Throughout late February and early March, unprecedented rainfall battered the east coast of Australia, resulting in one of the worst flooding disasters in the region’s history. From Maryborough, Qld, in the north to Camden, NSW, in the south, more than 25,000 homes and businesses were damaged, and 22 lives were lost. Following nine days stranded in the small fishing village of Iluka, and a heartbreaking journey home through annihilated Northern NSW, the Rotary Down Under editorial team caught up with District 9640 Governor Jeff Egan and partner Kaileen Casey for a glimpse into the devastation the communities of Northern NSW faced, but also the inspiring way in which they came together in a heart-warming example of community spirit and connectedness.
By Samuel Harrison // Photos @rhysmartinphotographer
At 3am on Sunday, February 27, President of the Rotary Club of Lismore, NSW, Cheryl Hicks, and her husband Robert stared in disbelief at the Facebook post now confirming their worst fears. The Bureau of Meteorology had issued an official evacuation alert for Lismore and as anxious residents watched the flood waters rise around them, none could anticipate what was yet to come.
Cheryl recalls the moment, crowded with her neighbours around the computer.
“They said it’s going to reach 13.5 metres. We couldn’t believe it, everyone was in shock,” Cheryl said.
The Northern Rivers region of NSW is historically flood prone, but this February’s catastrophic weather event took even these battle-hardened communities by surprise.
Many affected areas had just recovered from the 2017 flooding caused by Cyclone Debbie, and the region’s proximity to the Queensland border had put further strain on communities during cycles of COVID-19 lockdowns and border closures. But, from the mud and destruction of this tragedy the indomitable spirit of the region has risen, as residents and volunteers come together to give, grieve
Rotary has been on the frontline throughout the flood crisis, providing resources and support to the communities affected. These are some of their stories.
It’s been weeks since the flooding and Lismore’s streets are still lined with piles of broken furniture, contorted mattresses, and other possessions that would ordinarily make a house a home. Such is the scale of this disaster, emergency services and clean-up crews have been working around the clock and yet never seem to run out of the urgent tasks required to return the town to something resembling normality.
Every surface is covered in a brown frost of mud and dirt, the flood water’s insidious calling card. It has painted itself across buildings, trees, light posts, and cars. It is a pervasive reminder of what has happened here, and just how high the waters climbed.
President of the Rotary Club of Lismore, Cheryl Hicks, and her husband Robert have lived in their home for 46 years.
The couple are no strangers to flooding.
“I mark the heights of the floods we get here,” says Robert, pointing to a wall underneath the front stairs of the house. This year, that same wall was entirely submerged as flood levels smashed the previous record by more than two metres.
“Our house is in the highest part of Lismore, we’ve never had the flood in the house, but this time around it just came so quickly and kept rising and rising,” recalls Cheryl, pointing out the waterline approximately 10 centimetres from the ceiling of their newly renovated two-storey home.
In the chaos of that moment, with rain pouring down and everything at stake, neighbours became lifesaving heroes. Cheryl points to a smashed-out wall in the roof cavity of a nearby house.
“That’s where our son-in-law got those people out in a rowboat; there were four adults, two dogs, two cats and a rabbit.”
With the situation evolving so quickly it was up to the community to take decisive action. In the span of just 30 minutes, Robert had rescued seven people in his own boat, ferrying them to safety.
“Every time you would go past you would hear people yelling out, ‘Help! Help!’ No one could have been prepared for or even comprehend what was going to happen.”
It is hard to grasp the fact that every single household across town, street after street after street, has a similar story. The piles of discarded personal possessions, which reach to the second storey of every home, are barely distinguishable from one neighbour to the next. But for a real reality check, PDG Terry Brown, of the Rotary Club of Lismore, takes us for a drive down Casino and Crown Streets on the lower side of town.
Entire houses have been picked up and washed into their neighbours. A cold room emblazoned with a Lions club logo sits five metres above the ground, wedged between the walls of two houses. Another family returned home to find a motorhome in their backyard. They have no idea where it came from.
“Suzy, a 70-year-old lady living on Casino Street, was about to put her home on the market valued at $500,000,” Terry says. “Now she couldn’t give it away.
“A little further down, Viv, who is in his 70s, had three young people helping him clean up. I asked if they were family, he said he didn’t know them… they just dropped in and started helping. He said he was embarrassed to accept help, but I can tell you, he didn’t have much.”
With the assistance of the Hindu Council of Australia, through their charitable trust the Hindu Benevolent Fund, the Rotary Clubs of Lismore and Summerland Sunrise have delivered more than $10,500 worth of cash cards to flood affected residents of Lismore.
“The feedback from residents has been extremely positive, many saying that it will allow them comfort in being able to provide the necessities of their choice,” Terry said.
