A random act of kindness from a stranger during the flood crisis reminds Sunny Grace of the value of good Samaritans and the importance of paying it forward.
The past fortnight has seen devastating floods in Queensland and Northern NSW, with Sydney now bearing the brunt. The frequency and magnitude of these floods is increasing with each decade, it seems. I am based in Ballina Heights these days. Heights being the operative word. We watched in horror as Lismore went under. On Wednesday, 2 March, we woke to alerts from the NSW SES, telling people in low-lying areas of Ballina to evacuate. The next alert from NSW Health advised us Ballina Hospital had been evacuated and closed until further notice.
The sound of flood rain is one you come to recognise when you live in these parts. When I was a little girl living in the Bellingen Shire, we would hear it drumming on the school roof and know the buses were on their way to pick us up early before the bridges went under. There was one occasion when the bridge near our house was underwater before the bus could get through. I had to spend the night at the bus driver and his wife’s house. There was no way to let my mum know as the phone lines were down. I think I must have been about nine or ten.
When the rain set in here last week, it was relentless. Sheets and sheets of water running down the roof, the gutters, the streets. We kept up to date with the state of things via the websites and Facebook pages of Ballina Shire Council and the SES. Deadmans Creek was flooding, followed by Tamarind Drive. We weren’t sure if we could get to town anymore.
By Thursday morning, we had lost communication. No phones, no NBN. The only news we could get was SKY and it was showing repeats of the Lismore emergency. We had no idea what was happening in Ballina. Driving down to the roundabout, we discovered Tamarind Drive was no longer a road, more like a river. The roundabout was flooded except for our saving grace, the exit ramp, which had been turned into a two-way and local traffic could travel north to get supplies. Down south, the highway was cut and north from Bangalow, water over the road meant it was closed that way too.
We were under stay-at-home orders in Ballina Heights so as not to add to the chaos down below, but I needed my mental health medication. It was going to run out. To come off quickly can have very bad side effects. My husband and I shared this with the lovely council worker at the end of our street who was tasked with keeping everyone home as much as possible. He heard my pleas and shared, “I’m on them myself. I know what it’s like.”
In the car to Bangalow, we had phone reception long enough to call my mum and let her know I was ok. In town, people walked around trying to stock up. Petrol was $2.50 per litre with a very long queue down the road. The chemist was teeming with people getting prescriptions filled. We stocked up on some chicken, the only thing available in the butcher, then bread from the bakery and some milk before returning home.
The following two days without internet were slow and strange. Every now and again, a text would come through from a friend or relative asking if we were okay. I replied we were fine. The texts might take a day to go through. I tried not to let anxiety take hold and reverted to my long-term comfort mechanism, reading books.
We could see the destruction around us through the news broadcast. We heard whispers of the lack of support from neighbours who had family in town and in Lismore. And yet, up here on the hill, not much changed. My house was full of damp washing trying to dry. But overall, we were untouched. An island in the hills with a moat down below.
We were running low on petrol and heard there was going to be a shortage, so we attempted to drive to Byron, apparently not really affected either. But no luck. With the highway cut off in two directions, supply dried up. Abandoned cars lined the roads and petrol bowsers, like a scene out of a movie. Luckily, a friend had enough fuel in his lawnmower for us to get home.
The next day we heard the highway was open again. My husband got a lift to the petrol station and filled up the jerry can. We headed out to stock up again, as more storms were predicted. I grabbed some cash out of an ATM at the Bangalow pub. Many shops were without internet and therefore no EFTPOS or card facilities. It is a folly to rely on the internet in times of natural disaster and war. Once again the shelves were bare, but we managed to get enough for dinner. On Saturday morning we drove to Bangalow again. The farmer’s market was running, meaning we were able to get some fresh vegetables, then onto Lennox to the chemist and supermarket.
I needed eye drops from the chemist, required to manage a thyroid eye condition. I took them to the counter only to discover they too could only take cash and I had used mine at the supermarket. I was going to put them back when the woman standing beside me with $50 in her hand offered to pay for them.
“They are the expensive ones,” I said.
“How much?” she queried. The shop attendant rang them up. $32. “That is expensive,” the woman exclaimed and handed over the money. “Don’t worry I have lots of money. Just lost my house in Lismore but I have money,” she said.
The guilt I already felt due to our fortunate house on the hill being untouched made my stomach churn even more. I replied, “Thanks so much but I can’t.”
The woman handed the money over “Too late!” she exclaimed, and smiled at me.
I responded, “We have an under the house section if you need somewhere to stay.”
She cut me off with, “I never want to see under a house ever again.”
I thanked her again, not knowing what else to do. We stood there a moment together and I could see it meant a lot to her to help me. To not be a victim but a member of a community where we are all affected in one way or another. To feel like she hasn’t lost everything.
Her parting words were, “Pay it forward.”
While it has been devastating to see the damage, loss of lives and homes, combined with a lack of resources to deal with such a huge catastrophe, it restores hope to see communities rally together to help each other through the tough times.
And if you are one of the lucky ones who came through relatively unscathed or who has the resources to help others, I reckon we all follow in the footsteps of my good Samaritan and pay it forward.
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