Australian co-op sector responds to catastrophic Queensland and NSW floods

‘As in previous disasters, we know that co-ops and mutuals will play a pivotal role in rebuilding their local communities’

As floods continue to wreak havoc in New South Wales and Queensland, the Australian co-op sector is stepping up its relief efforts.

The floods – which Queensland state premier Annastacia Palaszczuk say are ‘unprecedented’ in scale – have so far caused 16 reported deaths and impacted hundreds of thousands of peoplem with homes, workplaces and community facilities inundated with record levels of floodwaters.

At its worst, the disaster left the city of Lismore, NSW, submerged, with some residents forced to sit on their rooftops awaiting rescue, after more than 700mm of rainfall fell in just 30 hours.

In some areas the enormous task of cleaning up has begun, while elsewhere there remains an anxious wait for the forecasted floodwaters.

Responding to the crisis, the Australia Mutuals Foundation, the mutual sector’s charitable fund, has activated its emergency / disaster relief donations portal to accept donations from the Australian co-operative and mutual community.

The donations portal was last activated in 2020 to receive hundreds of thousands of dollars in national and overseas donations from co-ops and mutuals towards relief for the 2020 bushfires.

Once again, 100% of donations received by AMF will be used for the social and public welfare of those affected and to help communities to recover from the flood disaster. Co-ops and mutuals headquartered in the flood zones will help inform how funds should be directed for maximum benefit and impact.

Related: Australia’s credit unions and farm co-ops face bushfire challenges

Sector body the Business Council of Cooperatives and Mutuals (BCCM) says many of its member co-ops are at the epicentre of some of the most extreme flooding, including Norco dairy, Summerland Credit Union and TNR Accountants in Lismore, and Heritage Bank in Toowoomba.

On its website, BCCM reports that bcu branches are closed in Brisbane, Murwillumbah, Lismore, Ballina, Iluka, Grafton and Toormina.

Clarence River Fishermen’s Co-operative “has been taking it hour by hour for now. Their community spirit and resilience in managing the challenges has shone through,” it adds.

HCF Health Insurance’s Lismore branch is badly impacted.

The office of co-op member Koori Mail were destroyed in the floods, forcing it to miss its first publication date in its 30 year existence. The Mail is fortnightly newspaper for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, owned by five Indigenous Australian community co-ops, and its team have been helping evacuate remote Indigenous communities.

Nundah Community Enterprises Co-op lost $10,000 worth of stock and equipment in soccer club canteens, which it runs to provide work opportunities to people from refugee backgrounds. Despite this, Nundah Community Enterprises Co-op teams are assisting with cleanup.

RapidClean’s Lismore branch was destroyed (Southern Cross Cleaning).

Summerland Credit Union suffered significant damage to its Lismore branch and head office. The upper floors of the head office may be available in one to two months but the branch will take more than six months, says BCCM. A second multi-storey commercial building in the CBD owned by SCU was similarly damaged. The tenants are a welfare organisation

TNR Accounting offices have been destroyed.

The Casino Food Co-operative has been a centre point for recovery and food distribution hub from the commencement of the flood event. They have used hard and soft assets in the emergency effort including refrigeration plant and equipment, plant and forklifts to operate food and emergency distribution hub, chopper pad, fuel tanks, mobile generators, earth moving equipment. Staff, including plant workers and cleaning teams, have volunteered for the relief effort and are cleaning homes and assisting with food distribution.

Multiple organisations have closed branches, adds BCCM, but it is unclear at this stage whether they are flooded or just inaccessible.

In a Facebook message to members, Norco dairy CEO Michael Hampson said: “A huge region from South East Queensland down into Northern New South Wales and parts of Sydney have experienced a flood event never before seen in history.

“Our thoughts go out to all people that are suffering devastation, loss and hardship over this time. The Northern Rivers region of NSW has been particularly hard hit and unfortunately, the Norco Lismore based facilities, including our heritage listed ice-cream factory, have been inundated with floodwaters. We are rallying together to get through the clean-up process and it must be said that the courageous efforts and support of our community in the wake of this tragedy has been nothing short of inspirational.

Flooding at a Norco site

“The Norco team continue to work diligently to get milk and supplies to flood affected areas and we will continue to focus on this over the coming days and weeks during the clean-up efforts. Again, we thank you for your ongoing support. Together we will rise from this devastation stronger than ever. We are proud to be part of the Northern Rivers Family.”

Other members with operations in the flood areas in NSW and Southern Queensland include RACQ, Great Southern Bank, bcu, Queensland Country Bank, Union Co-operative Society, Marquis Macadamias, Ballina Fishermens Co-op, Clarence River Fisherman’s Co-op, OzGroup and Casino Food Co-op.

Nundah Community Enterprises Co-op has confirmed stock and equipment losses to the value of AU$10,000, which were vital supplies for the soccer club canteens they operate that provide people from refugee backgrounds with work opportunities.

BCCM added: “Co-ops and mutuals are already active in their local communities, assisting with practicalities and offering comfort. RACQ has been involved on the front lines over the past few days and has also brought in additional resources to manage insurance claims.

“Teams from Nundah Community Enterprises Co-op are out assisting with the clean-up despite their own losses. We also know many individuals from the BCCM community will have their own stories of community care and resilience as they carry the co-operative spirit with them in all they do.

“Our hearts break as we read the emerging stories and try to comprehend the magnitude of this disaster. In some regions, the clean-up and recovery will take months, or even years. Stock, infrastructure and capital losses have a profound effect on businesses, not to mention workers who are also faced with personal losses at home. Off the back of the pandemic, as well as bushfires in some regions, this is yet another trauma. However, as in previous disasters, we know that co-ops and mutuals will play a pivotal role in rebuilding their local communities.”

BCCM says its CEO Melina Morrison has travelled to Canberra to inform policymakers of the impact of co-ops and mutuals in flood-impacted regions, “who are problem-solving and responding to the disaster with local knowledge and solutions”.

Last year, BCCM drew on the co-op sector’s experience of responding to the bushfires to call for co-ops and mutuals to be involved in state disaster planning.

Co-ops on the front lines include the Casino Food Co-op, which is operating the food and emergency donation centre to get essential supplies to the region, and Summerland Credit Union which is leading the establishment of an emergency banking hub for multiple banks at Southern Cross University to service hundreds of members across the region with cash and banking services.

Donations to support the co-op effort in Australia can be made to the Australian Mutuals Foundation.