A MOUNT Gambier social worker witnessed first-hand the impacts of the River Murray flooding on Riverland communities after volunteering for three weeks to support affected residents.
ac.care Limestone Coast foster care service manager Sherri Winter was a welcoming and compassionate presence for residents seeking support at the Riverland emergency relief centre in Berri.
Ms Winter was one of several ac.care staff deployed to emergency relief centres established in Berri, Mannum and Murray Bridge as part of an emergency response agreement between ac.care and the South Australian Housing Authority.
Initially forging a connection with the lead flood response group, as well as forming an internal flood relief committee in early December, ac.care canvassed interest from staff regarding voluntary deployment to the relief centres as recovery officers.
Ms Winter travelled to Berri three times to offer support, starting with an initial eight-day stint in early December, followed by another eight days over the New Year period, returning for a third stay from January 9-15.
Working as a relief officer in the makeshift hub at the Berri Senior Citizens Club, Ms Winter was often the first person residents spoke to for support after being affected by rising water levels.
“Our role was to help assess people’s eligibility for financial support, such as government grants, , assist people who had been displaced due to utilities being cut-off, as well as people seeking emergency accommodation,” Ms Winter said.
“I also gave out many Foodbank parcels and the local Woolworths and Foodland stores had also donated food vouchers for us to give out to affected people.
“A big part of it was just being willing to listen, to show compassion and try to understand what these people were going through.
“It was then important where possible to provide people with the information they needed to receive support or to refer them to services that could help.”
In many instances, Ms Winter said she was faced with people who were uncertain of what impact the floods would have on their livelihoods.
“Other natural disasters, such as bushfires, can have an immediate and clear impact, but a lot of people could only watch and wait to see this disaster unfold over a longer period,” she said.
“That uncertainty weighed on them and the mental health impact of that was certainly an important consideration.”
Ms Winter said while not being a local meant she had limited understanding of the normal water levels of the area, she said there were many obvious signs of significant flooding.
“There were just the tips of signs poking out, plenty of trees underwater and scrub covered – it was quite confronting to see,” she said.
“Many roads were flooded and closed, even getting to Berri took an additional 40 minutes having to detour through Renmark and Paringa rather than going through Loxton with the Bookpurnong road completely submerged.
“It was surprising how fast the river was flowing.”
In her last week in Berri, Ms Winter said the focus was shifting towards recovery as relief officers started to log tasks for people requiring clean-up assistance and service reconnections with the flood waters receding in the Riverland.
“The State Government’s announcement of the $300 travel grant on January 8 meant many people attending the centre were looking for reimbursement of the additional costs they had been accruing due to the road closures, which caused a significant increase in travel times to local townships.”
ac.care chief executive officer Shane Maddocks said the agency was proud to shift outside its normal scope of service delivery to support affected communities.
“The River Murray flooding has had a significant impact on many people throughout the Riverland and Murraylands and it was important to our agency that we played a role in providing care and support for those affected in these communities, which are within areas where we have provided other services for decades,” Mr Maddocks said.
“Our staff who live in the area continue to be impacted by the flooding, whether it be directly or through their families and friends, but our agency as a whole has galvanised throughout this crisis to ensure our services continue and people receive the support they need, when they need it.
“It has been inspiring to see the willingness of our staff to make changes and in some instances completely shift their lives for over a week to support each other and the communities we call home.”
In addition to the deployment of recovery officers, ac.care has deployed four financial wellbeing program staff and two Community Connections staff across the Berri, Mannum and Murray Bridge centres.
Staff are continuing involvement in the flood recovery centres, providing four elements of the financial wellbeing program – information (preventative and responding to crisis), connection to a broad range of services, financial counselling and emergency financial assistance.
Visit www.sa.gov.au/topics/emergencies-and-safety/river-murray-flood for the latest information and advice on the River Murray flood.