HELPING HANDS: Elly Bird and Maddy-Rose Braddon.
HELPING HANDS: Elly Bird and Maddy-Rose Braddon. Karin von Behrens

Flood volunteer group gave structure to clean-up

SOMETIMES it takes only one person to change things for the better. Other times call for a united force of thousands.

Immediately after the March 2017 flood in Lismore, Southern Cross University Environmental Science student Maddy-Rose Braddon started a Facebook group to connect those wanting to help, with those needing it. She named it simply Lismore Helping Hands.

The group grew rapidly with more than 7000 members signing up within five days.

Extra administrators were needed as the group became the go-to platform for the community to work together to begin the clean-up, with regularly updated information and requests for assistance coming in 24 hours a day.

Mandie Kai and Katy Cooper-Wares got onboard as administrators, forming part of what became a large team of volunteers across the city who put aside their own needs to help others.

It quickly became clear that an on-the-ground co-ordination centre was needed. Lismore City Council helped the group secure a space for a volunteer relief centre at the disused Lismore train station. The centre became known as The Hub.

Located at South Lismore, The Hub, owned by State Rail, quickly became the central point of contact for the community to receive help.

The council also contacted Cr Elly Bird to ask for her assistance.

The Facbook group became a physical army of volunteers - the core crew worked every day from 6am to 10pm for three weeks, finishing at the end of a day when roughly 700 volunteers from the Church of Christ in Queensland arrived to help.

The social media never stopped - Lismore Helping Hands continues to be an important platform where the community connect and support each other.

The group connected affected residents and businesses to government response and recovery services. They efficiently organised volunteers to assist with the clean-up, using a colour- based system to self-allocate task preferences, and they organised the distribution of donations and food in the initial recovery phase.

Jally Hawthorn, who co-ordinated teams to go out and help, said the cleaning team had brought back information on what was needed.

People marked as green team members were heavy lifters, purple were all-rounders, red were communicators, and so on.

"So we got groups of rainbow people together and sent them on their way,” she said.

Volunteer Loraine Tasker was one of the key food and water distributors at the time.

"Bangalow Baked Relief probably supplied 70 per cent of my food,” she said, which was then distributed with the help of her family and volunteers.

"We even catered for gluten free and vegetarian.”

Lismore Helping Hands was the first Australian community group to use, an American community disaster response platform which was recommended by a member of their Facebook group.

The Helping Hands team implemented a number of innovative uses of the platform the developers had not previously seen.

"It wasn't without its problems but it served us pretty well. Without it, it would have been a lot more difficult,” Cr Bird said.

"Lismore Helping Hands coordinated more than 1450 volunteers through The Hub to attend almost 1000 jobs logged through, including skilled volunteer tradespeople.”

The generosity delivered in kind and in spirit was on a scale that many had never seen before.

Helping Hands facilitated multiple community collaborations, resulting in improved collaboration between disaster response agencies, local not-for profit organisations, and community groups. These relationships and collaborations are ongoing in preparation for future flood responses.

All of this was achieved with no operating budget or start-up funds.

Human resources, administrative supplies, cleaning products and equipment were sourced entirely from volunteers and donations.

"It's important to recognise that the story of Helping Hands is actually the story of our whole community coming together to support each other,” Cr Bird said.

"The work done across the community is mind-blowing. Lifeline put in a huge effort co-ordinating donations, many of our local churches were really active, and many, many other organisations and community groups all worked incredibly hard as well.

"We are looking at ways to tell the story of our community and share what we learnt with other communities who might be impacted by a natural disaster. We want to share practical information and organising skills. We want to provide other communities with the sort of resource that we wish had been given to us.”

Lismore Helping Hands remains active, a year after the flood.

"Most of our work is still voluntary, and there is still plenty of work to do. We did get a small grant from St George Bank, and a donation from Baptist Care Maranoa Centre to cover some costs which we are really grateful for, because we are still totally committed to doing whatever we can for Lismore” Cr Bird said.

"We are working with Lismore City Council, and a number of other organisations as part of Lismore Flood Ready, a council initiative to develop a recovery plan for Lismore.

"We are helping develop an action plan for the next time Lismore has a major flood, which will include how to organise and mobilise volunteers.

"At an individual and a community level we all need to know what we will do (next time), have a plan. Because it's not if, it's when. And the biggest lesson is how incredible a community is when they come together, work together.”

When asked why the army did not help with the clean-up, a spokesman for the Department of Defence said the Australian Defence Force worked closely with government agencies and was always ready to respond to natural disasters. They do this under specific policy arrangements referred to as Defence Assistance to the Civil Community (DACC).

"Requests by state or territory governments for significant Commonwealth assistance, including from Defence, are co-ordinated through by Emergency Management Australia.

"In the 2017 Lismore flood instance, there was no official request from the NSW State Government to support the clean-up.”

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