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Byron Shire
July 7, 2022

Coordinating search and rescues in Lismore from a kitchen table in Lennox Head

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Claire Sowden helped coordinate search and rescue missions in Lismore from her kitchen table in Lennox Head. PIC: Supplied

Claire Sowden isn’t a member of the SES, the police, nor any government department.

She isn’t on the council, she isn’t an activist and she doesn’t represent a charity.

The Lennox Head mother of three isn’t even an influencer, although she does do marketing.

Yet somehow, like so many otherwise ordinary civilians, Ms Sowden found herself responding to relentless calls for urgent help as the Northern Rivers flood emergency took over on Monday 28 February 2022.

By early afternoon, Ms Sowden was helping coordinate search and rescue efforts in Lismore from her kitchen table in Lennox Head, with social media her primary tool.

Community Facebook group flooded in sync with Lismore

‘My kids go to school in Lismore,’ Ms Sowden said a few days later, ‘we all know that Lismore floods’.

‘At the school, we were prepared as most of town were prepared.’

But browsing social media from her home high up on the coast in Lennox Head, Ms Sowden quickly saw that not only was Lismore rapidly inundated like never before, so was one of the Facebook groups she’d ‘jumped on’: with urgent requests for help.

‘The problem was that a lot of those posts, some of them were being held in moderation,’ Ms Sowden said, ’so I just reached out to the moderator, and I said, “hey mate, do you want a hand?”’.

‘Long story short, I ended up a temporary moderator on a Facebook group.’

‘Standing in water up to their neck,’: Lismore flood victims

‘We had people who were posting, saying, for example, “hey, my older relative or friend has called me and he or she is standing in water up to their neck or their chest”, or “they’re sitting on their kitchen bench, they can’t get into their cavity, there’s no way this person can climb into their roof cavity”,’ Ms Sowden recounted.

‘And they knew that the water was still obviously rising,’ Ms Sowden said.

‘I had seen the videos of how much it had risen, I think it took something like half an hour for it to go two meters in the main street,’ Ms Sowden said.

‘No one expected it to go so fast, so a lot of people were caught out.’

Crucial details required for emergency calls

Ms Sowden said she could see people were calling SES and Triple Zero on behalf of others stranded in Lismore.

‘I think the first thing that happened was we realised that when you call in an emergency services, there are certain details that you need,’ Ms Sowden said.

‘You need the address, and you need the nearest cross street, you need the person’s full name, you need the age, the number of people there, what medical condition they are,’ Ms Sowden said, ‘and you need to know what the water level is in their house’.

‘I just sort of started asking those questions,’ she said.

Social media users direct hundreds of rescues in Lismore

With the help of other social media uses, Ms Sowden was able to use the crucial details of people trapped by floodwaters in and on houses to direct rescue crews.

‘I think especially as it started to get dark, we knew that the SES were not going to be able to operate,’ Ms Sowden said.

Power, communications and water treatment systems were quickly lost in Lismore, leaving many to face a terrifying night wondering if they would be rescued, navigating dangerous waters in search of those stuck in flood ravaged buildings, or desperately hoping loved ones would be saved.

‘So as that first night sort of rolled around, I was just trying to connect people with information and let them know that the call had been logged and trying to keep people in contact with each other,’ Ms Sowden said.

‘By nightfall there had been some people who had been sitting on rooftops for hours,’ she said.

Ms Sowden said while she had little time to keep track of how many calls she was responding to, there was a group of others collating and sorting the information.

‘At some point, when I looked at the list, there were in the order of maybe 150 who had been logged as rescued and maybe 150 who were outstanding,’ she remembered.

She stayed up until two am andwas up again within a few hours.

‘Sometimes I just need to have a cry, and then I need to stand up and keep going,’ says volunteer community search and rescue coordinator

Adrenalin kept Ms Sowden going but the mental and emotional toll of what she was handling wasn’t lost on her.

‘I’ve learned that sometimes I just need to have a cry,’ Ms Sowden said, ‘and then I need to stand up again and keep going’.

‘And there are lots of those moments.’

She recalled the first official death reported as a result of Lismore’s record-breaking flood, a woman in her eighties.

‘We knew that she hadn’t been saved,’ Ms Sowden said, ‘and that’s really hard’.

‘There was a family and they said their house was coming apart,’ she continued, ‘and they’re inside and they had, you know, small kids’.

‘Every time someone is in a disaster with little kids, you immediately just think about what that would be like with your own kids,’ the mother of three said.

As of Monday 14 March, there hadn’t been any reports of children to have died as a result of the Northern Rivers emergency but plenty of children, including babies, who narrowly escaped.

Ms Sowden spoke to The Echo again ten days after the flood in Lismore and called for people to take stock of the mental load they’d taken on so far.

A chance to debrief was essential after non-stop presure and anxiety during the crisis, Ms Sowden said, and she directed people to a resource shared by Resilience NSW.

After ten days of relentless volunteer community help in the Northern RIvers flood crisis, Claire Sowden of Lennox Head said she found this resource from Resilience NSW helpful.

Lismore’s tragedy just the beginning

But even while responding to the crisis in Lismore, Ms Sowden soon realised the region’s catastrophe was only just beginning.

‘Lismore was Monday and that is so long ago in my memory because of course, Lismore is one point on the river.’ Ms Sowden said on the Thursday immediately afterward.

‘I knew that that water from Lismore was eventually going to reach the town that’s much closer to me, and I could see that I could help further downstream,’ she said.

‘So I think the next day, Tuesday, I then started trying to warn people in Ballina’.

The true devastation of the river’s trajectory was just beginning to dawn on people.

Flooding near Ballina Fair, 2 March 2022. Photo David Lowe.

Reports of chaos, delays at Lismore hospital

Speaking to The Echo three days after Lismore’s flood, a day after Ballina’s flood and soon after Lennox Head residents were told to evacuate, Ms Sowden said she was worried about the Lismore Base Hospital’s ability to cope.

Ms Sowden said a a friend’s relative had recently been into the hospital for a surgery and reported many people with broken arms and legs, vomiting.

‘There are people who have been pulled out a floodwaters and they’re sitting in the waiting room,’ Ms Sowden said.

Ms Sowden said she was really worried that people would die a week or two after the floods hit and wouldn’t be considered flood victims.

‘Because they’ll die of something else,’ she said.

Recent media reports have featured people in Lismore describing terrible infections as a result of cleaning up in flood waters, usually when wounds are exposed.

Others have described being bedridden for up to three days and bouts of nausea.

Concerns have also been expressed in local social media groups over the ability to physically distance and stay COVID-safe in evacuation centres.

Concerned mother calls for army hospital in Lismore

‘This is absolutely no criticism of the hospital because I know that those people are working so hard,’ Ms Sowden said.

‘We were driving meals to them before the floods, to look after those staff members,’ she said, ‘and this week they’re staff members who have lost their homes, who are trying to turn up and do their jobs’.

‘I’m outside of the chain of command, so I can speak to those things,’ Ms Sowden said, ‘I’m just a concerned mother in Lennox Head’.

‘So I’m allowed to say to our prime minister: right, where is the army, like where are the big guns in terms of resources?’

‘We need a field hospital for Lismore.’

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