Red Cross teams from Merimbula, Bega, Eurobodalla and Batemans Bay have been awarded Red Cross Distinguished Team Awards in recognition of the work they did during, and following the Tathra bushfires.
We have psychological training but you have to have emotional intelligence as well.Loretta Fella
The 23-strong Merimbula team, together with Bega, opened up and manned the evacuation centre at Bega Showground, registering people, helping others to find family and friends, comforting those who had lost everything and helping to co-ordinate material help with food, clothing, children's toys and animal care.
From the Saturday of the fires through until Wednesday, many people had no idea whether their homes had survived or not and team leader Loretta Fella said that not knowing was often the most difficult issue for the people in the evacuation centre.
"Some were so distraught they couldn't wait and even though the roads were blocked they went in through back tracks to find out whether their home was still standing or not," Ms Fella said.
"We have psychological training but you have to have emotional intelligence as well. You have to be aware of people's emotional needs."
Understanding and empathising with the emotional turmoil was a large part of the job performed by the Red Cross volunteers.
There were times when you would walk through the hall and people just had that glazed look.Sue Muffler
Deputy team leader Sue Muffler said sometimes people want to talk.
"There were times when you would walk through the hall and people just had that glazed look. Our training is about knowing how and when to start a conversation," she said.
Volunteer Sharon Tapscott said the evacuation centre was very emotionally charged and intense.
By the following weekend the Red Cross volunteers were in Tathra, with local chaplains and FaCs alumni, rostered in to various streets to talk with residents. The support continued through follow-up phone calls.
Ms Fella said that many of the volunteers were people who simply believed in the value of supporting each other in tough times, and that many were inspired to join up in the aftermath of Black Saturday in 2009.
My mother in Athens was in the Red Cross and helped to distribute baby formula and condensed milk during WWII.Loretta Fella
Her own association with the Red Cross and drivers to become a member are more personal.
"My mother in Athens was in the Red Cross and helped to distribute baby formula and condensed milk during WWII. Then my sister became the national public relations person for the national Red Cross organisation in Melbourne," she said.
Her cousin lost her property in the Black Saturday fires and had to reverse the car out of the garage smashing through the garage roller door after the electricity was cut.
"She was in the second last car to leave Marysville in the police convoy. Four months later I could still see the rawness so it was a no-brainer when we heard that the Red Cross was holding a training day here," Ms Fella said.
All the volunteers spoke highly of the Red Cross as an organisation saying the brand was well-recognised, trusted and had integrity.
Helen Williamson said that the Red Cross gives the sense that someone cares. "They can trust our integrity," she said.
The evacuation centre had over 1000 people evacuated - the most ever evacuated in NSW - and it became a hub.
We didn't panic; there's resilience in country women.Sharon Tapscott
Afterwards going out into the community the team continued to reach out and offer material and emotional support.
Throughout the emotional toll, volunteers said they were well supported too. "We could rely on each other and friendships have developed. This made the team so much stronger," Ms Williamson said.
When Ms Tapscott joined the team in 2012 she said she knew instinctively that it had integrity.
"It was necessary for our community to have such a good team at such a bad time. It was important to have those people at the front door. It showed the strength of the country women. We didn't panic; there's resilience in country women," Ms Tapscott said.
I knew a lot of the people affected and it was hard. I couldn't leave it behind.Helen Williamson
Ms Williamson joined in 2011 after just retiring as a teacher. She had previously done some nursing too.
"I just love our environment. I lived here all my life but I believed that something could happen like this and I wanted to feel that I could contribute in a structured way," she said.
"I love the team, I've made friends and there is this feeling of giving back to the community. I feel very much at home. This is my home and the people and the place mean a lot to me.
"I knew a lot of the people affected (by the Tathra bushfires) and it was hard. I couldn't leave it behind," Ms Williamson admitted.
There is a passion for what we do.Di Petty
Di Petty joined the team from the start.
"I had a background in nursing and was about to retire. I knew Loretta and she approached me about joining. There's a nice feeling of helping people, like I'm making a difference.
"There is a passion for what we do," Ms Petty said.
I saw them in action and decided to join.Jenny Balfe
Jenny Balfe was involved in the evacuation centre as a a community nurse, as part of the mental health team but what she saw from the Red Cross volunteers made her join the team soon afterwards.
"I saw the Red Cross in action. People knew they weren't going to be judged. I think it's the brand," Ms Balfe said.
She joined soon afterwards and helped with the outreach work in Tathra.
Since then Ms Balfe has volunteered as a Red Cross member in Townsville during the floods earlier this year and put in 40 hours of time over four days.
"The whole way those centres (evacuation centres) work is amazing.
"I wanted to help people and just wanted to give back to the community," she said
"You get lots of training and support. After I came back from Townsville I was contacted many times. It's such a good team," she added.
Like other Red Cross volunteers Ms Balfe also volunteers elsewhere including the Eden Lionesses and CCASE.
The citation for the award said the team spent "countless hours talking with members of the devastated community" and worked tirelessly covering every request for assistance.
The team started 10 years ago and has been involved in three previous natural disasters, the floods at Cooma in 2012, the fires at Delegate in 2014 and fires at Millingandi also in 2014.
The citation from the Red Cross head office:
Distinguished Team Award
Merimbula Emergency Services Team
Tathra and surrounding communities were threatened by a ferocious bushfire burning out of control and threatening the whole Tathra Community on Sunday, 18 March 2018.
Over 1,000 people fled the area seeking shelter and support at the Bega Showground evacuation centre. Members of the Bega Valley team were among the first of the Disaster Welfare Agencies to spring into action, setting up and managing the evacuation centre until the centre manager arrived. They were provided with a welcome shift change by members of the Merimbula Emergency Services Teams. The two teams also supported residents who self-evacuated to the Bermagui Surf Life Saving Club. Red Cross was the first Disaster Welfare agency to arrive and managed the centre providing support to stranded residents.
The Bega evacuation centre remained operational until 6:00pm, Thursday, March 22 and Red Cross was present for the entire time, providing much needed psychological first aid to residents awaiting to hear if their home was still standing. Tathra is a small community, the loss of homes and surrounding forest was huge and a total of 69 homes were destroyed. Twenty nine cabins/caravans and another 39 homes were damaged. This fire event has had a very profound effect on both the community as well as the surrounding landscape. Red Cross volunteers from the Bega Valley and Merimbula teams continued to work together for the ensuing weeks providing much needed support in the recovery centre, providing outreach as well as attending the many community meetings.
The fire was fast and intense, catching most residents by surprise. Red Cross volunteers spent countless hours talking with members from the devastated community, listening to their stories of defending their homes as well as their neighbour's homes for up to three days.
Members of both teams worked tirelessly and every request made to them to assist in the event was covered.
It is with pleasure that Australian Red Cross acknowledges the service given by Bega Valley Emergency Services Team by presenting them with a Red Cross Distinguished Team Service Award.
Merimbula Emergency Services Team: Loretta Fella, Di Patterson, Sue Muffler and Jenny Robbins