The tenacity and resilience of surf lifesavers has been demonstrated to great effect over recent weeks, as the tiny Tathra community struggles in the aftermath of the recent devastating fires.
From the first responders who assisted with the evacuation effort, to continuing to manage a makeshift disaster recovery centre, the team from Tathra SLSC have been an enormous support to the community as they attempt to return to normal.
Tathra Club Captain Justin Gouvernet says it highlights the unique capability of Surf Life Saving to deal with emergency situations and act as the backbone of small communities when tragedies strike.
The small Far South Coast hamlet is no stranger to dealing with tragedy. In 2008 the community was rocked by the deaths of Shane O’Neill and his two infant sons in a fishing accident off Tathra Wharf and again in 2014 when Christine Armstrong was taken by a shark while swimming in the bay.
“Surf clubs really come into their own after these events,” said Justin. “One of the major roles we can play is to support the community so people don’t feel like they’re on their own.”
In the early hours of Sunday afternoon, 18 March, the Tathra surf club members were finishing their rostered patrol. Winds were gale force from the north west and there was a plume of smoke coming from that direction.
The fire jumped the Bega River 1.5km from Tathra, setting houses on fire as it tore towards the town. “It came in a straight line towards us, really fast. The emergency services had bugger all time to warn people,” said Justin.
The callout teams from the Tathra and Pambula surf clubs were contacted to help with evacuations. A number of IRBs and a jet ski headed up the river in case people needed to be rescued via water. Bermagui surf club became a makeshift evacuation centre to offer support to evacuated Tathra residents.
People soon began arriving at the beach to take refuge, but the thick smoke made the situation extremely difficult. Police and the RFS were telling residents to leave town and head to Bega and Bermagui. While Justin remained to protect his home, in the lead up to the evacuation he was amazed looking down from his balcony to see people still playing lawn bowls at the club below as the fire raced towards town.
By Monday morning mop up operations began and the town was empty except for emergency services, damage assessors and news reporters. Most residents were in Bega waiting for the all clear to return. On Wednesday residents began arriving and a handful of club members swung into action, setting up the club as a recovery centre, accepting donated food and providing a venue for recovery services workers. Donations of food and clothing began to flood in.
The club’s young IRB captain, Max Harris, took on the job of coordinator and as people began returning to town, they headed to the surf club to access food and other services from disaster welfare groups who were stationed there including St Vincent de Paul, Disaster Welfare, Red Cross, Salvation Army and Anglicare.
“Max did a great job, as did Loretta Chapple the Club Secretary who took over coordinating this support, making up food and toiletries packs and distributing them around town. The role these members performed was as much about looking after people’s mental wellbeing as it was physical,” said Justin. “Keeping people positive is vital, making them feel like they’ve not been left on their own.”
The role the club and its members performed during the emergency and continues to play, shows the value of Surf Life Saving, particularly in small coastal towns.
“Everybody pulled together and this is where the surf club worked so well. We had the cooking facilities, storage for food and equipment, including being able to store things like chainsaws, rakes and hoes in the boatshed and we had space for people to camp on the floor.
“Surf Lifesavers are also organised, competent and fit people who cope well in a crisis. As volunteers we want to contribute,” said Justin.
Amazingly, while a number of club members were personally impacted by the fire and lost or sustained damage to their own homes, patrols on the beach continued as usual the following weekend as well as competitors attending the Branch Senior and Nipper carnivals at Pambula Beach.
“I think everyone wanted to be of use as well as getting back to some routine. We could also just get together as a group and talk about what had happened,” said Justin.
Two weeks on as the recovery centre winds down and Tathra locals move into the rebuild phase, the club remains an important point of connection for the community with a charity still providing food, household items and clothing to residents in need.
“Our Nippers area is still being used as a grocery and clothing store and where our water safety gear normally hangs is a rack of bras,” laughed Justin.
Team Rubicon are a group of defence force veterans and emergency first responders who are based at the club and using the facilities. They arrived soon after people returned to Tathra and are helping with the clean-up operation. “Our veterans want to continue to serve,” said Geoff Evans, an Afghanistan campaign vet and CEO of Team Rubicon Australia. “Our skills fit well in a disaster zone, it helps us all, your community and also our vets to transition into civilian life,” he said.
“They are a great help with a ‘can do’ attitude and the organisational skills they bring,” Justin said. “We were all gobsmacked when we learnt Team Rubicon Australia is only one year old and had borrowed money from their global organisation to come and help us in Tathra.
“From the club’s perspective, it’s been a strangely positive experience and most importantly, there were no deaths. We hope we don’t have to deal with emergency situations but it’s good to know we can when they happen.”
SLSNSW has launched an appeal to provide much needed relief to the communities impacted by the Tathra bushfires. Donations can be made here: bit.ly/TathraSLSNSWAppeal.
Friday 13 April 2018