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When life throws another curveball

Marianne was four when she learned to swim. Every weekend her grandmother took her and her brothers to the Mitchell River in East Gippsland.

Marianne with Red Cross volunteer Colleen outside the Bairnsdale evacuation centre. Photo: Australian Red Cross/Rodney Dekker

They would practice freestyle and learn how to manoeuvre in the water flowing from the Great Dividing Range to Bairnsdale – the small Victorian town Marianne’s family called home.

The river holds a lot of great memories and it’s a place she comes back when she is happy or sad or searching for answers. So this summer when catastrophic bushfires burnt large swathes of East Gippsland and forced Marianne to evacuate she headed for the river.

I’d gone a week without power, water, phone. I stayed in Nowa Nowa for nearly a week, came back. Then the CFA said ‘Evacuate ASAP, the fire’s coming’ … so I came to Bairnsdale, sat down on the riverbank not knowing what I was going to do.

Marianne

Thanks to our supporters we were there for Marianne. It started with a cuppa and a one-on-one conversation about how she was coping and how we could support her.

Marianne evacuated three times in two weeks. With her three dogs and budgie, she spent her days almost constantly on the road, never knowing where she would end up, trying to outrun the fires.

With each evacuation order, she packed what she could with the time she had. Her car boot was filled with spare clothes, photos, food for her pets and her late husband Rob’s ashes.

At the Mitchell River, Marianne was at a loss about what to do next when she remembered the evacuation centre at the local football oval. She decided it was the best place to go next. “As soon as I walked in, the guys said to register with Red Cross. The lady I got was brilliant. I don’t know who cried the most her or me.”

Marianne was exhausted, she hadn’t slept or eaten and had no idea what had happened to her home. Before she left firefighters had told her they wouldn’t be protecting her small village focusing instead on the larger town of Omeo. She had been preparing for the worst.

Colleen helps Marianne let her friends and family know she is safe. Photo: Australian Red Cross/Rodney Dekker

“It’s like a big knot in your stomach. I started crying … but it was the way [the Red Cross volunteer] spoke. She was calming … she was hugging me and holding my hands and she said ‘We’ll get you through it’.”

Our team helped Marianne register with the right services, including one her family and friends could use to check she was safe. We gave her toiletries and bedding to make her stay at the centre more comfortable. But she says it was the one-to-one psychosocial support that made the biggest difference.

“It’s been a tough year. I lost my husband and I’ve had to get through the 25th wedding anniversary on my own … when the fires came that threw another curveball at me and instead of sitting at home I’m in the middle of a paddock.”

When a disaster hits we look after the people. Red Cross specialist emergency teams provide support in evacuation centres, they make sure people have someone to talk to, contact with their loved ones, and a chance to process their trauma and work out what to do next.

Marianne says Red Cross made her feel wasn’t alone. “Red Cross will put their arms around you and smile. They genuinely care … I’ve been going through the whole thing alone. To have that one person … ask you how you are, how you’re coping, it lifts you up. They make you feel like you matter.”

Fortunately, Marianne’s house wasn’t damaged by the fires and today she is back home. Red Cross’ support has made a big difference “it makes you want to start over again”, she says.             

Read more about the work of our emergency services teams