Teaming up for flood relief A team of four from the Hindu Benevolent Fund made the journey from Sydney to Lismore to help with flood relief, including District 9675 Membership Chair Renga Rajan, of the Rotary Club of Granville, NSW. With the help of members from the Rotary Club of Lismore, the team set up base at the entry of the Olympic Motel, owned by one of the Benevolent Fund members, where they cooked, packaged and delivered approximately 700 meals to Resilient Lismore, evacuation centres at the Goonellabah Sports and Aquatic Centre (GSAC) and Southern Cross University (SCU), as well as handing out meals to locals and tradies around town. Eight 10-litre food-grade buckets of various curries and a huge container of rice were also delivered to the Salvation Army at SCU, which was manning food distribution at the hub. After serving containers of curry and rice on day one, people were coming back asking if they could have another for their next meal!
In the small town of Broadwater, NSW, four generations of women share a beautiful old Queenslander style home near the banks of the Richmond River. Like many in the region, they felt a sense of disbelief as the flood waters began lapping at the front steps.
Gayle Robinson, the family’s matriarch, relives the moment they decided to evacuate.
“We thought we were safe; we weren’t even going to go. Then, we just got this feeling. We thought, ‘how are we going to get Mum out?’ She’s 90 and can’t walk. We were just able to get across the road in time.”
Shortly after, the water rose to record peaks, submerging the lower level of their home before finally taking the living area above.
Returning to see the damage was traumatic. Every surface was now caked in a brown slurry of mud and debris and most of their possessions had been damaged beyond repair. But in this darkest moment, Rotarians and local community members showed up and sprang into action.
“These guys came up to the house and just asked, ‘what do you want us to do?’” Gayle recounts.
Armed with a pressure cleaner and brute strength, the crew, led by President of the Rotary Club of Ballina-on-Richmond Col Lee, worked all day to clean the mud from the home and move the family’s broken furniture to the street for collection.
Despite the tragedy she and her family have suffered, Gayle’s outlook is one of positivity and gratitude.
“We’re luckier than most,” she shares with a heartfelt smile. “We’ve got good bones in this house.
“But what about the people over there?” she points through her open front window to the annihilated permanent residency caravan park across the street. “They already had next to nothing and most had their own issues of various kinds. What happens to them?”
Fighting back tears, Gayle says the support they have received from Rotary and the community has been overwhelming.
“They’re all angels, all of these people. Thank you to Rotary and to everyone who has been here for us. I know everyone along the street would be saying the same thing.”
Broadwater Riley Hill Hall Volunteer Centre
At first glance this could be any ordinary Rotary sausage sizzle in any regional town. The smell of fried onion beckons towards a trestle table stacked with loaves of bread and bottles of tomato sauce, as a group of friendly but tired faces man the grill. When a pair of uniformed ADF soldiers walk by, their legs caked in mud, the illusion slips and reality rushes back in.
This is the Broadwater Volunteer Centre, a community-led operation established in the immediate aftermath of the floods, where the ADF, SES and other volunteers, including the Satellite Club of Ballina Lifestyle and Ballina-on-Richmond Rotarians, are providing vital support for the village.
“By the first day they had a ‘wound cleaning happy hour’ going because infections had been so bad in the area from little nicks and cuts, and blisters on feet,” explains Ria Castle-Mead, an on-site volunteer coordinator. “Everyone sat down and really tried to keep the community spirit up.”
That moment was the beginning of an operation that now sees up to 1,000 volunteers supporting the community each day. Rows and rows of shelving fill the small hall, overflowing with donated pantry items, toiletries, cleaning products, clothing, and other necessities. Outside is a hive of activity, with community members putting on loads of muddy washing in the Orange Sky mobile laundry facilities, before grabbing a free coffee and a bite to eat.
Rotary members from the Northern Rivers region and beyond have played a key role in these efforts.
“They just show up, and they show up every day,” says Ria. Organised by President of the Rotary Club of Ballina-on-Richmond Col Lee, the centre’s free daily barbecue is staffed by local Rotary members. In addition to keeping stomachs full, Rotary’s presence provides much needed emotional support.
On-site Rotary volunteer Bev Burnham tells of giving out almost as many hugs as she has sausages, and describes it as “one of the most satisfying things” about her work at the centre. But rebuilding this community will require more than material resources, Bev counsels.
“The sad thing is, we’ve been through COVID, and our mental health is shot. People are showing resilience, and we will get through it… but it will take time.”
Ballina & Evans Head SPAR Supermarkets
When the floods hit Ballina, every store in the town closed. Many were damaged, some were inaccessible, and as residents began to grapple with the unfolding crises of flood waters and broken supply lines, the local Spar supermarket stepped in to support its community.
Surveying the damage to his business, Sagar Madarapu, his staff, and a team of 15 volunteer Rotarians worked tirelessly to clean the supermarket and ensure it was safe to open the very next day. “They came in, they brought their kids, families, everyone, and they were very beautiful and fantastic; cleaning all of the shelves, all of the rubbish, cleaning up all the waste and everything,” Sagar beams, clearly moved by the generosity and resilience of his community.
Once the Ballina Spar supermarket was secured, Sagar and the Rotary crew turned their attention to the equally flood affected Evans Head Spar supermarket, also owned by Sagar.
“The Rotary Club of Evans Head was in there to help clean it and restock it, as that supermarket was supplying all of the products for Broadwater, Wardell and Corakai, so without this shop being open they would have had no food,” Sagar explains.
