Tweed Heads community comes together at Salvos evacuation centre

19 December 2023

Tweed Heads community comes together at Salvos evacuation centre

The fast-moving floods that inundated towns in south-east Queensland and northern NSW took everyone by surprise, leaving many communities cut-off and thousands of homes underwater. As a result, many of these communities have had to manage on their own, but what has emerged has been an unbreakable community spirit of generosity and camaraderie.

The Salvation Army’s Tweed Heads Corps has been operating as an evacuation centre since the disaster struck. Cut off from other towns, Salvo John Viles says they have been blessed to have such an incredible community come together in support of those who had to be evacuated.

Speaking after the waters receded and many evacuees were able to leave, John shares his experience of running a busy evacuation center.

“At our peak, we had around 160 to 180 evacuees in the centre that were actually residing here. Then there were more who were coming in and using facilities. Those who were stranded in motorhomes came in and used the facilities and came in for a feed, but that has started to peter off,” he says.

“We have around 60 or 70 people left at the facility at the moment and more and more heading out, which is fabulous. That means that they are finding even more stable movement.”

Every part of the facility has been used to support people evacuated from their homes. The church has been converted into a dormitory, as well as the foyer and the centre’s cafe facility has been converted into a donation drop-off zone as well as a food portal.

John says they’ve been blessed to have so many people volunteering and donating*.

“They’re donating secondhand clothes. In a lot of cases new food, and underwear was surprisingly an issue that we never even thought of but of course everyone would need.

Building a mattress city

“The first night that people arrived we had probably half-an-hour’s notice, we had about 200 people inbound and had nowhere for them to sleep. We had floor, but the majority of them came from a caravan park where it was a mostly elderly residents and the floor is pretty hard.

“We put a post out on our community Facebook pages asking if any community members had a blowup mattress they could donate to The Salvation Army. We had a convoy of community members driving down and dropping off mattresses. So many of them were brand-new ones that people have bought just in case they had people drop over.

“And the benefit is now we almost have a blowup mattress city in our facility.”

That mattress city is providing a quality of comfort, much needed in an open space with, what John describes as, “a veritable menagerie of birds and cats and dogs that have been evacuated with their owners”.

“[Thanks to donations] we have more animal food then you could poke a stick at, it’s awesome because I was not expecting to have an evacuation centre that would also carry pets as well. But it makes sense, if you’ve got to get out, you grab all the valuables – and that’s you, your partner, your kids, your pet.”

With cats, dogs and birds making noises, sleep apnoea machines, snoring and people chatting through the night, being able to provide bedding and a comfortable mattress has made a significant difference to those who’ve been evacuated.

Caravan park residents bear the brunt

Those still residing at the evacuation centre have truly lost everything. Residents at the caravan park, who are mostly older, retired Australians, have been particularly impacted.

“I was talking to one gentleman and his house got flooded in the last event in 2017. He was blessed to have insurance cover the repair of his caravan unit and he used some of his retirement money to raise it an extra 400 mm, thinking that if there was ever a flood again it would never come into the home. When he was evacuated, his house was half underwater and he’s been told that it was fully submerged,” says John.

“This is an event this area has never seen before, and it was just so shocking. The gentleman would say to me constantly, ‘it defied logic’. He had no idea that it was coming so fast and so high and so significant, and was really grateful for a couple of local fishermen who started driving around the caravan park and putting people in their tinny and getting them to safety.”

Woolworths lends a hand

Access to ongoing grocery supplies is another challenge in a disaster, particularly as so many businesses have been impacted by the floods.

“The first day, we had nothing because the shops closed early due to the floods. We were fortunate enough to have members of the community donate packets of new food and we had local volunteers in the church preparing it. One of our SAES (Salvation Army Emergency Services) volunteers in our church, was making a week’s worth of dinners and she brought that in. So we’ve been really blessed in that way,” says John.

“We are using the local Woolworths and the manager there, Sarah, has been fantastic. Woolworths have been fantastic! Big W has offered anything that we need. The manager there, David, met me at the shops on the first day I could actually get there after the waters had receded and offered their services as much as possible.”

A collaborative effort

During natural disasters, charities and other services work together tending to the needs of those impacted, and all these services tend to a certain area of need. In New South Wales, The Salvation Army’s responsibility is to feed evacuees. However, when another agency is unable to fulfil one of their obligations, another agency jumps in. This was the case for John’s team at Tweed Heads when another charity, responsible for physical needs such as clothing, was cut off by the floodwaters.

Consequently, Tweed Heads Corps also became a clothing depot. Volunteers from the community came in to sort out the clothes into sizes and gender and removed anything unusable, and people have been able to wander in and grab what they need.

John says this is the first time the facility has been used as an evacuation centre. Supported by The Salvation Army’ Strategic and Disaster Management team and “an incredible community”, they have been working around the clock to meet the needs of evacuees.

“Every 10 minutes, somebody will walk in with a donation and say ‘can I do anything?’. We have pages and pages of names of people who are willing to give their time to clean bathrooms, prepare food, sort clothes, go around and re-inflate all the air mattresses that have gone down in our air mattress city.

“We have been unbelievably blessed by the Tweed Shire community and others. One of our first nights, we had a local cafe come in and ask if there was anything they could do. We asked them to make dinner and gave them all the food and they used their facility. We had these incredible curries and casseroles, which were spectacular.

“Just this morning there was an emergency call-out for people who were stranded in the Mount Warning area at Fingal Head and local cafe owners from ‘Next Door Espresso’ came in, and with a team of people, prepared sandwiches for 150 people, so yeah super, super blessed by that.”

As emergency response turns to recovery, John says the volunteers are now a little bit ‘war weary.’

“It’s been an ongoing time, but at the same time – like any Australian – they get in, they do what they need to do when it needs to be done to help other people. We’ve got great teams of people that are working here.”

The next step in The Salvation Army’s disaster response in Queensland and NSW is to assist people in the early recovery stage, providing support for those affected to clean up their properties, apply for grants, find alternative accommodation if needed, and be there emotionally and spiritually as they come to terms with what has happened.

The Salvation Army has launched a Flood Appeal to help support those devastated by the floods. If you can help, please donate now.
Donate Now

*Please note, while donations of in-kind goods were gratefully received during this emergency response at Tweed Heads, The Salvation Army does not have the storage capability to accept donations of clothing, furniture, etc. moving forward. We work with charities who collect these goods and distribute them on request. If you wish to donate goods, please visit the site below:

Donate Goods

How to access support:

If you have been affected by this flood disaster, financial assistance can be accessed via the recovery hubs. These recovery hubs are operated by multiple agencies, including The Salvation Army, and are a one-stop-shop for information, referrals and personal support and guidance with accessing financial assistance.

QLD recovery hubs currently open:

  • Redcliffe Showgrounds, Redcliffe (Webb Hall)
  • Gympie Civic Centre -32 Mellor Street, Gympie
  • Caboolture Hub -Learning and Business Centre, King St Caboolture

Financial assistance can also be accessed directly from the government:

QLD Personal Hardship Assistance

Federal funding via Services Australia


Salvation Army Direct Feed



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