money given to him by the Department of Community Services for that purpose. Jo lived at two different caravan parks in the area before eventually moving to South Grafton, where he's now happy to call home.
He's also joined the local congregation at the Christian Outreach Centre, which has helped him deal with his trauma.
The visits to his psychiatrist, and the sleeping pills, have also helped take the edge off.
While Jo acknowledges all the help he was given, including $18,000 from the Coffs Village Caravan Park, he says none of that will bring back his wife.