How schools triumphed over natural disasters
“Start by doing what’s necessary, then do what’s possible and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”
–St Francis of Assisi, quoted in a St Catherine’s Catholic College newsletter.
Cyclone Debbie wasn’t meant to hit Proserpine.
For days in late March this year the slow-moving cyclone was predicted to cross the coast at Townsville.
At St Catherine’s Catholic College, a Kindergarten to Year 12 college in Proserpine, information was initially sent out to staff and the school community preparing them for the effects of rain expected to come with the cyclone.
Teachers were asked to disconnect electrical appliances and raise them off the floors, secure windows and doors and ensure outside of classrooms were clear of debris. But then the weekend came and Debbie dropped “slightly”. Staff and school community members came in to sandbag the doors, tie down outdoor equipment and turn off power and solar, but it was too late to safely complete bigger jobs like taking shade sails down. As Co-College Principal David Burke puts it, it was time to batten down.
North Queensland is not new to cyclones, but it doesn’t stop the heartbreak when faced with the clean-up. It doesn’t stop the need for help, or the need for emotional support for students, their families and staff.
St Catherine’s staff have been working hard to ensure their school community thrives in the face of adversity, and the week that the school opened they wrote of the joy at being open and together.
“Watching our campuses fill up with students laughing and greeting each other after such a long break; watching staff and parents reunite and check on each other’s wellbeing; watching the teachers welcome their students back into their rooms; I decided that it (joy) was the perfect value for this week; as it is with great pleasure that we gather together as a school community once more,” Co-College Principals Sharyn Bell and David wrote.
None of college’s three campuses escaped Cyclone Debbie. Water had rushed through ceilings, huge trees and fences were down, there was structural damage, carpets and school supplies were soaked. The town was cut off and David, who is also a local resident, was the first person on site and went through every classroom opening up doors and louvres.
“I was thinking what am I doing? I am never going to achieve anything, and then eventually the roads opened, Sharyn came up with an idea of a working bee on the Sunday and then we had so many people here, so much got done; it was so heartening.”
While a working bee was necessary, and another would be held before the school reopened, Sharyn says at that point in time it was a hard call to make.
“It is difficult because you think, people have got their own homes and families and businesses to be looking after before coming to us, but I also think sometimes people are looking to help and come together as a community,” she says.
“The turnout was really heartening. “There was the outside crew who were chain-sawing trees, picking up debris and securing fencing and guttering that had fallen down, and then there were basically people who were just clearing out flooded classrooms. You don’t realise how much teachers have in their rooms until you have to pull it out!”
A call for help on the school’s Facebook page was picked up by Catholic school staff in Ingham, where Cyclone Yasi had brought wide-spread flooding six years before.
“In the preparation to the working bee, we received an email from Gilroy Santa Maria College who said yes, we have been through it and we’d like to come down and support you. We had apologised in our Facebook message that we wouldn’t be able to provide a sausage sizzle or food, because our grocery stores were closed and there was no refrigeration or electricity. They said look, we would like to come down and help you, but we would also like to provide the food,” Sharyn says.
“They came down in a bus towing a specially constructed trailer which housed a BBQ. Not only did they bring sausages, they brought heaps and heaps of fresh fruit, home cooked biscuits, cordial, bread and water from the extended Ingham community who obviously knew from experience what our community would need. There was so much food that David and I were also able to deliver bags to the emergency evacuation centres.”
“It was amazing because they put their words or their concern into action and the action involved driving four and-a-half hours, five hours; they drove all the way down in the morning, they worked all day and then drove all the way back again.”
Across the weeks following the cyclone groundsmen from Catholic schools in Charters Towers and Townsville also travelled south to the college and made an enormous difference, as did teaching and administrative staff from the Catholic Education Office and other Catholic schools.
We would not have been able to open if it was not for our own staff, who were phenomenal and turned up throughout their school holidays to get the school back on track, and for our wider Catholic community who all came along to help.
“This combined effort of our school community, our local community and our wider community of schools within the Townsville diocese enabled us to get the school back on track. This was so important to ensure that the kids could get back to school after the holidays and those families could get a sense of normality and a bit more routine back in to their lives again.
“As David said, you may be defeated but it is when the troops of people turned up to help out that suddenly the sun came out and you realised that we could do it, only because of that help.”
Help is continuing at the school, for students in particular.
When school returned there were three guidance counsellors for students, plus meetings with staff on how to support pupils, and also how to take care of themselves.
Teachers worked on helping students to not only share their stories, but also find positives.
“I know the things that came up were how many people helped each other and the number of stories of goodwill between people; restaurants giving out free food, Woolies giving out free ice, Orange Sky Laundry coming to town, the army, SES, Ergon workers and volunteer organisations all helping the community to deal with the aftermath of the disaster.
The school is now working with Queensland Health to ensure students who may still be struggling in the longer term have coping skills.
It’s been a turbulent few months, but Sharyn and David say their school community is the stronger for it.
They also have advice on to give on both personal and school levels.
David, who watched some Proserpine residents suffer because they did not heed warnings, urges others to take careful note of everything that authorities recommend and to do it.
Sharyn says on a school level, community and communication are key.
“Making sure that the information is out there and making sure that you continue to communicate with the community so that they know what’s going on.
“They have got a love for the school and they want to see it back on its feet, so that feels great.”