Ready for disaster: the power of community connection

Ready for disaster: the power of community connection

Building community resilience in Byrrill Creek.

Natascha has called Byrrill Creek, in north-eastern NSW, home for the last 15 years. It’s a quiet community of less than 200 people, most of whom have lived there for decades, building their homes on the land around the creek.

Being so close to nature also means that the area is prone to disasters. “We’re used to floods,” says Natascha. “Here in Byrrill Creek, it’s not unlike us to be isolated for a day or two.”

It was her experience during a major flood in 2017, which saw the main bridge in and out of the community cut off for six months that prompted her to take action. “We didn’t have our own network. I would have to drive to the top of the hill to be able to get any form of communication. We weren’t getting any communications from our neighbours, or anybody local. And it was very disempowering and frustrating.”

Connecting the community

She set up a Facebook Messenger group for the community, and over the next few years it grew until eventually most of the Byrrill Creek community was connected with each other. In 2020, Red Cross put a call out through the region for people interested in being part of a Community Resilience Team. Natascha put her hand up.

“A Community-led Resilience Team, or CRT for short, is a group of community members coming together basically to support each other during emergencies. That’s the basic line,” says Tammy, a Community Resilience Project Officer with Red Cross.

The CRT model was first explored in 2017 following Tropical Cyclone Debbie, which devastated parts of Queensland and New South Wales. It’s a framework for communities to prepare for, respond to, and recover from disasters and other emergency events focused on communication.

During disasters, CRTs are vital links for emergency services agencies and local communities to share information with each other when other forms of communication may be cut off. A network of street or neighbourhood coordinators connect with individual households and residents, and local CRT Leaders connect with emergency services to share information up and down communication trees.

The tools to stay safe

Red Cross volunteers and staff like Tammy provide mentoring, training and support, linking community members to local first responders and disaster recovery services.

“When we work in agencies, and even first responders, we can do as much as we can, but we can never capture the whole community,” says Tammy. “Community-Led Resilience Teams capture the whole community, and it gives them the tools that they need to stay safe and to support each other.”

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“We both recognised that there was a need for a more formal arrangement in the disaster planning and risk assessment for our community,” says Callum, fellow Byrrill Creek resident and Natascha’s CRT deputy. “I think the CRT structure, and through our volunteers, has given the wider community confidence, far more confidence that we can actually tackle these unforeseen events, and the severity of the events.”

Since the establishment of the CRT in Byrrill Creek, the group has introduced several projects and resources to the community to help get them prepared for a disaster. These include:

  • installing flood level markers on all bridges and crossings
  • naming all the river crossings and adding these to a map used by the SES, Red Cross, the police, local council and the community
  • having the Rural Fire Brigade come out and give a disaster preparedness talk
  • providing every household with a resource pack on preparing for different types of disasters and emergencies
  • purchasing a VHF radio system and UHF radio system to maintain communications during a disaster.

“We were training the community before the recent March flood, yet still it was only during that two-week period of isolation that most of the community understood what the Community Resilience Team was, and what we do,” says Natascha.

Many times it was overwhelming. Yet we were practical, and we were together, our team solved things and set up our community hub.
Natascha

Even for a community that has faced multiple disasters, the severity of the recent floods still took them by surprise. Roads were destroyed and multiple landslides cut the community off for weeks. But all the preparation paid off – Natascha, Callum and the CRT volunteers checked in on everyone in the community, were able to organise for food, supplies, and medication to be delivered, and were in daily contact with Red Cross and the SES.

Natascha and Callum's advice for getting through disasters and emergencies

“For those of you who have never been in a natural disaster, there’s three things that I can recommend,” says Natascha. “One is getting to know your neighbour, they’ll be your greatest ally.

“Two is make sure you’re prepared for fire and for flood, and you’ve got food for about a week.

“And three, make sure you’re ready to be overwhelmed and panicked, and you have your own little mental health toolbox to get you through, because that’s going to be really needed.”

“In a disaster event, things become quite clear,” adds Callum. “Having your support network around you, whether it’s family, friends, community, is critical for your survival. It doesn’t get any more simple.”

Getting prepared is simple.

Being prepared can make an emergency or disaster less stressful, give you more control, and reduce the impact on you and those you love.

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