One night in an evacuation centre

Anxious people, frightened dogs and rising floodwaters: a Red Cross volunteer shares her sleepless night in Lismore

Kerrie Gray’s finally put her feet up. “I’m exhausted. I’m exhilarated,” she sighs.

The Red Cross volunteer has just completed a night shift at Southern Cross University, which transformed into an evacuation centre for 70 Lismore residents during the worst floods the region has seen in a long time.

Cyclone Debbie, which made landfall in Mackay on 28 March, brought torrential rain from the Whitsundays to New South Wales. The Wilson River, fed by several swollen creeks, flowed over Lismore’s 10.6-metre-high flood levy and inundated the town.

People in the evacuation centre had nowhere else to go. “Many people here were living in the low-lying areas and caravan parks. They weren’t well off, and now they’ve lost everything.

“For many of them, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”

Inside the centre, several agencies worked together under the coordination of the Department of Family and Community Services. The Salvation Army provided food, from massive catering truck containing deep-fryers, freezers and enough supplies to meet any kind of dietary requirement.

Lismore under water. Photo: ABC News/Ruby Cornish

Red Cross was there “to meet and greet, and be a listening ear”. Over the course of the night, Kerrie and her teammates made people feel welcome and looked out for anyone who might be struggling to cope.

“If someone appears a bit distressed, we go to a quiet corner and sit down with them. We let them talk to us, and find out what might be the problem.

“We have to be very attentive and listen without judging. That’s what we’re trained to do, and Red Cross principles are at the core of that.”

People arrived and left at all hours. Many brought their dogs, but hygiene regulations meant that animals couldn’t stay in the building. Cages had been requested but couldn’t be delivered in time.

“One guy ended up sleeping in his car with five dogs. I guess he was quite warm, actually!” Kerrie laughs.

There wasn’t much sleep for the support teams, though. “The night shift is very hectic,” Kerrie says. “Mealtimes are the centre of attention because people haven’t got much else to focus on. Things usually quieten by one, two o’clock. Then about four o’clock, the early risers start waking up. And everyone wants to talk to you.”

Everyone at the centre had lost something precious, even the Red Cross team.

“Our little local office is right under water,” Kerrie says. “The volunteers are in tears. They worked hard to raise money to buy fridges and freezers and a bain-marie, so we could run a tea room and make some very lonely souls feel welcome. Everything’s gone now.”

Kerrie (left) with the support team at Lismore, representing a number of agencies.

This shared loss created a strong sense of community. “Everyone from the agencies — Red Cross, Salvos, Anglicare, ADRA — we all know each other and we work together.”

Clients at the centre pitched in to help, too. “People kept asking me — ‘What do you want me to do? That box is too heavy, can I lift it for you? Can we clean up?’ They were lovely and so grateful we were there. And the fact that we were volunteers was important to them.”

As dawn arrived, it became obvious that the floodwaters were going to last awhile. Kerrie and her teammates planned rosters for the next 24 hours, before heading home for some desperately-needed sleep.

Whatever happens next, they’re in it for the long haul. “Our clients are very special and they’re from all backgrounds. They’re all people who need a hand right now and that’s how we treat them. And they treat us pretty well too!”

Despite the massive clean-up job ahead, Kerrie’s optimistic about the future. “This region has a strong community spirit and pulls together when required. The volunteers, agencies and councils involved are also strong, and we work well together in a crisis.

“This will make the recovery smoother and our community will become even stronger.”

All donations to Red Cross Disaster Relief and Recovery will help our work in communities affected by Cyclone Debbie and floods in Queensland and New South Wales. Please donate now.

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Story by Zayne D’Crus — Australian Red Cross