12 April 2024

'They came to our rescue': Businesses, community rally around Shell's Austinmer after flood devastation

| Dione David
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NSW Rural Fire Service member sweeps mud from the front of Shells Austinmer after the floods on Saturday 6 April 2024

Local businesses, community members and the fire service rallied on Saturday (6 April) to help each other with post-flood clean-up efforts. Photos: Shells Austinmer.

When Shell’s Austinmer co-owner Gareth Fleming arrived at work just after 6 am on Saturday (6 April) to assess the aftermath of the major flooding that hit Illawarra over the weekend, it looked as though the shop was already open.

In fact, torrential waters had swept the shop’s front roller door out onto Lawrence Hargrave Drive. The ice cream machine was found somewhere along the footpath and ironically, the shop’s “Caution: wet floor” sign had been swept out to sea, only to wash up onto a roof in Thirroul.

Further inspection revealed large holes in the walls out back, blocked sewage pipes and ruined floors.

Gareth, along with his brother Christian Fleming and Christian’s wife Ange Fleming, bought the business and took over the building lease only six months prior. They had lovingly created a beer garden out back, complete with a small stage for live music – all of which had been reduced to a “quagmire”.

As the owners waited to hear back about urgent repairs via their real estate agency’s management portal, family came onsite daily to assist with the clean-up and rectification efforts, pulling up floors and sweeping out skip-fulls of muck and debris.

“We don’t own the building, so rectification works are not our responsibility, but we have a business to run and needed to get things functioning quickly,” Christian says.

“We pay a lot in rent, so couldn’t afford to wait forever.”

READ ALSO Acts of kindness shine through amid Illawarra flood devastation

But while nothing could have prepared them for the level of devastation to the premises, equally unexpected was the response of the community around them – both customers and businesses.

Ange says the business’s dedicated staff were in that very same day “working their butts off” to help clean, tidy and restock equipment.

“Without our staff we couldn’t have opened the next day or run the business and they are our biggest assets,” she says.

“Ricky and Pat from Daily Grind Coffee in Gerringong rushed a coffee grinder out to us early on Sunday morning so we could open.

“Austinmer Rural Fire Brigade spent hours on Saturday shovelling and hosing mud from inside and out for businesses in the street.

“So many friends and family helped; some we only learnt days later had come to lend a hand and we were oblivious to it. The most heartwarming thing is our local community coming in wanting to support us.”

Christian says the business’s suppliers have wrapped around the business, making it possible to open the front of the shop to the public relatively quickly.

“Themis Commercial Food Equipment needs a shout-out. They came to our rescue with all new equipment on the day of the incident and every day since. They bent over backwards to help,” he says.

“Greg Soster from Outside Space turned up and pressure cleaned and then used a Bobcat to clear away all the mud and debris.”

There’s a way to go until the building can be “brought up to scratch” and fully functional again, but the hope is to bring the beer garden back online soon.

In the meantime, Gareth says members of the public have also been going “above and beyond” to show their support.

“We’ve had people coming in and offering all sorts of help,” he says. “One bloke came and sprayed the footpath for us, and one lady even came in and tried to give us money. Of course, we politely declined but I thought that was so kind,” he says.

READ ALSO Insurers put on notice to pay up quickly as Illawarra residents count the cost of devastating floods

Following the floods of Saturday (6 April) the City of Wollongong was declared a natural disaster area identified as Category B, which is for serious but localised natural disasters. This has opened up access to a range of special assistance measures, and Wollongong City Council and the NSW Government have responded with a raft of assistance options for affected businesses and organisations.

Small businesses, sporting and recreation clubs and not-for-profit organisations in the Wollongong LGA directly affected by the storm and flooding can access various grants, loans or financial assistance opportunities.

The NSW Government has also established Recovery Assistance Centres at Thirroul Community Centre and Warrawong Community Centre where those impacted by storms and flooding can go for support and face-to-face assistance.

Services at these interagency centres will include assistance with identifying and applying for available financial support, temporary accommodation, legal advice, replacement of damaged or lost ID and other government documents and mental health. Opening hours are Friday 12 April from 10 am to 4 pm and Saturday 13 April from 9 am to 1 pm.

Alternatively, business owners can contact Service NSW Business Concierge on 13 77 88 from Monday to Friday, 8 am to 5 pm or register for a callback.

These options are also a good starting point to enquire about eligibility for financial support to dispose of commercial waste. Businesses can dispose of commercial waste at the Wollongong Waste and Recycling Centre (Whytes Gully) where hours have been extended to 6 pm daily, until Friday 12 April.

While the fees have been temporarily lifted for flood-impacted residents at the Whytes Gully facility, a portion of the weighbridge (gate) fee still applies for businesses impacted by flooding due to the other dedicated financial support options such as State Government grants and loans. To minimise costs, check your eligibility for financial assistance or insurance cover first.

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