Two days in the floods

Two days in the floods

It seems beyond ironic, and poignantly startling, that just two years ago Victoria was gripped by ravaging bushfires. Yet this summer, floods are washing destruction through many towns across the state.

Crosslight embarked on a two-day tour of the flood affected regions in Victoria’s north and northwest last month during the middle of the disaster. Covering the flood impact and its changing swathe across three presbyteries, some towns were observed in recovery, others were dealing with the worst, some completely evacuated and others were cut off for days.

One town hadn’t seen water in what became a destructive swollen creek since 1956. Another town equated the flooding to the worst it had experienced back in 1933 – something only the longer-lived generations could remember.

Many churches throughout the region suffered water damage. On their exteriors, the high-water marks the floods left as a reminder were hard to believe, as they were metres above low river level – showing the water would have had to spread for miles across the flat land in order to reach that height.

The sheer amount of water needed to cause the flooding is scarcely fathomable.

Then there was the smell: The constant stench of decaying, stagnant water which seemed bizarrely alive compared to the usual smell of dry country summer.

There were the regions that received the floods as the next blow in a season where expected bumper crops had been ruined by earlier rains.

“This is the biggest response we’ve had to put together across so many areas. It’s all just run together. So the mental health was already fragile,” Wimmera UnitingCare CEO Wendy Middleton, said. Staff have been working 24-hours a day in volunteer double shifts for two weeks, providing a range of extended counselling and support care.

“My staff have been just fantastic. On average we’ve had 25 staff away dealing with their own issues with the flooding. Yet their ability to come back, carrying their own trauma and support others at the same time – amazing.

“Then there’re the many other UnitingCares from around Victoria and Tasmania which have also offered to send staff to help us out,” Ms Middleton.

This spirit of support during a crisis was evident across the flood-affected regions. While many industries were halted, their resources were utilised to support neighbours in need.

There was regular evidence of utes loaded with sandbags being transported to downstream towns next to be hit by flood waters.

“On one hand our churches have been losing members, yet at times like these, they’re the ones which usually rally the community together and the church becomes more widely known because of this,” Mike Lewis, Loddon Mallee presbytery minister said.

“It pays to be well linked to the community,” Ms Middleton said. “We’ve got good relations with motels, hospitals. We needed these to rehouse people – especially the elderly. It has been important to provide ongoing support for transport, family connection, pets and counselling.”

John Vandereest, resource minister for the Boort cluster of churches was thankful there had been no loss of life, given that rising floodwaters marooned Boort and the nearby town of Charlton had to be evacuated.

“We had a number of churches inundated with water. In Charlton, the manse, church and church hall flooded for the second time since September. But everyone has come together to support the entire town – they’ve done a fantastic job.”

But many realise that recovery is usually the biggest job after a disaster.

This is the most painstaking process as the regions come to grips with, in many cases, having to start again from scratch.

While Victoria is not unused to bushfires, the effects of flooding are evident – they can happen quickly and they can cause serious uprooting.

The flat geology of much of the state’s land and its usual dry condition means that when water runs across it, there’s usually nowhere for it to go other than to continue running.

Following spring rains which ruined crops and plagues of locusts which ate what was dry, the state has had its fair share of natural calamity recently.

And many of these affected Victorian regions are yet to experience the incoming waters making their way south from the floods that have devastated Queensland.

When asked whether this was a concern to locals, the general response was one of optimism – a surprisingly common trait held by many who are enduring hardship together.

Despite this, they still need our help, support and understanding – especially into the future.

One town’s account

When heavy rains fell in the north-west Victorian town of Donald for the third time in four months, residents thought it couldn’t get any worse.

But then the local Avoca and Richardson rivers peaked. Two hundred people – half the population – in nearby Charlton were evacuated to Donald and now the town was split in two by surging floods.

This was the worst flood the region had ever seen.

The town of Donald spent four days without power, 35 nursing home residents had to be rehoused, and 20 houses were under water.

“There was nothing to compare with this,” said UC pastor and community chaplain, John Russell.

“There was also an inland ‘tsunami’. It washed away hundreds of kilometres of fencing and took houses off their stumps – that’s how fast it was running.”

Mr Russell had his work cut out providing pastoral support to the devastated members of the community.

“In my job I’m used to dealing with grief, but this was entirely different. It was a real shock to everyone. We had mums and kids and cats and dogs – people that were detached, all trying to connect with their families.

“Yet it definitely bonded the entire community. It was truly about loving your neighbour. If you could ever say people exemplified what Jesus said, this was it.

“Now the questions the entire town is asking are ‘How do we recover?’ ‘How do we do it and where do we start?’

Mr Russell says while real lessons have been learnt by the flood there are also long term positives.

“The rivers and waterways are now alive again, bringing back birdlife and recreational water areas and the farms have now got enough subsoil moisture to help crops for years.

“Done are the hard yards, people are saying they’ve now got a future,” Mr Russell said.

Michael Docherty, Crosslight

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