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A connection through time and place

Lismore flood picture, a boat on a flooded street


25 May 2023

Months later talk of the flood prevails. Ideas and opinions flow. Memories and emotions pour. Hope springs. Long after the inundation, conversations still hold water, water everywhere.

Lismore Flood recovery workers hand out supplied to flood victims

A connection through time and place

This is Lismore, late 2022, where the impact of the recent past remains so strong that some might think it has washed away all thought of the future.

It pays to remember that Lismore has been here before, rebuilding in 1954 and again in 1974 in the aftermath of other floods. Then in 1994, the 20-year pattern changed when instead of recovery, the theme became discovery; and instead of looking down at the water, it was time to look up to the stars. As it happens, a particular set of stars.

Southern Cross University was established in Lismore in 1994 and almost immediately presented itself as a university of difference. In practical terms alone, it meant Northern Rivers students no longer needed to leave the region for their university studies. It also boosted local employment and the area’s economy and began the process – ongoing today – of collaboration with a network of businesses and industries closely connected to the campus.

Just as important were more philosophical notions, such as identity, permanency, belonging and intrinsic value. From the outset, Southern Cross University wasn’t just in Lismore and the Northern Rivers. It was of them, for them and about them.

Almost thirty years later, much may have changed in the near and far world, but that quintessential connection remains unbroken. It weaves through the story of Southern Cross University’s place and purpose, its expansion north and south – and especially its people.

The richness of possibility

Within the narrow triangle that connects Lismore, the Gold Coast and Coffs Harbour, there exists a huge diversity of communities, environments, industries, interests, resources, needs and opportunities. The area is its own ecosystem, rich with possibility and chock-full of stories.

These stories begin in ancient times and travel through generations of First Peoples – Bundjalung, Gumbaynggirr, Nganduwal, Minjungbal/Yugambeh – today encompassed in initiatives like the Gnibi College of Indigenous Australian peoples and close relationships with Elders and communities.

They travel through more recent history, such as those first Italian families – displaced but determined – who settled at what became known as New Italy, south of Ballina, and built a model settlement that helped to shape the experiences and histories of the area. Southern Cross University researchers were instrumental in attaining heritage status for the settlement.

Still, for the moment – and understandably – the prevailing story remains the flood. And it should be told here, though not simply to repeat all that it wrought at the time, but to consider what it could lead to in time. Transformation from devastation. That too is quite a story.

The answer is Yes

The University’s Vice-President (Engagement), Mr Ben Roche, shakes his head as he remembers when the rain poured down and the people poured in, those needing help and those doing the helping.

“Every 15 to 30 minutes, Blackhawk helicopters were landing on the Morrie Ryan rugby oval, dropping people off. The campus was in complete blackout and there was very, very patchy mobile connectivity. We had little sense of what was happening.”

“We very quickly agreed that our response to the questions would be ‘Yes’ and then we’d work out what that meant afterwards for the University.’

What ensued was stunningly quick, from a university one minute to a refuge and crisis centre the next. Staff and students joined the effort on campus and in the city. Like Education student Christa Morrow.

“I just trawled Facebook for addresses that were popping up that needed help … it kind of just clicks in that this is someone’s life; this is their reality. We started with a team of students and we just didn’t stop. You don’t even think twice about it.”

The University-wide response was not only prompt and deeply personal but is enduring.

Within weeks the Lismore campus - high, dry and safe - became home to Trinity College, the Living School, the Lismore Primary Health Care Network, Business NSW and even the Richmond Police Command. It is part of the ‘yes’ culture at the University. More than 2000 extra people today interact with the campus that is transforming into an educational and commercial hub as the region rethinks its future.

Several weeks after the floods, in an interview with ABC Radio before he appeared at the NSW Flood Inquiry, Vice Chancellor Professor Tyrone Carlin cited the response to the flood as a platform for the future.

“As we look forward, what we will find will be opportunities to do innovative things as we share the campus and build something more special than we did before,” he said, also using a word that has become thematic. The Lismore campus, he said, was transformed.

All this happened because the University said yes.

A new chapter

The task of recovery will be an extended one. Yet there again, Southern Cross University is helping to write that story.

For example, from 2023 the new Bachelor of Business and Enterprise will be based at Lismore and will connect students to one of the most remarkable commercial shifts in Northern NSW. Fostering business skills, entrepreneurship and innovation will be central to recovery efforts for the Northern Rivers and this degree will enable graduates to have a say and a role in the new Lismore.

Meanwhile, the University is also funding seven research and community engagement projects to aid ongoing flood recovery in the Northern Rivers. Community engagement is a priority in projects that include the future health and use of the Richmond River; a digital archive of the Richmond Catchment; the impact of the floods on young people and marginalised groups; and creation of an online map of community resources contributing to recovery.

There are so many other examples – new starts, new ideas, new initiatives, new chapters – that demonstrate how the flood is a big story, but not the only one.

For Southern Cross University, Lismore and the Northern Rivers, transformation is under way. And tomorrow is not the end of the story.

It is only the beginning.