Bringing hope and humanity amid flood devastation

1 Apr 2022 by Martin Thomas in: Features

Chaplain Lauris Harper is now in her second deployment to the flood-soaked and devastated Northern Rivers area of NSW.

It’s a community that is reeling with a second significant flood event in almost as many weeks. The flood waters broke Lismore’s levy and evacuation orders were again in place this week.

Mrs Harper, a fully qualified chaplain, was directly impacted with rising waters meaning she had the evacuate hotel accommodation Wednesday morning. She also had to abandon her car as it wouldn’t have made it through the floodwaters, highlighting the logistical challenges of responding to this flood crisis.

She is one of the 71 chaplains that have been deployed to flooded communities since late February, 59 from NSW’s Disaster Recovery Chaplain Network (DRCN), 11 from the Victorian Council of Churches  Emergencies Ministry and one from the ACT. 

“It is impossible to comprehend what these people have suffered, they experienced record flooding in 2017 and told it would never be as bad again, then a worse flood event happened earlier this month and now three weeks later they have been inundated again,” Mrs Harper said.

“Its hard to understand the strain, the immensity of what people feel, the mental health issues it creations – its hard to understand unless you have been through it.”

Mrs Harper said not only is there no easy or quick solutions but often accessing the help that is available is difficult, bureaucratic  and dehumanising.

“One woman I spoke to who had lost everything in the Lismore floods just told me her story. And after I listened to her she said it was the first time she had felt human, that she had felt valued and treasured since the disaster struck,” she said.

Mrs Harper,  who is a member of St Stephen’s Uniting Church in Sydney, has deployed as a chaplain to several disasters.

Earlier in March she deployed to Lismore for five days where she worked in the evacuation centre set up in the Southern Cross University campus and which housed up to 150 people.

“There was an equal spread of men and women in the centre, many had little to start with but they had lost everything. Some were shattered, others showed significant resilience. Some were angry and frustrated and felt let down by the system. But they were happy to have a chat and over that time I was able to develop some strong connection,” She said.

“But to be back in this area again and to see the town under water again is heart breaking. This is a resilient community and there are stories of hope but the road to recovery is long and for many they cannot fathom what they will do next.”  

The Coordinator of the Disaster Recovery Chaplaincy Network, Rev. Dr. Stephen Robinson, said the situation in the Northern Rivers was very changeable with this week’s 300mm of rain that was dumped across the region hampering recovery efforts.

“Today, due to the extreme weather situation and lack of access we could only field four chaplains across three evacuation centres, though there are ten evacuation centres currently open. Every other agency is having the same problem with access,” Rev. Robinson said on Wednesday.

“Some of the DRCN chaplains have done multiple deployments out of area (from Sydney or Newcastle) up to two weeks total, some local chaplains continue to go on shift in centres and support people in their own, and nearby, communities despite living in the situation.”

The Moderator’s Flood Appeal, since the beginning of March, has received $77,838.04 in donations. To date a total of  $115, 150 has been released for recovery efforts, using some reserves that were in the fund.

“Next week I will be travelling up to the Northern Rivers and meeting with the Uniting Church ministry agents and the churches of the area.  I will also be meeting with the other churches of the area seeking to support them, listen to what needs are present and work with them on recovery strategies and projects to support their work,” Rev Robinson said.

“The local ministers have done it very tough but have continued to serve their communities despite illness (some have contracted COVID along with all this) and the impact of this weather.

“The small DRCN team has been working very long and hard, and I am very grateful for the extraordinary work of David Riethmuller (Operations and Connections Manager) and Susan Phalen (Training and Support) as well as others who have been carrying the Duty Phone and shared the burden of decision making night and day since this has begun.

“I would add that this flood crisis is now in its 37th day and, with the current new inundation, has started the clock towards recovery all over again.  Locals, and those assisting, are exhausted, their resources depleted and it’s particularly difficult when they can’t even see a glimpse of blue sky or an end to this overwhelming rain.”

Martin Thomas