Cyclone Debbie was Category-4 when it crossed the Queensland coast in March 2017. The Whitsunday coast and its townships bore the brunt of the story. Power poles were knocked down and trees hurtled into homes. Locals were left with no water for five days and no power for up to three weeks.

Cyclone Debbie was so devastating that large non-profits and government Disaster Coordination Centres were unable to operate at full capacity until a week after the storm.

It was the local Neighbourhood Centre and community-based organisations that were there for people in the lead up and after Cyclone Debbie’s trail of destruction. The centre, 11 of its staff and 25 volunteers worked tirelessly, in partnerships and in new ways to make sure everyone made it through.

As part of CSIA’s peer to peer networking demonstration project to support business continuity planning, we sat down with Whitsunday Neighbourhood Centre CEO Rebecca Woods. Here we take a deep dive into how Cyclone Debbie changed the way they respond to disaster.

This blog reveals how their impressive, intuitive response to the powerful storm led them to improve their business continuity plan, which will further support their community the next time disaster strikes.

Bracing for impact

The Whitsunday Neighbourhood Centre provides a variety of services that are direct-service delivery and community capacity building. Providing emergency relief assistance is just one of the feathers in their cap.

In the lead-up to the cyclone, CEO Rebecca Woods and her team knew their service would be under the pump. The community knew the cyclone was coming and needed support to be ready.

“The day before the cyclone, we processed applications for financial assistance from about 60 households,” Ms Woods said. “Each application took about 15 minutes but we were forced to close the centre and ‘batten down’ as the weather worsened and our staff and volunteers needed to prepare their own homes.”

“Our first focus was solely on getting emergency relief out to people who didn’t have the funds to go and prepare themselves for the cyclone. We knew that because of the size of the cyclone, this was a unique event coming.”

When disaster strikes

The hours and days following a disaster are critical. Cyclone Debbie was particularly destructive, which meant more help was needed.

The neighbourhood centre team worked long hours that would see them writing out aid forms by hand – no one was missing out – and unpacking pallets of donated goods under truck headlights.

To manage it all, Ms Woods and her team also set up an additional pop-up shopfront in Cannonvale to distribute emergency aid.

“People from all across Australia were just sending truckloads of goods to us,” Ms Woods said.

It was all well and good receiving the generous donations. It was another to get them out to those who needed them. Local infrastructure and roads were destroyed and disrupted through the cyclone. To get the gear out the Whitsunday Neighbourhood Centre partnered with other community service organisations.

“We organised with Rest and Recovery (a local social service) because they had a truck and ended up distributing goods out to affected communities. In total, 14 truckloads of water, butane, nappies, food, clothing went out.”

What we learned

There were many actions and activities the Neighbourhood Centre took on that fell out of the scope of their usual operations.

The team have reflected on their experience and ensured their business continuity plan best serves their community in every eventuality.

“We’ve formalised what we did in our plan. Specifically, a plan for continuity and resilience,” Ms Woods said.

“You’ve got to really think of every scenario, and how every scenario plays out. Start putting down on paper exactly what you think could happen, and don’t leave anything to, ‘oh, that’ll never happen.’”

“As a result of having to handwrite forms, for example, we now have a box with 500 printed forms sitting there and waiting in case an event happens as part of our business continuity plan,” Ms Woods said.

“When planning for business continuity, and how you’re going to recover as an organisation through a disaster, you really need to put yourself into those scenarios and ask, ‘well, how am I going to do it if I don’t have a photocopier, if I don’t have electricity, water, telephone service, et cetera?’”

Ms Woods and her team have been celebrated for their work during Cyclone Debbie, with the Whitsunday Neighbourhood Centre being nominated for the Australia Day Awards Community Event of the Year award and Ms Woods being nominated for Citizen of the Year.

What’s more, it’s cemented their standing in the local community as an essential point of contact in the lead-up to disasters.

Planning for the future

In Australia, the variety and sheer number of natural disasters we experience means that many of us associate the word ‘disaster’ with bushfires, floods and cyclones.

Here at CSIA when we talk about planning a disaster response – in the form of a business continuity plan – it’s essential for your organisation to consider any major, unexpected disruption to your service as a potential disaster.

Even if your organisation already has a business continuity plan, it’s crucial to regularly revisit and update it – and stay up to date on stories of resilience and best practice, like the Whitsunday team.

As their experience reminds us, disasters can often deprive us of the essential things we need to do business, so it’s also important to customise your plan to suit your organisation’s unique operational environment.

“Look at your processes on a day-to-day basis,” Ms Woods advises. “Start to look at what you’re doing now and how you’re going to do it in the disaster phase.”

Does your organisation have a business continuity plan? Have you thought about how you will work with local government and other organisations in times of crisis?

Understanding how community organisations can work together will improve your organisation’s resilience and ensure service delivery when the unexpected happens.