The Rotary Club of Evans Head is the first Rotary club in the small seaside town, chartered in 2021 by IPDG Andy Rajapakse. Previously, the closest Rotary club was 45km away.
“This is a real-life example of why we need to start a Rotary club in every town in Australia, so Rotarians can give leadership and support to their local community in times of need,” Andy said.
Like so many who have suffered through these floods, Sagar draws strength from the kindness and generosity he’s seen from friends and strangers alike.
“What we lost in the past two years [due to COVID measures], this has brought everyone together in one lane. It’s not you or me, it’s us, it brought back the old days.”
The Martin House
Bob Martin and his wife Jenny moved to Ballina from a remote country town nine years ago, after selling their family business to send their son to university. Bob recalls the hesitation they felt at the time.
“We were quite scared of coming here because we weren’t used to living so close to people.”
Trading the independence of their acreage home for the convenience of a neighbourhood was initially daunting, but the couple now consider it to be one of the best decisions they’ve ever made.
“Everyone helps everyone here, and if you’re ever in trouble there’s always someone there, we’re just so lucky,” Bob reflects.
When the flood waters arrived in Ballina, theirs was the first house on the street to be hit. Standing in the driveway of his home, Bob relives the terrifying ordeal.
“We were under the assumption that it wasn’t going to come inside the house, so we were just sitting watching TV. And then it got dark and the power went off.”
Like a scene from a bad horror movie, the flood waters crept in through every pipe and drain, filling the bathtub and sinks, and ultimately claiming their carpet and large sections of their interior walls.
“We’re in our 70s,” Bob explains, “it’s bloody hard work to have 12 inches of water inside the house, it just came up so quick”.
But, as the flood water receded, local Rotarians advanced, and a team led by District Governor Nominee Dave Harmon (who lives just down the street and whose home was also affected) was dispatched to the Martin house to begin the clean-up.
“These guys came in the very next day and got all the carpet out, ripped out the walls, gurnied off the mud. We were just overwhelmed.”
The experience has bonded an already tight-knit town and despite the long road ahead, the Martins know they’re in the right place. Turning to look back at his home from the driveway, Bob contemplates, “That feeling of community, I’ve never experienced that before in my life.”
RAWCS National Flood Appeal Northern NSW is just one of many, many communities affected by this year’s devasting floods. Stories like the ones featured are replicated over and over throughout Queensland and the greater Sydney region. Rotary Australia World Community Service (RAWCS) has created a National Flood Appeal to raise funds for flood victims throughout the east coast. Individuals who are adversely affected and require assistance will be identified and given funds to help with their recovery. It is a priority to get funds to those in need quickly to help them with clean-up efforts and the damage caused by the floods so they can get their lives and businesses back to normal as soon as possible. Donations: www.directory.rawcs.com.au/47-2021-22
On March 5 and 6, District 9640 Governor Jeff Egan, partner Kaileen Casey, and a team of Rotary members from the Rotary Club of Mt Warning AM, NSW, and the Rotary Club of Burleigh Heads, Qld, headed to the Murwillumbah farm of fellow Rotarians Peter and Marissa McDonald, who lost stock and kilometres of fencing to the floods.
They were joined by a group of fit young volunteers, who showed up with water and an esky full of food and got stuck into cleaning up mud and fence lines.
“They just showed up and worked like no tomorrow, nothing was a problem,” Kaileen said. “We were so lucky to have so many gorgeous young people helping.”
Among the young work party was none other than former rugby union player, TV personality and TRADIE Underwear & Workwear ambassador, Nick Cummins, aka The Honey Badger, who kept the team on track.
Rotary in Action
Rotarians have been on the ground providing assistance since day one of the floods. District 9640 Governor Jeff Egan has been directing resources to affected areas and assessing the situation with his team in the field.
“There was already a general shortage of housing in the region, and now we have thousands of people displaced, thousands of businesses are closed and won’t reopen, and we have a major shopping centre that will not reopen for six months. The devastation is massive,” Jeff said.
Lismore council alone estimates repairs to the town will cost in excess of $500 million. This level of destruction is unprecedented, but so is the level of support. Here are just some of the ways that Rotary has taken action in response to these floods:
- The launch of a major RAWCS fundraising appeal, which had raised more than $430,000 at the time of print.
- On the ground help with clean-up.
- Catering of meals for affected people and volunteers.
- Distributing gift cards to spend on essential items such as groceries and cleaning products.
- Coordinating deliveries of essential products such as pet food, stock food, and small items.
- The purchasing of 40 refrigerators for the community in Murwillumbah, with more expected for other regions.
- Coordinating with BlazeAid to rebuild fences on damaged properties.
District 9640 Disaster Appeal The District 9640 Disaster Appeal has raised more than $100,000 for flood relief initiatives. Donations can be made via: • Rotary International District 9640 Ltd BSB: 084462 | ACC: 816279059 • Keith Wilson Relief Trust Fund (For those seeking tax deductibility) BSB: 633000 | ACC: 175308303