On the 31st of March 2017, ex-tropical cyclone Debbie hit Lismore resulting in the city's most significant flood in 40 years, and the third highest flood on record. Around 2300 residences were impacted, at least 68% of CBD businesses suffered damage and loss, and the estimated combined total damage to infrastructure and agriculture was almost $40 million. The flood happened quickly, catching the community by surprise. Many residents and businesses had no time to prepare, losing everything.
Before the water had receded, the Lismore Helping Hands (LHH) Facebook group was established, rapidly growing to more than 8000 members, becoming the primary platform for the community to self-organise and begin the cleanup. The group was also a critical source of current recovery information, and continues to be an important platform for the community to connect and support each other.
The group coordinators connected with local activist network Gasfield Free Northern Rivers, a highly mobile, organised and experienced network of community organisers who had recently won their local campaign after seven years of sustained efforts across the region. The newly expanded group then moved to on ground spontaneous volunteer coordination. Lismore City Council facilitated access to the disused Lismore Train Station to use as a base. The centre became known as The Hub. Located in the heart of the flood zone, it was easily accessible and quickly evolved beyond just volunteers to become the central point of contact for the community to both give and receive help.
Using the online platform Recovers.org, LHH connected impacted residents and businesses to government recovery services; organised spontaneous volunteers; coordinated skilled volunteer tradies; facilitated the distribution of donations and food; collaborated with government and community organisations; coordinated a community outreach program; and coordinated a ‘team of volunteer chaplains and community sector professionals to provide psychological first aid and emotional support.
LHH actively supported a number of impacted residents for three months before eventually managing to facilitate a transition for most people to local programs and assistance being delivered by formal organisations. The group then went on to coordinate one year anniversary activities and a further program of community events promoting preparedness and resilience.
Since 2017 LHH coordinators have been actively engaged in the development of the first Lismore City Council Recovery Plan, advocating for the inclusion and formal recognition of community participation in any future formal recovery arrangements for the city.
The LHH experience shows that, adaptable, rapid, and inclusive community-led response is essential to meet the diverse needs of a community after a natural disaster. It’s important that community efforts are harnessed, coordinated and “led” in a responsive and collaborative way so that impacted communities are empowered to actively participate in their own recovery. The efforts of a person who wants to volunteer, or a group who are offering something should not be curtailed by organisational constraints.
It is the opinion of the contributors to this abstract that the effectiveness of the community response in Lismore is a clear indicator of resilience in action.