NSW floods 2021: Clean-up only part of long journey

Camden Haven River during the Port Macquarie floods in March. Picture: Lee Hartshorne
Camden Haven River during the Port Macquarie floods in March. Picture: Lee Hartshorne

Speaking hoarsely from a car at a checkpoint near sewerage-contaminated floodwaters, one of our Red Cross emergency services workers sounded strangely upbeat.

She had driven more than six hours to Port Macquarie from her base in the South Coast, where she'd spent well over a year dealing with the impacts of the Black Summer bushfires - work made even harder because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Yet there she was, enthusiastically waiting to join a team who had driven up from Singleton.

They were there to provide some temporary relief to local volunteers who'd been helping their cut-off community, despite many being directly impacted by the floods themselves.

In the coming weeks and months, most people's memories of this disaster will fade.

But that won't be the case for those directly impacted.

For many, it will take years to recover.

The clean-up happening across NSW is only the first part of an incredibly long and hard journey.

Just look at what happened after 2009's Black Saturday Bushfires in Victoria.

University of Melbourne research released this week showed that, even more than a decade on from that disaster, just 66.5 per cent of the 1000 people surveyed over a 10-year period were "mostly" or "fully" recovered.

Only one-third of those from "high impact" towns - the worse affected by the fires - felt their own communities have recovered, according to the Red Cross-backed study.

And 22 per cent of those from these high impact communities reported symptoms consistent with a diagnosable mental health disorder.

These findings aren't from a study undertaken a few months after the fires.

They're the results of a survey that wrapped up more than 10 years after the Black Saturday bushfires.

Since then, we've had Black Summer and, more recently, February's Perth Hills bushfire and floods across NSW.

If people are still suffering the impacts of Black Saturday now, imagine the amount of time it will take for people to get back on their feet following those more recent disasters.

They need long-term support.

A lot of people know about us through our work when disasters are happening.

But year-round, we have teams of staff and volunteers who are on the ground, assisting those who need help.

They're tirelessly helping those still suffering from the impact of disasters that may have occurred last week, last month, or several years ago.

Even after distributing $218m of the $240m raised in the wake of the Black Summer fires, my colleagues - paid and unpaid - are still in affected communities where many are still doing it tough.

We launched our NSW Floods Appeal in the midst of the disaster, when thousands had already been evacuated.

Other organisations have also been working to get donations to those that have been impacted, and all levels of government are working to get people back on their feet.

I know Australians are a resilient bunch. And we pride ourselves in providing a helping hand to those who need it.

Yet this pandemic and the cumulative impact of multiple disasters pose a real risk to this sense of community, right when tens of thousands of people are in the most need of help.

There are people who still cannot return to their flooded properties, and those waiting to rebuild after the Black Summer fires.

They need more than a week of support.

Australians must not give in to apathy.

No one doubts that the flow on impacts from the pandemic - such as lockdowns, economic costs and isolation from loved ones - have been great.

But we can help each other overcome these things and the challenges that others in our community are facing.

Like our emergency services workers and volunteers who have travelled far to work day and night to provide support to those impacted by the floods, every one of us can help those in need of assistance.

It could be by volunteering, donating goods or providing money to a charity.

Every little bit helps.

Donations to the Australian Red Cross NSW Floods appeal can be made at redcross.org.au/NSWFloods.

  • Poppy Brown, NSW/ACT Director, Australian Red Cross