The TV cameras have gone, the water has – mostly – receded and the big clean-up is underway, but while the rest of NSW (and Queensland) has moved on, those in the path of the flooding caused in February and March by two East Coast low pressure systems have only just begun to count the cost.
You may have been among the lucky ones to get through the torrential rain of recent weeks with nothing worse than a messy garden and some extra mould. But while we now turn our attention elsewhere – to work, to family issues, to the war in Ukraine – the flood-soaked nightmare for thousands of people in Sydney and beyond has only just begun.
Sadly, for many in the hardest-hit areas such crises have become all too familiar.
“It’s a very demoralising event for the locals, because it comes so rapidly after the last one,” says the rector of Windsor, the Rev Chris Jones. “Some people have only just got their house fixed and kitchens redone and now there’s been a worse repeat of what happened a year ago.
“Just below us is the Cornwallis Flats – that whole area was covered by water for kilometres... We’ve got five beautiful llamas and a pony over the back fence right now. After the floods last year, a local farming family whose property is down there contacted us and said, ‘If it floods like this again can we put them up in your paddock?’ and we said, ‘Sure’. Their property was underwater but they brought the animals up beforehand. We were just glad that they knew they could do it.”
Twenty-five per cent of those properties are deemed to be uninhabitable
Anglicare’s manager of disaster recovery for NSW and the ACT, Magnus Linder, says that “at last count” there were 8000 dwellings affected by flooding in the Hawkesbury-Nepean alone.
“Twenty-five per cent of those properties are deemed to be uninhabitable, so that’s a massive scale of human need,” he says.
“There’s been flooding around the Georges River, in Camden and up in the Southern Highlands at Mittagong, so it was all around Sydney but also down on the south coast at Sussex Inlet, so it has been very widespread.
“At least in Sydney there were places that were totally unaffected, whereas in some towns up north the entire main street, every single shop, every single service, even the hospitals... were all flooded.”
Linder adds that Anglicare is encouraging people to “give funds instead of goods at the moment”, not just because of the logistics of storing and sending physical donations but in an effort to support the economy of the worst-affected areas.
Recovery begins in the local community, with the local economy
“We believe – and this is something we teach our volunteers as well – that recovery begins in the local community, with the local economy,” he explains. “It’s better to have the money spent locally, so that if someone is still managing to run a business in that area or somewhere nearby, that money’s going back into the community. It makes a big difference.”
Northern Rivers needs
“Up north” the Rev Cathy Ridd, associate priest at the Anglican church in Ballina, was deployed all over the Northern Rivers in March as a volunteer disaster recovery chaplain.
“A lot of the roads were closed so people couldn’t get through, and we all lost phone and internet for days, so it was very hard to know who to send where,” she says. “People are calling it the ‘Lismore floods’ but really, it’s the Northern Rivers floods... a lot of the little villages were cut off for a long time.
“I drove out to Coraki last week to scout out for Anglicare because a mobile community pantry is going in there, and honestly there was more pothole than road! In Woodburn [half an hour’s drive south of Ballina], the river goes right through the middle and I think every house went under.
“I know Ukraine is much more important from a global perspective but [the needs here] are falling off the radar now. Evacuation centres have closed and there are ‘recovery centres’ for people to come to... but the people who are here are still living in crisis. They’re so far from being in recovery.”
In mid-March, Ridd was deployed to the recovery centre in Lismore, which contained a range of government services and charities all in the one location so locals could talk to representatives of whichever agency they needed, apply for funds and get basic needs met.
However, she found the chaplains were constantly being called upon to provide support to locals who were too emotionally distressed to manage simple discussions about their needs.
“People are just melting down,” she says. “This morning as soon as I walked in the door someone grabbed me and said, ‘Can you deal with this lady?’ and I spent three hours with her... I helped her fill in some forms and just let her talk and talk and talk about what she’d been through.
“After three hours she was in a much better place, but she needed the SES to come out and do some work on her property... and she was so traumatised that she couldn’t ring them and talk to them about what had happened.
“People have lost their homes, their cars and their businesses, and some have also lost their neighbourhoods. In a lot of places around here the houses need to be cleaned out and repaired but in some areas the houses have just fallen down... and they’re often rental properties so these people won’t ever move back to their neighbourhood with people that they know.”
“We’ve never seen anything like it”
On Sydney’s northern beaches, where there were evacuation orders during the height of the second East Coast low on March 8, the water appeared with a suddenness that took locals by surprise.
The rector of Dee Why, the Rev Steven Salmon, recalls that although the church building was unaffected, staff and volunteers who came to work or parish events that day had to wade to the bus stop to get home, or drive up to two hours to get around floodwaters.
One elderly parishioner who had been at the church earlier in the day sought to cross the main road following an afternoon appointment and was almost washed away.
“Pittwater Road is a big road,” Salmon says. “The rain was really coming down so just crossing the road was quite a thing and her umbrella had broken... She was almost to the other side of the road when this great wave of water came down like a torrent and nearly knocked her over, but fortunately someone came and grabbed her arm and guided her across. And then she still had to wade through water to get to the bus stop!”
