What do you do when the woman you’re talking to tells you that the floodwaters swept away the possessions of her son? That she’d carefully stored them under her house after he passed away four months earlier and she hadn’t had the chance to go through them?
If you’re like me, you ask feebly if a hug would help, then realise you are both crying. And she tells you, yes, that would help.
Mary is also able to laugh when she says there has been a silver lining to her flood ordeal.
A massive clump of invasive bamboo in her backyard was ripped up and washed away by the raging floodwaters. “That’s one less job for me,” she manages.
Next day we’re at the Lismore Recovery Centre where Red Cross volunteers are again stationed at the entry of a very busy hive. People are clearly still traumatised. They’re miserable, uncertain, and looking for their next steps after so much has been washed away.
Red Cross Aboriginal Communities Engagement Facilitator Sean Phillips is everywhere, offering support. Watching him, it’s clear he knows who needs help most. And people gravitate to him. They trust him with their stories and he gives them the space they need to talk, offering occasional wise words that seem to work.
In a gymnasium building behind the recovery centre at the Southern Cross University, more than 100 bunk beds are laid out. They’re occupied by people made homeless by this devastating event. The scale is mind boggling.
I ask veteran Red Cross emergency services volunteer Kerrie Grey what keeps her going, and she shows me something sent to her by a woman she’s helped after going through a bushfire ordeal.
Resilience doesn’t even start to describe it.
A group of Red Cross members has gathered at the Lismore Workers Golf Club to share stories and support each other.
Vickie tells how she and her husband stood in their kitchen in shoulder-high cold water in the dark while floodwaters raged around their home. They waited for what seemed an eternity for help to come.
She’s safe now, but her house has gone, and so have the homes of two of her daughters. And the memories of that awful night will live on into the future. But she says one of the greatest comforts has come from her Red Cross family.
“The Red Cross members are in contact with us regularly checking we are OK. It’s a weird feeling having so much support coming to us, when I’m the one who’s supposed to be offering support [as a Red Cross volunteer].”
Connie, from south of Casino, bears witness to the value of this support. Her property was engulfed in a firestorm in the 2019 fires. The house survived, but the family’s belongings, ranging from linen to electrical appliances and vehicles, succumbed to insidious all-pervasive soot and ash over days and weeks following the blaze.
Red Cross, along with the Salvation Army, St Vincent de Paul and the Catholic Church, were there for Connie and her family through their worst days, as unemployment and health and housing crises followed the fires. She received bushfire grants and other support from Red Cross.
“They were our rock for months,” she says. “Without Red Cross we wouldn’t be living here. We wouldn’t have a house.”
And now the floods have taken their toll on Connie’s family, washing across their property but sparing the house. “Red Cross and the others are still checking on us, making sure I’m OK. They’re part of our family, and they’re doing everything they possibly can to help people.”