Inside the Bega Evacuation centre a community’s beating heart is on public display.
Among the residents whose houses have been destroyed by the weekend fires in neighbouring Tathra is a bustling throng of local neighbours and friends, farmers, home cooks, emergency workers and agencies.
A group of schoolchildren is handing out biscuits they’ve just baked. Neighbours hug. An elderly couple takes a seat. People are catching up in the queue at the Red Cross registration desk and local Red Cross volunteers are at the entrance to the old showgrounds hall, warmly greeting and meeting.
All around, raw emotion is being met with many acts of kindness.
For two days, people from the nearby town of Tathra have been unable to return home. Roads into the town are blocked while fire and safety inspectors go from house to house – or what remains of them – to test for asbestos and structural risks. Meanwhile the evacuation centre feels like a makeshift town centre.
As well as Red Cross, a handful of welfare agencies and government departments is offering emergency relief, advice and information. A mountain of donated clothing is constantly being added to, while others quietly take what they need. The kitchen at the back of the hall is filled with people bringing in meals, sandwiches and fruit. Friends and strangers alike are circling the hall with platters of food and drinks.
Bev has been volunteering for Red Cross for 12 years. She’s been working long shifts at the evacuation centre, and all the while her home at nearby Kalaru, remains in a fire-front.
Bev – barely left the evacuation centre even though her house is at risk
Even though she doesn’t know whether her house has burnt or is about to be burnt, she says she just knows she has to be there. As we talk she waves to friends and neighbours who she knows have suffered losses.
“Even though my house is in the firing line, so to speak, I just have to be here helping my community,” she says.
She’s not alone. Another Red Cross volunteer from the town of Tathra spent an entire shift helping at the evacuation centre before taking his place in the queue to find out whether he had lost his house. He was one of the lucky ones.
There are more than 20 local Red Cross Emergency Services volunteers. They’ve been trained in supporting traumatised people, and until now they’ve been called up to volunteer in activations further afield.
Jenny and Fiona have spent all day taking registrations at the front of the evacuation centre. Among them are their friends and neighbours. They’re also just glad to help and share people’s grief or relief when they learn the fate of their homes.
Locals helping locals
The hall is filled with hundreds of people of all ages and backgrounds. Even well-behaved dogs are welcome and provided with food, water and pats.
Over and over again you see people helping people. Over and over again people say they’re not doing too badly, and there are others worse off.
The seasoned emergency workers know this is just the start of a long journey to recovery. As a long-standing part of the local community, Red Cross will be there at every step.
For people wanting information on family or friends use the Register.Find.Reunite. service at register.redcross.org.au
To donate to Red Cross’ everyday work in disaster relief and recovery around Australia: https://www.redcross.org.au/support-us/donate-funds/disaster-relief-and-recovery
For simple steps to get prepared for disasters and to download the Get Prepared app.