Northern Rivers residents are learning how to use chainsaws, sandbag their homes and safely clear landslides as communities come together to ensure they are prepared for future natural disasters after this year’s devastating floods.
Their efforts have a new sense of urgency after the Bureau of Meteorology declared a La Niña event, a weather pattern that typically elevates flood risks, is underway.
While several community groups were already loosely formed and working to build disaster resilience, many have since formalized their efforts.
Resilient Byron founder and president Jean Renouf said that just a few years ago people might have mocked those who stockpiled water and food, learned first aid and established alternative sources of power generation, calling them doomsday preparers.
“Now they say, ‘Of course, we have to do that. It just makes a lot of sense,’” she said.
“People understand it now. There is no need to convince anyone. We are training and equipping hundreds of residents to be more resilient to future disasters.”
The group runs a number of shows, including Northern Rivers network of caregivers and community lifeguardsdesigned to improve communities’ skills in mental and physical first aid, as well as building connections.
So far, more than 100 people have been trained and the group has raised funds to teach another 200 this year.
Renouf said the flooding “served as a wake-up call” for everyone in the region and the declaration of La Niña solidified the need to be prepared.
“We’re turning that spontaneous energy into something more long-term and really looking at flood recovery and disaster resilience,” he said.
“That’s a silver lining in this extraordinary unprecedented disaster – it’s brought the community back together in so many ways.”
Similar groups have sprung up across the region, especially in areas where victims said they felt let down by slow or inadequate emergency service or government responses.
In Byron’s South Golden Beach, a community association is bringing people together to learn practical skills, including how to sandbag and when and how to evacuate.
“We can’t stop the rain, but we can be better prepared and I think that’s more on people’s minds than in the past,” group co-leader Bec McNaught said.
“People are aware of the gaps in community preparedness last time and I think there is a will.”
Resilient Uki President Melanie Bloor focused on getting people talking and being able to help their neighbors from within the community, due to its remote location, which was often isolated.
“The more isolated you are, the more vulnerable you are,” he said.
“It’s other humans around you that will give you the help you need, so it’s in everyone’s interest to meet the humans.”
During the recent flooding, most of the area was cut off by landslides that “swallowed” the roads.
Bloor said the group is now focused on building “a culture of kindness” and arming residents, including the city’s “Covid refugees,” with practical skills like how to use a radio, operate a chainsaw, use a bulldozer to clear a landslide. safety and how to preserve food.
“We have farmers who have been here forever and they can do very practical things, so [we’re] building that skill base among the rest of the population,” he said.
“We’re thinking of having a series of skill-sharing workshops so the old guard can teach the new guard what it’s like to live in that particular valley. We are trying to locate everything as much as possible.”
As groups prepare for the upcoming event, many residents are still unable to live in their homes and have been sleeping in caravans on their properties in Lismore.
Many of them no longer have access to a vehicle that can tow their makeshift homes, so a group was recently formed to gather volunteers to move them before the next big storm.
Lismore flood survivor Sophie Thomas was flooded in February but was able to return home and has since volunteered to tow trucks so she can help her neighbors.
“The government is not doing it, the council is not doing it. They didn’t save us that night either,” she said.
“It was just neighbor helping neighbor. This is just another one of those moments.”
Along with increased community interest in resilience programmes, nearly 3,500 people have applied to become members of the NSW State Emergency Service since the February and March floods.
Nearly 250 new volunteers have been trained and approved in Northern Rivers, according to SES.
After criticism of its response earlier in the year, the agency said it had improved during the June and July floods.
“We deploy resources earlier, organize early briefings with partner agencies to identify available resources, and proactively communicate with the Australian Defense Force in advance of any formal request for them to be on the ground when needed,” a spokesperson said.
“NSW SES will continue to focus on recruitment across the state, particularly in regional areas where we have seen prolonged flooding throughout the year.”