Like so many across the country and the world, Susie Russell sat and watched the tragedy of the February 28 floods unfold on social media.
When she saw on Facebook that some of her mates were out in a dinghy rescuing people, and the scale of what was happening was starting to become apparent, she felt that she couldn’t sit at home and do nothing while there was a major disaster in her region.
‘Some of my friends had lost everything in their homes. I wanted to know what I could do that would be useful, not be in the way, and not use the resources of those who needed them. A day later I saw posts from people that they had no food. So I asked my partner Greg and friend, Jane, if they would come and do a soup kitchen in Lismore.’
Susie and her growing crew spent a few days collecting the bits and pieces, including gumboots, cleaning gear, a bulk dry food order from Sydney and a delivery of coffee and fresh veggies and fruit.
‘Our local egg farm gave us 200 dozen eggs, another friend offered to come to help us get all the gear to Lismore and dropped off boxes of eggs at Tumbulgum, The Channon, Broadwater, Woodburn, Koori Mail etc…’
Trees Not Bombs at the Quad
Susie and Co first set up at the train station, but after a day it was clear that was the wrong location. ‘I went to the Quad where the official services were setting up and said we had a soup kitchen. They gave us a place to operate from, so we moved there.’
Susie says at first it was the original crew, but slowly others have joined in and either brought food or cooked on-site or chopped veggies, ferried water, washed dishes or made coffee.
This is not the first time Susie has cooked for the masses. ‘In 2019 when our village was surrounded by fire and most people had evacuated, I cooked a meal at the old sawmill for the local brigade – that developed into the Community Support Hub.
‘For three weeks we had a 24-hour roster. We fed everyone who turned up including all the rotating fire crews from Forestry. It made me acutely aware of how important it is in a time of catastrophe, to have somewhere to sit and eat and talk (if you want to). Somewhere to get a real hot meal. Particularly vego and vegan options – sausage sizzles only go so far.
‘Also during that fire experience when our house was actually surrounded by fire, two complete strangers turned up and helped for a few hours and it just made such a difference to me mentally having that happen – so I know how appreciated help from outside is. It shows you are not forgotten and turns a major effort into a shared experience that takes or lessens the stress.’
Somewhere ‘normal’ to sit and eat
Susie says people are very grateful for hot wholesome food. ‘It’s somewhere “normal” to sit and eat it. Somewhere to meet others. We try and do takeaways as well. Quite a few regulars help with doing the dishes.
‘We’ve served 300 to 400 hot meals a day and unlimited tea, chai and plunger coffee. We’ve aimed to have sweet treats too. If we have any excess of anything we put it on the free takeaway table. We have given out a couple of dozen mosquito nets, hundreds of bottles of mozzie repellent and other toiletries, and always have fresh fruit to go, and sometimes biscuits.’
While technically ‘retired’, Susie fills her days with a variety of voluntary jobs. She has been with NEFA since the early days and she is also involved with the North Coast Environment Council. Recently she has also joined the board of the Rainforest Information Centre among others.
When she first thought to do the café, the idea was a collaboration between the old NEFA liberation cafe and Food Not Bombs in Newcastle who run a regular soup kitchen.
She changed the name to Trees Not Bombs.
It’s not a war zone, it just looks like one
‘I used “Trees” because the flooding is the result of decades of catchment mismanagement and the clearing of the rainforest and logging of steep hills and not having legal requirements to protect streamside vegetation, so there is nothing to slow the water.
I used “Not Bombs” because, although Lismore looked like a war zone with its middens of household possessions, there weren’t bombs falling. Not like in Ukraine or Yemen or anywhere else where people can’t go about repairing their lives or environment because there are actually bombs falling on them. And also because the ‘COALition’ are investing big time in weaponry from jets to subs and tanks but also armament factories – but only token peanuts for biodiversity, koalas, catchment repair.
‘Trees Not Bombs is to remind everyone that we need a reversal in priorities. Put caring for people and the earth first. If we do that we won’t need submarines and tanks.’
Cooperation is the key to survival
Susie says that her experience is that, in the face of disaster many people realise that cooperation is the key to survival.
‘Working together, much more can be achieved. I know that the community self-organised in other Northern Rivers communities to support each other and reach out to those isolated.
‘That said, I think having many years of thinking and practising solidarity, mutual aid and being involved in organising and collaborations helps a lot. It’s more than that too, the spirit generated by volunteer service during an emergency is personally very rewarding for all involved, givers and receivers.
Floods: take 2
After supporting people for over two weeks, one month after the floods began, the SES told Trees Not Bombs they had to break camp when the second major flood warning came on March 28.
As the rain began on Monday afternoon the entire café was packed into trailers and moved to higher ground, but yesterday, as soon as the area was clear, Trees Not Bombs rose again and by lunchtime, they had already served up dozens of hot meals and cuppas to very grateful residents, volunteers and emergency workers in Lismore.
The café gets enough donations to cover most of its expenses. They get support from Koori Mail for some of the fresh veggies and the other food distribution centres for some of the canned goods. ‘Otherwise, we go to the Goonellabah supermarkets, where life goes on, unchanged.’
Susie says that so far they have managed ‘staffing’ the café with the original crew taking shifts going south for breaks and work, but after Easter, they need to have it wholly locally run.
Time for the locals to take over
A roster of locals has been started to prepare and cook food and staff the café.
Susie says the feedback from those involved is that it is a really uplifting experience. ‘We are doing something tangible and much needed. It still shocks me thinking about the hole there would be if we weren’t here. There are now probably dozens of people involved in various ways in the essential role we are playing in the recovery.’
You can support the café at their GoFundMe page or in person at the kitchen.
If you would like to lend a hand just ask any of the awesome crew of helpers. If you’d like to provide some cooked food, text Annie on 0428 996 054.