Flood update: the long road to recovery
March 16, 2022
Image: members of Lismore Regional Mission Uniting Church with Disaster Recovery Chaplain Rev Robert Buchan
Flood recovery efforts are underway in communities across New South Wales and Queensland after one of Australia’s worst flood disasters.
Across the East Coast, the floods claimed more than 20 lives, submerged entire towns and caused catastrophic damage.
Uniting Church chaplains and ministry agents are assisting with the response and recovery to the disaster, working on the ground in some of the most affected areas offering community support and emotional and spiritual care.
Pastor Tim Bennett is in ministry with the Lismore Regional Mission Uniting Church based in the city of Lismore where floodwaters peaked at over 14m, the highest in its history. Tens of thousands in the region have been displaced, while four people have died.
“This flood caught the whole city off guard. Nobody expected it to be bigger than what we saw in 2017 or 1974, but it ended up being almost 3m higher. People who have lived here their whole lives couldn’t believe it.”
“One of the staggering things is the level of waste that has occurred. Flood mud is toxic, so hundreds of households and businesses have had to throw everything away. Seven hundred truckloads of rubbish are being removed from the area every day.”
Lismore Uniting Church in the centre of Lismore, one of the Regional Mission’s six locations, sustained significant damage and flooding but will be recoverable. Sadly, the opportunity shop and café which play key roles in the mission and ministry of the Church have been lost with mostly everything thrown away.
“One of the things we have tried to reinforce with our church community is that church is the people, not the building. This is a bit of a challenge when you’re in a 130-year-old building iconic to the town. We made sure we got together straight away in a local theatre to reinforce that we are the church no matter where we gather.” See photos of this gathering on Facebook.
Twenty families directly linked to the regional church community have been significantly impacted, including some who have lost everything. Ps Bennett says that others are providing refuge to those who have been displaced.
It is expected that many homes in the region are likely to be condemned and some businesses will never open again. Ps Bennett expects the region will face further challenges as it pivots to longer-term recovery.
“I think people have been surviving on adrenaline over the last couple of weeks to get through the disaster and move to recovery. The next big challenge for the town will be the mental health response, which is already compromised by COVID-19. A standard grief response will start to play out.”
At least a dozen other churches in the town have been impacted and their worshipping communities displaced.
“One of the interesting things to come out of this is a push towards further ecumenical cooperation as we find we can do more together than we can do apart in these times.”
“We are lucky to have a strong ministers fellowship in Lismore so we were able to connect and support each other ecumenically. If we can do more of that, it’ll be one of the real gifts of this situation. We’ll start to work together more than before and see a lot more cooperation.”
The Church and broader community have also been supported by the ecumenical and multifaith Disaster Recovery Chaplaincy Network (DRCN) operated by the NSW/ACT Synod, which has deployed 50 chaplains to 31 evacuation and recovery centres in NSW since the floods began.
Disaster Recovery Coordinator Rev Dr Stephen Robinson oversees the network and praised the generous chaplaincy response to the crisis. Rev Dr Robinson is also the National Disaster Recovery Officer for the Assembly.
“Chaplains I have spoken to have heard scores of traumatic stories of near-death encounters during the flood and flood rescue, and losses that people are struggling to come to terms with. There is an acute shortage of mental health professionals in all areas, and people with serious pre-existing mental health or addiction problems are doing it very tough.”
“Our chaplains are doing an extraordinary job, adding capacity to the local churches and bringing support to evacuees, staff and helpers alike in the evacuation and recovery centres. If we can’t get a chaplain to a centre for a day, they are sorely missed.”
Recovery efforts in NSW will also soon be aided by the first-ever interstate chaplaincy deployment, with six chaplains from the Victorian Council of Churches Emergencies Ministry flying in to add capacity. This is a fruit of long-standing national and ecumenical collaboration on emergency chaplaincy and disaster response, including through the National Council of Churches.
Moderator of the Synod of Queensland Rev Andrew Gunton recently visited communities affected by the record-breaking floods. He reflected on the impact and the contribution churches are making to community recovery.
“As we mop up after the flooding that stretched from Maryborough through the southeast and as far west as Moonie and Chinchilla right through Northern NSW, we pause and remember those who lost their lives, lost their homes, their possessions, and with it their hope.
“For those congregations on the frontline engaging with the hungry, the thirsty, those who have lost all clothing and possessions, I thank you that you are seeking out our God and offering assistance.”
Rev Gunton also offered this prayer as the disaster was first unfolding.
Uniting Church in Australia President Rev Sharon Hollis has launched a national appeal to support people and communities through the Assembly’s National Disaster Relief Fund. Find out more and donate here.