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Resilient Rochester rises above flood catastrophe to rebuild hope


Captain Cameron Lovering watches flood waters rise from ‘the back of a fire truck’. The old church hall just escaped being inundated. It is now the historical society.


It is a story that has not been told until now – a story of great ruin and great resilience, great pain and great hope. When huge floods tore through Victoria’s Rochester community in October 2022, the consequences were catastrophic for the township of 3000, as Salvos Online writer LERISSE SMITH discovered when she spoke with Corps Officer Captain Cameron Lovering about the life-changing event.

 

 

It is simply known as the big flood.


When Rochester was inundated by riverine floods from water sources in the Campaspe area of northern Victoria in October 2022, it was the largest flood event ever recorded in the town’s history.


“It was nothing short of catastrophic,” said Cameron, who, along with his wife, Maryanne, and their young family, lived through the traumatic event.


“The story of the township’s recovery is still ongoing. It is far from over. We are still seeing the catastrophic consequences of the flood, and I have not told the full story of the past 18 months until now.”


The retelling of the full story of the past 18 months is filled with strong emotions for Cameron, who witnessed the devastation and the subsequent impact on countless locals physically, emotionally, financially and psychologically. He has seen the pain of people losing so much, plus the heartache that many still don’t have a home. Some lives have been simply broken through losing everything.


Rochester Salvos’ beloved Thrift Store and the flood damage. (Right) Thrift Shop Supervisor Carmel Phillips has helped bring much colour back into the community store.

The toll was enormous for the local community and the Campaspe Shire: 2800 properties were impacted; 1000 homes in Rochester flooded over the floor; 58,000 hectares, equating to about 45 per cent of farms, were affected; 1897 kilometres of fencing were destroyed; 32,224 tons of crops were lost; 728 animals were killed; 27,807 tons of hay was lost. About 98 per cent of the community was flooded over floorboards. Tragically, a cherished community member was found deceased.


It is estimated that around 300 to 400 local homes are still waiting to be rebuilt, with around 100 already demolished and more said to be condemned. With local residents battling insurance companies, some are unable to settle, exceeding five or more assessments and scopes of work. There is now a formal government enquiry into the delays. Some have no accommodation, and others are camping out in caravans.


This flooding event impacted all but one active Salvation Army member who lived locally. Yet, the local corps proved to be the lynchpin in helping people start the recovery and healing process when they assembled and coordinated the mammoth recovery effort.


From October 2022 to May 2024, 1380 individual community members residing in the 3561 postcode, including Rochester, were issued over $660,400 from the Red Shield Appeal and Disaster Recovery funds.


“Nothing could have prepared us for the flood, the scale of what happened and the significance of what happened. It took everyone by surprise,” Cameron said.


Cameron says Lucas from Ringwood Corps provided amazing support with the church providing financial, physical, emotional and spiritual help throughout the flood disaster.

“We knew it was coming, but the scale and catastrophic impact we did not anticipate. We were led to believe it would be comparable to the 2011 flood.


“The Salvation Army Rochester has never experienced a time in its 135 years of when its mission was more critical than that of the last 18 months. On top of this, we were also hit with another major flood in January this year. As a community, we’re exhausted, but we carry on. I cannot overstate just how depleting this event has been, and for many, their recoveries arguably have not even begun. We are still in desperate need of financial support and help. There are situations we could immediately resolve if we had the money.”


135th anniversary celebrations

The critical mission of Rochester Salvation Army and its service to the community during its darkest chapter was recognised as part of the recent reopening of the church premises in Ramsay St and the two-day 135th-anniversary event. Over 200 people were in attendance at the multiple events.


The Ringwood Corps band performed at the ceremony, which also included a special video presentation of news stories and clips of the flood emergency and the community’s journey since October 2022.


“I wanted to mark the significance of the event,” Cameron said.


“There are two stories – the actual flood event and what we went through, and that we have reopened. But if people don't understand the severity of the experience that we had, then they couldn't possibly understand the significance of the reopening and the fact that we’ve gotten through so much adversity and coming out the other end. It’s hard to tell one story without the other. The ceremony was really a wonderful time and a wonderful opportunity to mark everything we’ve been through.”


Cameron also prioritised reminding locals of the importance of the Rochester community spirit and The Salvation Army’s presence in the township when organising the special celebration.


“I wanted everyone to remember Rochester, a small but mighty community, to share our story, to heal from past hurts, to find comfort for the future, to listen, to come for the food, come for the friends … and just to get a little bit closer to Jesus in all of this and be encouraged and emboldened in our faith,” he said.


“To also show people of who we are, what we do, and what our mission is, what our purpose is, and that we are The Salvation Army, the local church.”


What people could do was clearly displayed at the ceremony when Divisional Commander Colonel Kelvin Merrett presented special certificates to individuals and organisations for their community service in helping the Rochester Corps and the community during the flood crisis.


Victoria Divisional Commander Colonel Kelvin Merrett hands Chris Nisbet (CFA Lieutenant – Community Volunteer) the outstanding service award for his extraordinary work throughout the flood crisis that also resulted in saving lives.

Heading the outstanding community service award list were CFA Lieutenant and community volunteer Chris Nisbet, David Harris from Ambulance Victoria, and local Salvo staff and volunteer member Julianne Robinson.


Recalling the immediate aftermath of the floods, Cameron said in an instant, the corps capability was incapacitated, and the clean-up was unbelievably difficult due to the area being awash with water, isolated and with no phone/internet connection available. There were no volunteers, either, until a call-out via Facebook resulted in 75 volunteers turning up the following day.


The corps lost all its buildings, including the church hall where everyone met. But by some miracle, Cameron’s family home survived the flood and immediately became a first-aid station in the absence of a hospital. People were treated on the loungeroom floor for a range of medical ailments.


The local corps and volunteers gathered to feed the Australian Defence Force, local firefighters, police officers, ambulance crews and community members, plus help clothe people who lost the entire contents of their homes.


“Our spontaneous volunteers struggled to keep a dry eye,” Cameron said. “They cared, loved, shared and clothed hundreds of families with brand new clothes. We had a saying, ‘Fixing a chair means you care.’”


Ringwood Corps proved to be a lifesaver for the community, providing financial, physical, emotional and spiritual help throughout the disaster. The Military Christian Fellowship also assisted in the major clean-up. And every cent from a $24,410 donation from Sorrento RSL has been maximised for full effect.


Captain Maryanne Lovering shared her Christian faith plus her family’s journey through the flood catastrophe at Rochester Corps’ recent reopening of its church premises and 135th anniversary celebration.

“The work that we have done with that donation has been out of this world,” Cameron said. “It’s like the Biblical miracle of the fish and loaves.”


And as the local corps looks to the future, The Rochester Salvation Army will continue to journey with their beloved community – and with positivity.


“I do have a prayer that The Salvation Army will always be there for the people of Rochester and that they will live and prosper. That’s the motto of our town – to live and prosper,” Cameron said.


“We have been able to sit with people in the miry clay and slowly help them get out of it, to be a comfort and a helping hand, and to ultimately say, ‘Hey, we are here – and we are not going anywhere.’”


Click here to view a video of the Rochester memorial combined church service in October 2022.

 

The local emergency catering community volunteers with their awards for their outstanding service throughout the flood disaster.

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