THE flooding of Lismore on the last day of March saw an organic emergency response to a crisis that continued for more than a month.
Before the rain even started to fall a Facebook page was created called Lismore Helping Hands, with three women - Maddie Braddon, Mandie Kai and Katie Cooper-Wares - growing the concept from nothing to 3000 members after two days and 8000 at its peak.
In the Tweed, hit just as hard by Cyclone Debbie, communications were co-ordinated through a similar Facebook page called Murwillumbah Matters, but the Lismore experience evolved beyond social media
The registration desk is a hive of activity at Lismore’s Helping Hands.
after the three organisers of Helping Hands realised there was an opportunity to bridge the gap between grass roots volunteer response and government backed emergency response organisations.
They contacted Lismore City Council who turned to councillor Elly Bird.
“There was a perfect storm of contributing factors that led to the success of Helping Hands,” recalled Elly, noting the immediate response from the city, with the offer of the disused South Lismore railway station, located in the epicentre of disaster, as a headquarters.
What began was a fast-running ‘policy on the fly’ evolvement of organisation designed to make use of the huge outpouring of volunteer offerings.
The first thing Elly did was call on her vast network of expertise. “Help is only offered during a small window in time,” she said.
“Research tells us 65 per cent of offers during an emergency don’t get utilised.”
By acting fast, a volunteer staff of up to 30 working through Lismore Helping Hands was able to co-ordinate 2000 volunteers who responded to 900 jobs, many of which required repeat visits, in a community of more than 5000 affected residents.
The job lasted three and half weeks, assisting in everything from clean-up to securing government money and fighting for insurance.
Long before the end the peak spirit of giving had dwindled, as the cameras turned away and adrenaline subsided, but not before 700 Church of Christ volunteers turned up for duty – all on the one day.
They were channeled through Helping Hands to do appropriate work with minimal double handling and much greater efficiency.
The exercise was a great example of how grass roots desire and government organisations can make best use of their energy.
“At the time there was no space to manage spontaneous volunteers,” Elly said.
“In the past the helping public was seen as a problem.
“It is hard for agencies to harness the energy of community and at the same time do all the things they are tasked to do; they’re all so stretched during an emergency.
“Those three women who started Helping Hands saw the gap and reached out.”
Software developed for managing this sort of thing was used at Lismore, with requests for help logged through recovers.org, a simple- to-use open source software developed by two sisters in Massachusetts who found no mechanism to aid recovery after surviving a terrifying tornado.
Elly said the software immediately eliminated the need to post private details on Facebook when asking for help.
“I’m a firm believer in community and community strength,” she said.
“Networks already exist and other communities could be easily supported to do what we did by providing them with a simple tool kit. It’s about preparedness and response.”