'Possessions can be replaced but human life can't,' says Lismore pastor from the floods
Worst of trauma may be still to come
Peter Mitchell, pastor of Lismore Bible Church, is feeling relieved today after one family in his congregation was rescued from their rooftop yesterday.
Mitchell has spent the past 24 hours “just making sure people are all right” as Lismore, on the NSW north coast, endures its worst flood on record.
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“That was pretty scary for them and they’ve likely lost everything,” says Mitchell about this family’s ordeal when floodwaters almost completely submerged their home.
Thankfully, most of his congregation, including his own family, live outside the flood zone, so many members responded to Mitchell’s calls for prayer support and practical help for this family.
The congregation has provided items to meet all their basic needs and one member is currently providing the family with housing for a while.
“The Lord’s really working it out pretty marvellously because then they have a work colleague who’s going away for seven weeks, so they’ll be able to stay there, which gives them enough time to find something more permanent,” Mitchell tells Eternity.
Meanwhile, the rented premises where Lismore Bible Church was meeting is “totally submerged”.
“I imagine it will be out of action for weeks, months probably. It’s an old building, so it may not even make it,” says Mitchell.
“We had a little bit of equipment there, which will have been destroyed. So we’re just going to go back online for this weekend and will try to work [out] going forward where we’ll be able to meet for church.
“After a couple of years of COVID, it’s a bit of challenge,” he admits.
In fact, the church had not been meeting at that premises for long before the floods hit. They had shifted there when they were no longer able to meet at a school due to COVID restrictions.
“Because of COVID, we’ve got a bit adept at crisis management, I suppose,” says Mitchell, looking on the bright side.
In the same way that the church was just finding its feet again in this new building, the town was also still recovering from the 2017 floods, says Mitchell.
In March 2017, the Lismore flood levee was overtopped for the first time, causing “one of the most damaging floods in living memory in terms of material and community destruction”.
“There was just a good vibe about the place. Then to have this happen …” – Peter Mitchell
However, as Mitchell attests by his observations of water levels, this flood is even worse.
“People are very sad about what’s happened to the town,” he says. “It felt like things had just started to get going again after the 2017 flood. That was pretty traumatic for the town. And it’s probably only in the past 12 to 18 months that we’ve started to see new businesses opening. There was just a good vibe about the place. Then to have this happen …
“People are also feeling upset because everyone has friends or relatives that have been affected. Around Lismore, a lot of the people who live in satellite towns and villages get cut off [during floods] so they might be stuck at home for three days to a week. And obviously, this time around it’s going to be even longer.”
“To see the way people came out in a flotilla of private boats to go and rescue people was pretty amazing.” – Peter Mitchell
When asked where he can see God at work through this traumatic event, Mitchell notes it “does remind you about what’s truly important.
“Possessions can be replaced but human life can’t. That’s a pretty important lesson,” he says, adding that “the sense of community spirit, which is not just a Christian virtue” is another reminder of goodness in the midst of chaos.
“To see the way people came out in a flotilla of private boats to go and rescue people was pretty amazing. I went for a bit of a walk the other day to have a look at it all and, twice, people just pulled over randomly and said, ‘Can I give you a lift?'”
Mitchell notes many emerging stories about heroic community members helping others.
“The family in our church who was waiting to be rescued from their rooftop, their neighbours were stuck. So the dad actually had to swim across to their house, smash a window and get them out so they didn’t drown in their own home. So you’re going to hear lots of stories like that for sure.”
However, Mitchell is aware that even greater challenges await the Lismore community.
“I really think the worst is yet to come,” he confesses.
“Everyone pulls together in the moment of crisis, but when people start to go home and see their houses destroyed … I think the trauma is to come when people go to their businesses or home and see what’s there or what’s not there.”
He adds: “I’m pretty sure [the authorities] are going to find some people have died in their homes once the waters go down.”
“When people start to go home and see their houses destroyed … I think the trauma is to come.” – Peter Mitchell
When the waters do subside, Mitchell says his congregation is on standby to help in any way they can.
“A lot of our folk will go down and try to help clean up as much as they can – they’re already lining up to do that. Over the next couple of weeks, I’m sure there will be people down there with brooms and cleaning mud out of shops and homes.”
He notes that schools in the area will be closed indefinitely, adding another layer of difficulty for families.
“I think people will pull together and really help where they can. We have some really great folk who will cook meals and do all those sorts of things that Christians are meant to do, which is really lovely to see.”
For those who are not close enough to practically help people in flood-ravaged areas, Mitchell asks Christians to pray.
“The emotional and psychological suffering and trauma is going to be very, very big. Once people start seeing that their business is lost or that their house is lost, there’s going to be a lot of sadness and trauma. So pray for God’s provision and strength and comfort, and pray that Christians will be able to point people to Jesus and to the peace that we have in him.
“I’m sure the government will come in and provide funding and the town will be back on its feet in six to 12 months again in that sense, but the human toll … For some people, it might take years or they might never get over the hard things that they are about to experience.”