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How Lismore’s veterans supported each other

During the town’s record-breaking floods, Lismore residents and RSL sub-Branch members joined forces with RSL LifeCare to support affected veterans.

At a glance:

  • Earlier this year, record-breaking floods caused devastating damage to homes and businesses in Lismore, impacting lives and livelihoods.
  • RSL LifeCare Veteran Services provided affected veterans with immediate $3,000 grants to help with recovery.
  • Local RSL NSW members, affected by flooding themselves, worked to connect other veterans with RSL LIfeCare Veterans Services and salvage memorabilia from the damaged sub-Branch building.

The community of Lismore, in the Northern Rivers region of NSW, endured two floods in as many months – including one that reached record-breaking levels and inundated areas long considered flood proof.

“The flood wrecked everything,” says veteran and Lismore resident Les Kelly. “We had to throw a lot of stuff away.”

He recalls the impending terror of seeing the floodwaters rise – compounded by the subsequent loss of his beloved vehicle.

“We had really heavy rain the day before,” he says. “At about six the next morning, we got a call to evacuate. I’d never been through a flood, so I didn’t know what to do.”

The evacuation was a struggle in more ways than one.

“My wife has muscular dystrophy, and I’ve got a few health problems,” he says. “I fell out of our caravan and tore my leg open. My wife had a bit of a fall and her ankle swelled up. So it’s been a real battle.

“I always considered myself a tough sort of bloke, but seeing all this has brought a tear to my eye, I can tell you.”

Ex-army transport driver John Viscoe woke on the morning of 28 February expecting to go to work, but was met by a startling sight outside.

“I looked out into the backyard and saw the water was already at least a metre deep,” he says. “Soon, the water came up through the floorboards. Everything started to fall over. All the furniture was floating.”

Tony Olive, Pension Officer at the City of Lismore RSL sub-Branch, reached safety during the worst of the flooding, but found returning home afterwards a harrowing experience.

“When you first walk inside your house after a flood has been through, you can’t even think of what it’d be like,” he says. “Your fridge is in the lounge room sitting on top of your television … It makes you cry. My daughter loves that house. Every time she broke down, I broke down.

“I’ve been a mechanic for 50 years, and all my power tools are buggered. I’ve also been saving Australiana books since I was eight years old. Everything I’ve got here in my house is lost.”

How RSL sub-Branch members answered the call

As homes went under and the risk to lives – and livelihoods – grew, residents fortunate enough not to be in immediate danger sprang into action.

One such individual was Di McClelland, Member Wellbeing Advocate at the City of Lismore RSL sub-Branch.

“I got a phone call at 4am to help veterans evacuate,” she says. “Many were trapped inside their houses with water up to their necks, waiting for someone to rescue them. You can imagine how horrific that would be.

“The damage, not only to physical structures but people’s mental health as well, has been horrific.”

As the flood waters receded, the full extent of the damage became clear, as did the need for the community to band together and help out.

Di got to work helping veterans access grants and funding to meet their immediate needs, including accommodation, essentials and food. RSL LifeCare Veteran Services stepped in to provide affected veterans with immediate $3,000 grants for any purpose, funded by the RSL NSW disaster funding contributed by RSL sub-Branches after the 2019-20 bushfire season.

In the first 10 days after the start of the floods, RSL LifeCare Veteran Services had processed and funded more than 40 applications for disaster payments, all in the Northern Rivers region, and was prepared for more. Di was a vital link facilitating contact between LifeCare and veterans in need, helping the funds reach locals quickly.

Salvaging the Lismore RSL sub-Branch

Like much of the town, the heritage-listed City of Lismore RSL sub-Branch building was completely flooded.

“It was a beautiful building, but very old,” says Di. “Water came up to the ceiling. All the walls fell in. It was a mess. We had to wait for Lismore City Council to liaise with the RSL sub-Branch to ascertain when and if we could go back into that building.”

Di and other sub-Branch members acted quickly to save precious memorabilia as the water rose.

“We salvaged a lot. We went in with a furniture truck and loaded everything onto it. Some of the photos are very old. We’re now trying to dry them and see if a photo restorer can restore them.”

Di’s husband, Wilson, is Secretary of the City of Lismore RSL sub- Branch, and sub-Branch operations had temporarily moved to their living room.

“I’ve got cabinets and computers and printers everywhere in my house. It doesn’t even look like a house anymore,” Wilson says. “Alstonville RSL sub-Branch has let us use the shed out the back of their office. We’ve got all the memorabilia stored there. We got very lucky.”

One RSL – funding disaster relief together

RSL NSW LifeCare Veteran Services is RSL NSW’s charity partner, and the grants that assisted local veterans and their families through the flood disaster were contributed by RSL sub-Branches throughout the state as part of the RSL NSW Veteran Support Fund (VSF).

Thank you to the sub-Branches who, together, contributed more than $520,000 to support RSL Lifecare Veteran Services’ disaster relief up to 31 May 2022:

  • Alstonville RSL sub-Branch
  • Armidale RSL sub-Branch
  • Ashfield RSL sub-Branch
  • Batemans Bay RSL sub-Branch
  • Berowra RSL sub-Branch
  • Bondi Junction/Waverley RSL sub-Branch
  • Botany RSL sub-Branch
  • Brighton Le Sands RSL sub-Branch
  • Bundeena RSL sub-Branch
  • Byron Bay RSL sub-Branch
  • Canterbury/Hurlstone Park RSL sub-Branch
  • Cardiff RSL sub-Branch
  • Castle Hill and District RSL sub-Branch
  • City of Bankstown RSL sub-Branch
  • City of Fairfield RSL sub-Branch
  • City of Newcastle RSL sub-Branch
  • City of Queanbeyan RSL sub-Branch
  • Collaroy RSL sub-Branch
  • Five Dock RSL sub-Branch
  • Forestville RSL sub-Branch
  • Forster-Tuncurry RSL sub-Branch
  • Gundagai RSL sub-Branch
  • Holbrook RSL sub-Branch
  • Hornsby RSL sub-Branch
  • Karuah RSL sub-Branch
  • Laurieton RSL sub-Branch
  • Maroubra RSL sub-Branch
  • Moruya RSL sub-Branch
  • Pittwater RSL sub-Branch
  • Smithfield RSL sub-Branch
  • Southern Metropolitan District Council
  • Wagga Wagga RSL sub-Branch
  • Westpac Banking Corporation RSL sub-Branch
  • Woronora River RSL sub-Branch
  • Wyong RSL sub-Branch

To track contributions to the VSF and see where sub-Branch support could make the greatest impact, visit the VSF dashboard.

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