Communities staff have been assisting with outreach work in the Mid West since ex Tropical Cyclone Seroja damaged and demolished homes on Sunday 11 April this year. Evacuation centres were immediately opened to triage residents’ needs, providing a place to shelter safely and necessities such as food and water.

Director of Professional Practice Unit Jane Simmons was on the ground shortly after the cyclone hit. “The loss of power was the most immediate impact with loss of food, lack of ability to cook, eat hot food, shower and wash clothes.  People were worried about their property and making it safe.  After that, it was financial assistance and a safe place to stay.  The underlying issue is grief - loss of your home, the pictures, memories and family history.  For farmers it’s their deep connection with their land, the loss of the opportunity to seed and the impact of that over the whole of the year.”

For remote Aboriginal communities, there were issues with access to power, water and safe shelter, with the additional complication of people with chronic health needs requiring access to medication– including dialysis. This was also true for some of the older residents in the small rural settings, where the loss of power meant lack of access to sleep apnoea machines.

Communities has worked closely with the Australian Red Cross undertaking joint outreach to assess the mental health and wellbeing of residents and the Australian Services (formerly Centrelink), the Salvation Army, local community service organisations and schools. Jane and her colleagues also worked closely with Northampton District High School who  generously offered a place to establish an outreach hub at the school with stable access to IT, desk space and two quiet rooms where they could see people in private outside the evacuation centres.

“What came out in some of the work of the teams I led was that many of these people had suffered other traumatic events; there were veterans from the Vietnam war, home owners who had been living in their home for 50 years see it destroyed. There was a husband coping with his partner having the early stages of dementia. These were proud, independent, resilient people, but the scale of the event had a huge impact on them, both as individuals as well as their community,” Jane said.

A local pub in one of the small communities became a hub for connection as it still had a landline and the local publican was able to serve warm meals for the locals.  Communities staff and Red Cross were able to drop off some long-life food and water supplies  and talk to locals, check on their immediate welfare and find out about where to target further outreach, at a time when there were still massive power outages and DFES and Western Power were seeking to make the area safe.

Jane says it was a privilege to be a part of this response to community need and commends her colleagues, some working very long days with very few reliable systems in place during the very early days after Seroja hit.

“What I saw was the true inside of small country communities, their sense of belonging, the things that bind them together – the CWA, the footy team, Anzac Day parades and traditions – and leadership not just from the formal and official community leaders, but the naturally occurring leadership networks within communities.  Women who had started collecting clothes via Facebook for families in need, the offers of help from neighbours, the humour at community meetings, the children talking to the ADF and wanting to join the army, and the desire to move as soon as possible to reclaiming their own lives and return to their community rhythms and familiar routines.

Social work is known as the helping profession and I am very proud to have been part of a team where every single person gave their best to help other people move from disaster to the first steps towards recovery. When you undertake work in disaster recovery you see people at their most vulnerable and at their most courageous – a little part of the place and the people stays in your heart.”

Housing Services Officer Adam Sahin has recently been in Geraldton and Northampton undertaking outreach work, one on one consultations and assisting people to link with other services such as those provided by Salvation Army, Red Cross, Murchison Region Aboriginal Corporation, Adventis Development and Relief Agency and Centrelink. Adam was blown impressed by the great community spirit and positivity. “I found the people here are very proud and have a strong sense of community. Every client I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with has shown genuine concern for their neighbours’ welfare ahead of their own,” Adam said.

Although it was Adam’s first deployment to Geraldton for Seroja, he had previously lived and volunteered in Timor Leste for two years 2008-2010 and Solomon Islands for eight months between 2015-2016 after civil unrest. Many lives had been lost and much of the infrastructure had been destroyed.

I supported family unification programs, housing building, UN camp placements, water and sanitation projects. “I believe this time gave me a true firsthand understanding of humanity and the strength of communities. For the Seroja deployment, seeing firsthand not only how the cyclone affected people uniting to get through these difficult times but volunteers arriving from all over the nation to help has truly meant a lot to me.” .

During her two deployments Acting Director Specialist Child Protection Unit Natalie Poulter saw a different side to Geraldton and Kalbarri. She had visited Geraldton and Kalbarri before but had a limited understanding of the area. In her deployed role as Operations Lead, some of the key things that stood out for her were the resilience of people and connection within the communities. “People concerned about their neighbours and friends and referring them for support while still dealing with their own individual experiences highlighted the importance of connection, particularly in the aftermath of something as significant as this,” Natalie said.

If you are passionate about helping those affected by a disaster, register your interest in working with the SWICC via the survey that will be released next week on The Common (currently being updated). Deployments are six days and will continue over the next couple of months until the recovery structure is finalised. Natalie says if you enjoy engaging with people then this is the perfect role.

“To do well in this role you need compassion, empathy and an ability to sit with some big emotions. These qualities, combined with an awareness of and capacity to engage people in a culturally safe way, are so important. Also a sense of flexibility, eagerness to learn and an ability to work in a pressured environment is key. For a lot of staff this is the first time we have worked in a situation like this so I think a sense of understanding that each person is managing their experience in their own way is helpful to remember,” said Natalie.

Acting Chief People Officer Maria Daniel sees the deployments as a great development opportunity.

“We have received some really positive and encouraging feedback from deployed staff who really found it rewarding. Being able to help people in need is at the heart of what we do and travelling to regional WA is also beneficial in developing a better understanding for what our district offices do,” said Maria.

Natalie has seen that the work that people do across Communities can be equal parts rewarding and challenging. Seeing people take time away from their families, friends and jobs to support the recovery, often coming into a space that they have never worked in before made her feel very proud.

“I’d like to say thank you to each of the Communities staff that were deployed to support with the recovery effort. Each person had their own contributions to how Communities’ can provide support across a huge region. I also want to acknowledge those Communities staff who live in the Mid West region and are still contributing to Communities being able to undertake business as usual, in spite of everything that has happened in the region.

“A Red Cross employee said something powerful in a local recovery meeting recently which sums everything up for me – that when we’re talking about the social, environmental, structural and economic impacts of the cyclone, remember that all of this connects back to people,” said Natalie. 

While Natalie doesn’t recall a time that she’s been as tired as she is currently, she says the strength of the community and the commitment of everyone to the recovery effort is enough for her to power on. 

“I’m sure there were many new things I learned while I was here but the one that stands out is that I didn’t know that Mingenew has a tourist season for stargazing. The space nerd in me will probably be back to check this out!”