Our shining lights in natural disasters – how schools rise and grow stronger
“When we get knocked down, we get back up again – that’s part of our catchcry.” – Doug Ambrose OAM, Bundaberg East State School principal.
Relationships... Building them is something Doug Ambrose is not only known for, he’s lauded for it. Students and families hold on to their affection for Bundaberg East State School (BESS)—where Mr Ambrose has been the principal for 25 years—long after they leave.
Relationships are the cornerstone of great teaching; it turns out they are also the cornerstone of surviving a natural disaster.
BESS made national headlines in January 2013 when it was hit by a flood that ran through every classroom. They had been hit before, in 2011, but as Mr Ambrose explains “that was just a puppy”—2013 was the real thing.
Astonishingly, despite the extraordinary damage wreaked across the school, it reopened for half of its students within three days. The other half came on day five. Students continued to move around the school for months before some were back in their original classrooms.
Four years on the clean-up is still legendary, and the leadership of Doug Ambrose saw him awarded an Order of Australia Medal last year.
Mr Ambrose said he was determined at the time to ensure that students returned as quickly as possible to their classes to give them surety and routine.
“I think it has melded them into a unique group in that that unity and that strength, and that resilience is still there and we use that—we are proud of that,” Mr Ambrose says.
When anything comes, when we get knocked down, we get back up again – that’s part of our catchcry that we do on parade every Monday.
And that’s exactly what Mr Ambrose did in 2013.
Mr Ambrose said he first got a call before the flood was due to hit, with a predicted measure of where the river would rise to, so he went around and marked buildings at that height.
“I knew we were going to lose all the low lying buildings all down near Ann St; I knew most of them would go under. So we went through all those buildings and we lifted up stuff and cleared stuff and put stuff on tables and benches and desks. Most of the teachers and staff here are brilliant and so are the parents – they all came in on that day,” he says.
Thinking they were done, Mr Ambrose then worked with staff to clean out the homes of local residents, ensuring their furniture and goods were safe. The rain continued throughout the afternoon and when Mr Ambrose returned to check in on the school at 8pm, he was shocked.
“There was water everywhere,” he says.
The initial predictions were wrong. The next morning he would be rung with a new prediction, and he headed to school with others by boat.
“We came in and the lower buildings that I knew we were going to lose, well, they were gone,” Mr Ambrose says.
“It was coming up to all the buildings… so we went through all those buildings and lifted everything up; we lifted-up filing cabinets and photocopiers and put everything up and we just worked our way through. As we went through, the water was coming in behind us in the block that was below us, it was running into the block as we were lifting stuff up.”
They continued to move through the buildings, lifting things to higher ground. With some blocks it worked well, but not those that had carpet.
“The carpet just blew up off the floor and floated up and tipped all the desks and the tables and everything over,” he says.
There was a lot they did save: all the books in the library, the reading resources, photocopiers, computer equipment.
“We saved a lot of stuff because we kept coming back – during the day we came back two or three times and as the water came up we just kept shifting stuff higher and higher.”
During the day they reacted, during the night they planned. Two other families moved in to Mr Ambrose’s place as their homes went under.
“While we were under water, we were all planning and working,” Mr Ambrose says.
“I organised generators, we went through and we bought buckets and mud boots and cleaning gear, we bought disinfectant, we organised gurneys; we made sure we had everything ready to move and as the water went down, as the buildings started to come out, we actually started work (cleaning) on the first building.”
The support rushed in.
“There were parents, there were teachers and staff from other schools – backpackers rocked up down here—everybody just came in—past students, there was a swag of past students and past parents, everybody kind of galvanised on the place because it was so important to get this place back up and running because, without the school in operation, you lose so much in your sense of identity over this side of town,” he says.
The Army came. So did the Prime Minister. There were community services on the ground for students, parents and the local community.
Looking back on it, Mr Ambrose says the experience reinforced the value of the connectivity he and BESS school staff have with students, their families and the local community.
“What I’ve learnt is the importance of the relationships and the credibility, is essential. You need to have those relationships,” he says.
“You can’t wait for something to roll in and hit you before you start to build, you need to build those relationships in advance. You need to make sure that kids and the community feel like they belong in that school setting, that they’re part of that school setting. That it’s their school, it’s our school – we all own this together.
“That sense of ownership and sense of belonging then gives you the ability to react to whatever rolls in on top of you.
“I think that our job, especially in this school, is all about relationships. If you haven’t got those strong relationships with your kids, you’ve got no relationship with your parents, you’ve got no relationships anywhere.
“Those relationships, they are at the very, very heart and core of what we do.”