Australian university extends its embrace of flood-ravaged town

‘We are a designated evacuation centre. Bit by bit, we started coming to longer-term arrangements’

June 3, 2022
Southern Cross University (SCU) Lismore campus

An Australian university campus will host police, medics, business advisers, needy families and students of all ages for up to half a decade, serving as the de facto business district of a flood-trashed regional city.

Students have returned to the Lismore campus of Southern Cross University (SCU) following a two-year hiatus, after coronavirus lockdowns were extended for several months in the wake of serial natural disasters.

It is far from a return to normal life, with the campus also hosting 2,500 school students. Lismore’s Trinity College and Living School have relocated on to university grounds, while temporary classrooms for the Richmond River State High School are being constructed on adjoining land.

The Richmond Police District, whose Lismore facilities were destroyed by the floods, is based at the university for six to 12 months. Lismore Health Precinct is delivering services at the campus, and training institution TAFE New South Wales will occupy a couple of teaching blocks for the next few years.

Agencies operating from a business hub on the campus are helping local firms get back on their feet. About 80 modular homes, to be erected on university football grounds a couple of kilometres from the campus, will accommodate flood-impacted families for several years.

SCU chief marketing officer Dean Gould said the campus, on high ground east of Lismore’s riverside centre, was one of the few facilities able to fulfil such a role. “Topographically, we’re out of flood. We’ve got football fields; we’ve got auditoriums; we’ve got big buildings [and] lots of car parking.

“We are a designated evacuation centre. We just said, everyone who needs to come to the evacuation centre can. And then we said, is there anything else we can do for people, to help restart their businesses or facilitate the agencies helping across the region? Bit by bit, we started coming to longer-term arrangements.”

Mr Gould said students did not resent sharing their campus with such an assortment of locals. For many, it was their first experience of campus life anyway. And sympathy for disaster victims ran deep.

“Almost none of us have been unaffected by the floods. We had several dozen staff [and] students directly flooded, and many friends and family. The underlying principle for the university is stay open, say ‘yes’ to whoever we can reasonably accommodate, and make sure that our staff and students are looked after.

“None of the classroom delivery has been compromised. We have had to relocate some classes, but we had enough viable space to move things around.”

Somewhat ironically, the university closed its National Centre for Flood Research in late 2020 after launching it following an earlier disaster in 2017. Mr Gould said the centre “wasn’t able to attract the funding to keep going”.

But specialist researchers in areas such as sedimentation and carbon sequestration had continued its work. “The flood research has really ramped up. It doesn’t necessarily need a dedicated centre for those opportunities to be leveraged,” Mr Gould said.

He said researchers had not wasted the opportunities presented by the latest floods. “When there’s people on roofs in fast-flowing water, you’re not going to stop and take water samples. But within a week or so, once the once the emergency’s gone, people [recognise that] this is a pretty unusual natural phenomenon – is there anything we can learn out of this?”

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