It was just like the airport scene from Love Actually, but this was very real.
As the people evacuated by sea from Mallacoota were finally reunited with their loved ones in Somerville, emotions were raw and the feelings of relief were palpable.
They were among the 4,000 people who’d captured the world’s attention when forced to take refuge at Mallacoota Beach as ferocious bushfires cut off all access by road.
The Somerville Indoor Sports Stadium had been converted to a relief centre for the reunifications to take place and Red Cross volunteers were waiting for them to arrive.
Six of their specially trained colleagues had been on HMAS Choules, sitting with people and hearing their stories during the 20-hour evacuation by sea. More Red Cross volunteers met the evacuees at the buses ferrying them to the Somerville Relief Centre, preparing them for the process ahead. And Red Cross people were on hand inside the relief centre, offering psychological support as a wide range of emotions poured out.
As busload after busload started arriving, it was hard to say who was most overjoyed to be finally free – some of the 114 dogs who’d made the journey or their human families.
Inside the centre tears were flowing as people found each other among the crowds.
Families embraced. Children were swept up for hugs. Dogs were cuddled. All around was an almost tangible outpouring of love.
It’s the same compassion and kindness which has been pouring into Red Cross since the bushfire crisis began. The Disaster Relief and Recovery Fund, which helps Red Cross teams to give people the support they need in emergencies, including the current bushfires and disasters yet to come, has raised more than $19 million since 31 December 2019, and the figure is rising all the time.
Lisa Carr was one of six Red Cross personnel working alongside military personnel supporting 1,200 evacuees on HMAS Choules.
Cheryl Colautti has been supporting people at Bairnsdale, including people who have lost their homes.
“There was one couple who came in covered in soot and I said, ‘Have you been fighting fires?’ and he said, ‘That’s an understatement. We lost our house and everything.’ I said I’m so sorry.” Cheryl said she felt she was able to make a difference simply by being with people in the hardest of circumstances.
“There was one lady who was crying and I approached her and sat beside her and put my arm around her. She said ‘I’m sorry. I’ve been so strong because dad’s really sick.’ I said ‘It’s OK to cry. If you don’t let it out it, it will break you. Please don’t feel guilty.’ With that the tears came out and that probably really helped.”
Red Cross personnel continue to assist the community who remain in Mallacoota. 20 trained volunteers, rostered in waves for the next two weeks, are providing psychosocial and registration services, as well as providing food and water services at all Emergency Relief Centres.
Red Cross has also facilitated food and water provisions with 10 pallets of water and 640 x food packs arriving in Mallacoota. An additional 600-800 food hampers, water pallets, hygiene item and pet supplies are also being arranged by Red Cross to be trucked by the military from Foodbank to East Sale for rapid distribution to communities in need.