As the flood crisis hit Brisbane and South East Queensland, volunteer groups swung into action, journalist PAUL DOBBYN spoke to a worker on the front lines
AS news of Brisbane’s impending flood disaster burst like water from a breached dam on Tuesday January 11, St Vincent de Paul Society Queensland’s Ray O’Donnell was one of a team of people ready to deal with the resulting human tragedy.
Ray, area manager of SVDP’s Brisbane City South/City Diocesan Central Council, had been the society’s representative on the Brisbane City Council disaster and evacuation committee for three years.
During this time, he and members of community aid organisations such as the Red Cross and the Salvation Army had met regularly with the Brisbane City Council to take part in simulation exercises to deal with a major emergency.
Now – as the QEII Stadium and the RNA Showgrounds evacuation centres prepared to be rapidly filled by people about to lose all as they fled the floods – Ray and his local team moved to put preparation into practice.
“Once there was no doubt a disaster was headed Brisbane’s way, I phoned my Brisbane City Council counterpart who then told me to contact the Red Cross people already starting to set up at the RNA,” he said.
“Our last emergency simulation had been at Inala before Christmas…all the preparations paid off.
“And I must say the Red Cross, as the main coordinating body, was at the top of its game throughout the emergency.”
Ray’s role was to supervise the distribution of clothes and personal care products received at the evacuation centres from St Vincent de Paul Queensland centres, corporate Brisbane and the community at large.
However, this proved no simple task.
St Vincent de Paul’s warehouse at Sumner Park in the Western Suburbs rapidly became isolated by floodwater.
To further complicate matters, the organisation’s State head office located in Merivale Street South Brisbane would soon have its basement swamped, losing all communications.
“Donations and offers of help were pouring in,” Ray said.
“And not only to Vinnies but other organisations as well.
“I was in constant contact with Red Cross to help shift clothes and other products.
“We started storing them at our Lawnton premises and sorting things with the help of volunteers from organisations including our local Vincentians, Volunteering Queensland, State Corrections, family and friends of the society and the general public.”
By now the head office call centre was also out of action so Ray supplied his mobile number as the St Vincent de Paul contact point.
“Things got even more hectic,” he said.
“My team on the ground was also in charge of the southside’s 14 Vinnies’ shops which were all taking in piles of donations.
“At one stage a call from the evacuation centres even went out for men’s underwear.
“The society immediately bought about $6000 worth at a good discount from Kmart.”
Behind the scenes at the RNA and QEIIß the numbers of support agencies including Centrelink and various housing and community service authorities were steadily growing.
By this stage Ray estimated about 1000 people were at the RNA evacuation centre and more than 200 at the QEII.
In preparation for the worst, about 3000 mattresses had arrived at the RNA and another 1000 at the QEII.
Over the three days from Tuesday January 11 to Thursday January 13 as the crisis unfolded, a pattern was quickly established.
“The Red Cross, as the lead agency controlling things like evacuee registrations, would hold briefings from around 7am,” he said.
“Here issues such as critical incidents were discussed.”
Among these was an allegation of a sexual assault in the RNA amenities block.
Another incident involved the arrival of the police looking for a French woman whose husband had died overnight.
Ray helped a police officer try and locate the woman among the many, many mattresses in the main sleeping area at the RNA, however, it was likely the woman had left the centre during the night.
All the while donations from across Australia were stacking up to almost unmanageable proportions.
Which brought Ray to explain how people can now best help the victims of Queensland’s flood disaster.
“Really cash is what is most needed at this point,” he said.
“It’s much more portable … also people can buy locally and support local businesses many of which will themselves have been devastated by the flooding.”
Now the emergency is over, the really hard work begins, Ray said.
“With the State headquarters operational we expect our local conferences will be particularly busy in providing a hand up to flood victims.
“The next stage of the recovery will draw on the Vincentian spirit as our members support those who’ve lost everything, maybe even the lives of their loved ones.
“This spirit of charity will be needed as never before.
“It will be a precious commodity indeed.”
Financial donations can be made online at Vinnies.org.au, by calling the hotline 13 18 12, or via post to PO Box 3351, South Brisbane 4101.