He adds that the high volume of water that washed into the suburb was short-lived but “quite extraordinary... we’ve never seen anything like it in Dee Why”.
In southwestern Sydney the Georges River broke its banks and plenty of locals were given late-night warnings that they might need to evacuate. Thankfully this didn’t happen, but churches were ready.
The pastoral care worker at Panania Anglican, Jacqui Roodenburg, says staff and wardens had temporary accommodation prepared at the church in case parishioners needed it, and they made sure one of their group was contactable at all times.
“There was no one whose house went underwater, but we do know there were some streets where it came very close,” she says.
“Whether you live by the river or not, with the amount of water there was, a lot of our members had water damage because the rain just seemed never ending. Drains just did not cope and the system was overloaded.
“My children’s school was closed for two days one week and then two days the week after... roads were closed, staffing was an issue and there was flooding in some of the classrooms.
“But there’s been no major damage [locally]. Throughout it all we were praying for each other but also so aware of everything else going on in the world, and in places like Lismore with all the dreadful flooding there.
“We were very thankful, even with the enormous amount of rain, that it wasn’t as bad as had been predicted.”
Serving neighbours by kayak
Back in Sydney’s outer northwest, Richmond almost became an island – mostly above the floods but with the two halves of the community cut off from each other by the swollen Hawkesbury River.
Rector the Rev Rick Hall says that a number of people in the community had to evacuate and were taken in by church members, who also put up those needing somewhere to stay after driving – via Katoomba and around blocked roads – to get to the other side of the river.
“We’ve got some Year 13 girls at church and one of them lives across the river,” he says. “She drove the four hours around the long way so she could go to Loftus for her Year 13 training, then spent a couple of nights at our house because she had ministries and work that she had to get to.
“Even though half our congregation lives on the other side of the river, the impact on the youth and children’s ministries were minimised in that a lot of people just stepped in to help, which was great.”
Because of the church’s elevated position, local farmers whose land is prone to inundation parked their machinery on church property to keep it above the flood line.
“I came across one farmer as he was coming to pick up his gear, and he was very appreciative,” Hall says. “We’ve got quite a lot of land and he offered to bring over [his big mower] and cut our grass as a thank you, which was nice.”
Not far away in the semi-rural parish of Wilberforce, the community rallied together to support each other through its third flood in as many years.
It was an eye-opening start for new rector the Rev Dave Esdale, who had begun his ministry only a fortnight before. He made sure the church hall was open if anyone needed it over the two weeks of flood crisis. A caravan was set up in the church’s car park, and Esdale and another church member spent time at the council depot filling sandbags.
By week two, with the rain continuing, the assistant minister’s wife suggested opening the hall for local kids to run around and burn some energy – and 50 people turned up to play, and to chat. Most were managing well but some were stressed and anxious, while others were completely cut off – even from their neighbours.
“One family, they got in and out of their house by kayak,” Esdale says. “They got in below their driveway, would come and visit me, and come to church – the water level didn’t stop them being a part of anything! They also delivered food to their neighbours and loved their neighbours all around them.
“The people here are pretty resilient. But after [the flood] last year they said, ‘Well, it’ll be 30 years until we have another one’, so to get hit again like this is pretty rough. Some people have got great damage and need – we’ve got a family who have got a farm on the river... a winery, and they’ve lost three years of their crop, so a few families went out after church on Sunday just to help clear the mud off their driveway.”
By the time Southern Cross went to press the “mud army” was swinging into action in the most affected areas around the state.
Chris Jones says the SES is mucking out people’s homes across Windsor and clearing river detritus away from the town. He, with the help of the Anglican Relief and Development Fund Australia, is supporting a local whose only recourse after the floods was to live in their car.
And this is just the beginning of what will be needed in the months – and years – to come.
Adds Cathy Ridd: “The ongoing needs [in the Northern Rivers] are going to be so complex. People are just so traumatised. They’re going to need counselling, and all the temporary accommodation that used to be here is gone – all the bedding, the carpets, every bit of furniture is out on the street.
“A lot of the areas here where the flooding was the worst... are areas where people are hardest up and more likely to be in rental accommodation and... it’s gone.
“We have what I can only think of as a tsunami of housing crisis ahead of us. If [people] have their own property they can clean up and move back in, but many have nothing to go back to and I don’t know where they’re going to live.”
for parishes and aid agencies such as Anglicare and ARDFA, seeking to support and love those filled with anxiety and distress after the floods;
for medical, social and spiritual responders to see where there is need and act appropriately, especially after the clean-up is over;
for the ongoing ministry of parishes in these areas – that they would be sensitive, loving and able to speak the hope of Jesus into the local situation;
that those affected by flooding will remain (or become) confident in the God who loves them, who is familiar with pain and suffering;
for generosity in time, care and finances from people unaffected by the disaster;
for the clean-up and rebuilding process, housing shortages and homelessness – that work will move forward quickly and no one will be left behind.
The Anglican Relief Development Fund Australia is also providing support through its East Coast Flood Appeal.
If you want to donate goods visit Give It, which matches specific items to recipients in need.