‘Hundreds of people were coming, day and night’

Heather’s story |Love in a time of disaster

“To be honest, I’m really tired. I’m the coordinator for Nepean Anglicare Disaster Recovery. We cover a big area (Blue Mountains, Lithgow, Penrith, Hawkesbury) and we’ve had three major disasters in three years. I know it’s nothing compared to the Northern Rivers, NSW. They’ve had it so much worse than us. But I think it’s the compounding effect.

First, it was the fires at the end of 2019. The scale of it was enormous in the upper mountains, Lithgow and the Hawkesbury. We also sent teams to Batemans Bay. Then there was the mini flood in March 2020. Then there was the significant flood in March 2021. Our recovery centres were activated until June 4 last year. Then 11 months later, it was the major flood on March 2, 2022, affecting the same area and people. One thousand households were displaced in the Hawkesbury … and our Recovery centres were activated until May 27 this year.

It’s been an exhausting and challenging time. I feel for the people in the Northern Rivers. Even the authorities are scratching their heads. How can we build resilience? The biggest problem is access. How can we even help at an evacuation centre when we can’t get in there? I remember people used to talk about the difficulty of motivating volunteers during long periods of inactivity. Now I wish for long periods of inactivity! Of course, with climate change, it’s going to get worse.

I got into disaster recovery volunteering back in 2006. I went to a training day at my local church and I joined the team. Then in 2012, there were floods in Moree and we flew up in a little plane. At the time, I was asked to be the team leader. I said, ‘No! I want to learn!’ We were out there, driving hundreds of kilometres each day to isolated properties and towns inundated by floods. But the team were wonderful. There were six of us and we got on extremely well. So I agreed to take on the leadership, and I went to another training course in June of 2013. I wasn’t quite sure why, but it was God’s timing.

Just four months later (in October 2013), there were terrible fires at Springwood. It changed my life. It was huge. I had a team of 35 people by then (all of us volunteers) and we helped set up the evacuation centre at Springwood. Hundreds of people were coming day and night. We were giving out food and toiletries and doing what we could. 203 homes were lost. It was terrible. When you run an evacuation centre, you’re open 24 hours a day to start with and I was coordinating all the volunteers and getting people in from other areas. Then there were the months of helping out at the recovery centres, along with all the other organisations.

After that, within a couple of years, our team doubled to 75. They’re generous, enthusiastic people. I love working with them. Most of us are in our 60s or above, a whole variety of people. As humans, we haven’t been good stewards of God’s world. I think all of heaven is weeping … and it’s going to get worse. Of course, I don’t have all the answers. The older I get, the more questions I have! But it’s good to be able to do something practical to help people. At evacuation and recovery centres, we’re trying to share the love of God with our presence. We’re not overt, although at times we pray for people. They know why we’re there. Sometimes we hear back from them, saying, ‘Thank you. You gave me goods or food just when I needed it.’

My favourite verse is from Proverbs 3: ‘Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding. In all your ways submit to him, and he will make your paths straight.’ Often, it’s only in hindsight that we see the hand of God – like that training course I did back in June 2013. It was perfect timing before the fires of that year, exactly what I needed. And I know that God is with us in all sorts of situations, even the hazardous ones. It’s my faith that keeps me going!”

Heather’s story is part of Eternity’s Faith Stories series, compiled by Naomi Reed. Click here for more Faith Stories.