Ongoing community needs in the aftermath of the Northern Rivers flooding disaster

By: Allison Henry   |   Acting CEO, Northern Rivers Community Foundation

When unprecedented floods hit the Northern Rivers region of NSW in February and March 2022 – causing tragic loss of life as well as massive damage to homes, businesses and infrastructure – the

Northern Rivers Community Foundation

(NRCF) found itself in the middle of a community-led emergency response.

Picture credit: Michael Turner

Established in 2003, NRCF has the largest footprint of any community foundation in Australia – covering seven LGAs and stretching from Tweed Heads in the north to Grafton in the south and from the South Pacific Ocean inland to Kyogle, Woodenbong and Casino.

NRCF has managed community grants rounds for many years, supporting local not-for-profit organisations to tackle challenging social and environmental issues. Given our knowledge of the region we quickly understood that the devastation of the floods extended across the whole of the Northern Rivers.

Beyond the well-known catastrophic impact in Lismore, many of our towns and villages were submerged for days with raging flood waters, landslides and debris blocking access routes. Equipment and vehicles were destroyed or washed away. In many regions there were no communications for at least five days.

NRCF’s long-standing connections meant we were able to quickly reach out to the community organisations we already worked with, as well as the local disaster hubs that emerged in the aftermath of the flooding disaster. These volunteer-run recovery centres initially functioned as evacuation centres – providing meals, clothing, showers, laundry and hygiene support; provisions for household pets; and access to emergency response and clean-up crews – then supported the on-going and changing needs of residents across the region.

NRCF quickly assembled a volunteer research team which connected with 294 local organisations in the weeks following the floods. These groups picked up our calls even when they were knee-deep in mud because they already knew and trusted us, and they knew we could help. 

This research has been invaluable in identifying evidence-based projects and community organisations requiring our support. As part of our Flood Relief Fund partnership with Byron Community Centre, our experienced grants team distributed almost $1million in rapid response emergency grants to 106 organisations across the region in just six weeks, with most grantees receiving funds within 10 days of application. 

These grants supported a wide range of projects including housing and homelessness services, food pantries, community radio, trades and renovation support, mental health counselling, healing and trauma support as well as local Landcare groups and environment centres working on slide remediation and clean up, and animal rescue groups supporting displaced and impacted animals.

Two thirds of respondents to our research project anticipated that they would require longer term assistance and we have identified a number of medium-term priority areas of concern and funding need:

  • Housing – the Northern Rivers faced a housing crisis before the flood disaster and this has intensified: thousands of homes have been deemed uninhabitable, and the region is struggling to support and re-home displaced families.
  • Disadvantage – existing social, economic, cultural and/or educational disparities have been exacerbated by the floods. For example, an increase in domestic and family violence while the capacity of the region’s women’s refuges has been severely limited; children and youth are suffering from disengagement due to closed or damaged schools; and opportunities for people with disabilities to re-engage in employment, cultural and social networks have been curtailed.
  • Mental health impacts – following the trauma and stress of the significant weather events and the social impact of isolation, the challenges of navigating government assistance and insurance systems, and continuing environmental impacts such as mould in homes.
  • Natural environment – the floods caused pollution of waterways, adversely impacting wildlife habitat. Many areas are also recovering from major landslips and landslides.
  • Infrastructure – damage to roads, bridges, communications and infrastructure has impeded resident’s mobility and affected the capacity of local businesses to recover.
  • Food security – the floods highlighted the need for region-wide coordination.

NRCF are now administering several additional grants rounds to address these needs, with a clear focus on long-term recovery and capacity building.

Residents across the Northern Rivers know that it was community networking and effort which provided critical support to our communities during the flood disaster and our continuing efforts are directed at supporting these placed-based projects and organisations. We are mindful that this will be a multi-year effort and we have already started to restructure our operations to ensure we are well placed to amplify our existing grassroots expertise and networks.

Philanthropy has played a crucial role – we are grateful that NRCF’s efforts have been enabled by the generosity not only of many local individuals and businesses but also national foundations who have reached out to help. We recognise that the support of our donors will continue to be the critical factor in NRCF’s capacity to support the Northern Rivers’ long-term recovery.

Aug. 05, 2022

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