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Southern Cross University assumes flood response role


Dean Gould,
8 March 2022

As floodwaters rose at distressing speed across the city of Lismore on February 28, Brad Eyre knew what he had to do.

The Southern Cross University academic and his son Harrison hooked up the tinny to the University ute and took to the flooded streets. More than 20 rescues later, Harrison and his researcher father had done their small part to respond to a natural disaster of Biblical proportions. Similarly lecturer Aiden Ricketts selflessly ferried more than 15 neighbours to safety fully realising his own home was being inundated.

Any one would be awkward about being singled out in a community-wide response that displayed urgency, compassion and resilience as the fatal floods devastated the Northern Rivers, especially the city of Lismore where previous records for flood heights were smashed by the wrath of the 2022 deluge.

More than 3000 rescues were undertaken by dozens of boats and helicopters.

The individual stories of two academics are repeated a hundredfold, and institutionally Southern Cross University has become a centrepiece in the rescue and recovery efforts across the region.

At the height of the emergency, Southern Cross, a national leader in marine science, deployed its six  research vessels for flood rescue.

Profoundly, the University’s Lismore Campus was designated as the primary emergency evacuation centre, with more than 1000 people gathered there at one stage. That first night was chaotic. A deluge still falling from the sky, no power, no lights and hundreds of scared people.

But they were safe. The high ground of the East Lismore campus and the dry floors of sports hall providing desperate sanctuary.

Within 24 hours, the evacuation centre was home to not only hundreds of people but pet dogs, cats, birds, mice and even a snake. Of course, a mobile vet was called in to help out.

And for humans, the campus medical clinic switched its focus from student-led learning to emergency medical care for flood evacuees.

With shelter and first aid secured, the focus turned to food. Emergency supplies came from every corner of the community, distributed by volunteers, many of them Southern Cross staff and students who simply turned up to help.

One of the most endearing stories of the disaster was the Sikh Volunteers Australia ( driving from Melbourne to use the campus UniBar kitchen to cook hundreds of meals and feed the mud army as the clean-up began.

Defence Force helicopters buzzed in and out of the Southern Cross rugby ovals, dropping off evacuees or picking up supplies. More than 500 ADF personnel are literally camping on the campus grounds as they add momentum to the clean-up. The flooded Lismore police station is inoperable and the whole force has relocated to the Southern Cross campus, servicing the region from their makeshift set-up.

With each passing day, the campus has become more attuned to the immediate needs of the Lismore community, facilitating the establishment of hubs and services run by key agencies looking to meet the more medium-term challenges for a region punch-drunk from Nature’s king hit.

  • A Business Recovery hub, led by Business NSW, set up within days to provide business advice.
  • A Community Clean-up hub gives a base from which to co-ordinate community action that will take months more, distributing resources like PPE and cleaning equipment that have been sent from across the nation.
  • A Legal and Banking Hub is providing clear and sound support for individuals and business about their insurance, tenancy, disrupted court and other legal proceedings. It has enabled access to cash money – so essential when EFTPOS doesn’t work.
  • Three schools relocating their operations and close to 1800 students onto the campus so that they can continue their studies.

Dozens more calls came in from businesses, other schools, childcare centres. “How can we help?” is the only response possible. It has resulted in Southern Cross providing technical and IT infrastructure support to mobilise a community matching service to allow loved ones to find family members.

And further south, where floodwaters threatened the Mid North Coast oyster industry, the University’s National Marine Science Centre housed three million oyster babies for all flood affected commercial farmers in the area, meaning their livelihood literally survived. It came from another “how can we help” conversation. As did the relocation of the offices of Federal MP Kevin Hogan and NSW State MP Janelle Saffin onto the campus.

University staff and students have been hit hard, several losing their homes, their cars or all their belongings. One staff member’s parents had their Ballina home flooded and Lismore business submerged. Another lost everything. Another had his brother-in-law plucked from a rooftop. Two others are saying they are lucky because only the first floor was destroyed. The second floor of their house remained dry. The stories of loss, miracles and escape abound among the staff.

That is why they rally so quickly to help. They volunteer, they scrub mud, they house colleagues impacted. And the University has granted anyone who needs it up to 10 days of special leave to deal with the clean up, to volunteer and help if they can.

A student hardship fund has been established to assist students in need and the call has gone out to alumni and partners to support a fundraising appeal directly for students.

The filthy water subsides. The harrowing images of tearful homeowners disappear from the news feeds. But the recovery remains. It is long-term. So too is Southern Cross University. It is staying the course as the glue holding everything together at the moment.

It’s a role not mentioned in its Founding Act, not part of the TEQSA assessment criteria, not clearly defined in the rules of progression. But it is a role that is central to its purpose, to its soul and to its community.