Keeping a community connected

17 Nov 2023

After the worst flood in more than 70 years, the Hunter Valley village of Broke is taking one day at a time.

More than a year after a flood swept through the tiny village of Broke in the Hunter Valley, local resident Evelyn says coping is about taking one day at a time as she tries to rebuild her life.

On July 5 last year, as floodwaters inundated her New South Wales home of more than 35 years, Evelyn was busy caring for people sheltering in the local hall turned evacuation centre. "I was the warden that night, making sure everybody who got to me was okay.

"I didn't have much time to think about what I knew was happening to my house. I had too many people to look after. We had a lady who should have been choppered out, but they had to cancel the chopper because the weather was horrific. We took turns all night, making sure she was still breathing.

"Then I had a man who was blind come in at 11pm; the fire brigade dropped him off. He was suffering from hypothermia. I had just enough water left to make him a warm cup of Milo. He was shivering; we got thermals and wrapped them around him.”

While Evelyn was helping people, her neighbour's son waded through the water to her house. "He took videos for me, and I saw everything as it panned out throughout the night.

It became surreal; you think, 'This is not really happening.'

"It was the same for most people in the hall that night. Some houses were safe; they were just told to get out. And others, their houses suffered terrible damage."

Someone who has your back

The months since the disaster hit had been incredibly hard, frustrating, and almost impossible to describe, Evelyn says. "You just don't know what to think or what the next steps are going to be. It has affected some people emotionally and mentally quite deeply.

Evelyn Hardy has lived in Broke for more than 35 years. When the flood came, she was the warden at the local evacuation centre. Photo: reproduced by permission of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation - Library Sales / Jenny Marchant © 2022 ABC

"It's been a rocky ride. The first month, everyone was walking around like zombies, that far-away look in their eyes. It was shock. I don't want to ever see that again."

Australian Red Cross Emergency Services Recovery and Resilience Officer Karen Maloney has been an enormous support to the community as people try to recover and rebuild their lives, she says. They can tell Karen wants to listen and cares about what they are going through.

"Karen's amazing. Sometimes it's hard to get people to connect; some people close down and think, 'I don't want to talk' – but she connects.

It's good to know you've got someone you can trust, and they have your back.

"Karen's always with us, getting in touch, comes to our morning teas. People have a cup of coffee with her and a chat. Everyone looks forward to her visits. She's part of the furniture now."

It’s the opportunity to unleash your feelings, too, she says. "Sometimes, I'll wake up, and something will happen. It doesn't matter what. It might be a phone call or an email saying I've got to do this. It's the same with everyone else. And you can hit a brick wall."

Sailing different ships

Karen says each person’s disaster experience is unique. “We all go into these events sailing different ships. Some might be on that big ship that’s riding fine, and others have had a tough time beforehand. It’s the luggage you take into it. And for some people, that disaster may be the thing that tips them over the edge.”

The role of Australian Red Cross is to bring people together as we help them through their recovery and build resilience for the future. “What we do is about care and comfort – my favourite words. And for me, what’s special about Red Cross is our humanitarian, impartial, non-judgmental approach. Whether you're a business owner or a single mum living in a caravan, everybody needs a bit of support sometimes.”

Australian Red Cross Emergency Services staff and volunteers have been there since the beginning. And they will be there to support the people of Broke for the long term.

"There's no line where we can say you'll feel better in 12 months or two years," Karen says.

“It can take a long time for people to start not feeling right. Some people don't recognise the trauma they've been through for many, many months.

“People have told me, ‘We know Red Cross is here for the long haul. We know a lot of services come at that initial stage and then leave.’ And it’s been reassuring for people to know Red Cross has remained a constant presence.”

Keeping the community connected

Evelyn, who is the secretary of Broke Hall and a member of the residents' association, has seen many people in her tight-knit community struggle since the flood. And she has helped organise events to support them as they recover.

"We have a morning cup of tea and chat once a month to get everybody out of the house and try to stay connected. We've done so much to keep people from floundering in all their worries.

"There was a Red Cross psychological first aid day that went down well. All of us who went thought it was so beneficial. They understood a bit more about where they were coming from, their feelings, why they were feeling the way they were, and knowing what to do.

"I've done accidental counselling, suicide prevention, first aid and mental health – you name it. But this is one I haven't done before. There was a lot I learned."

Last year's flood was the worst to hit the Broke in more than 70 years. Evelyn says it will take time for her community to recover and for life to return to some kind of normal.

"If you dwell on it too much, it takes over."

We have to face each day and deal with what comes on that day.

"Everyone has been in the same boat, some of us worse off than others."

Part of Broke Road, which connects the town to Singleton, was destroyed in the flood. Photo: supplied

Trying to find a way forward

On July 5 this year, the anniversary of the flood, she and her husband, Claude, finally received the news from their insurance company that their house was beyond repair.

They have had many challenges with builders and paperwork, and "after all this time absolutely nothing's got done. [Now], we've got to get the house knocked down, we've got to get the house rebuilt. I wouldn't have a clue where to start."

Evelyn and Claude, who have been living with their son, have decided to move back onto their land in a caravan. "We can see our front gate from my son's kitchen window. It's frustrating. We can see the house. We can see the garden. We can see our little dog.

"My husband's always down there every day, from six in the morning till six at night. He's given up the ghost, and he's going to put a bed in the house as of now. We've got to move back, and we've got to start trying to move things forward.

"We're just sitting and stagnating. It's making things so much harder and hard to get back in the swing of things."

The strength of a community

Evelyn says disasters are terrible things to live through, but they bring out the good in people.

And Broke, which celebrates its bicentennial next year, is an amazing place, she says.

"When the chips are down, we all back up and go, 'No, come on. We can fix this. We're right.' We'll get in and work towards protecting everybody. You make sure everyone comes through this."