Batemans Bay Post Office: From service provider to community hub

It takes mere hours for a fire to destroy a town and years for its community to recover. In Batemans Bay, the local Post Office and Red Cross were there to help those in need of shelter, emotional support and access to essential products and services.

It was a month to Christmas 2019 when a rogue bolt of lightning started the fires surrounding Batemans Bay in New South Wales. As the flames closed in on the coastal town, its Post Office manager Janette Hunt remembers fear rising within the tight-knit community. On New Year’s Eve, there was no more speculation - the fires had reached Batemans Bay.

“It was horrific,” Janette says bluntly. “So many properties were gone but the Post Office remained standing and when we reopened, we found ourselves offering more than just postal services. We had suddenly become a source of support and information in our community.”

Whenever disaster strikes, Australia Post and Red Cross are there to support and help communities get back on their feet.

The Post Office wasn’t the only place that people flocked to in the days after the fires. There were also the evacuation centres where Red Cross volunteers were providing emotional support, helping people register so their families knew they were safe and connecting them with other crucial services.

The fires burned for 74 days, cutting the power for three days and destroying homes and livelihoods.

The 24 hours before the fires - and its aftermath

As stories about the fires spread, the uneasiness within the community grew. As Janette remembers, “Some people said the fires weren’t that bad, others said it was worse. We had the radio running all day in the Post Office so our staff and customers could keep up with what was going on outside. Everyone was on edge.”

The Post Office closed early that New Year’s Eve. Unlike the rest of her team who lives in Batemans Bay, Janette had an hour’s drive home to Narooma and hoped hard that she would make it back in time. A few hours later, she heard that the fires had reached Batemans Bay – and it was bad.

The next day, she decided to drive back into town to check on the Post Office and her team. That drive, she says, was terrifying. “Trees were burning on both sides of the road and I kept passing dead livestock, burnt cars and smouldering remains of houses. The smoke was so thick I literally couldn’t see past the bonnet of my car. The memory still gives me goosebumps.”

Janette reached Batemans Bay to find the Post Office safe but the entire town without power. The communication towers had also burnt down so there was no phone service either. Her team and their families were safe, but all ended up in evacuation centres over the next few days.

The Post Office as a community hub

The Batemans Bay Post Office reopened three days later to an overwhelming response from the community. Janette says people were walking through the doors because they didn’t know where else to go or what to do with themselves. Some just wanted to see familiar faces. Others only had the clothes on their back.

“There were lots of hugs, tears and exchanging of stories. The Post Office was one of the few places still open, so people were coming in to buy batteries or battery-operated appliances. Those who no longer had a mailbox or home came in to ask about their Christmas deliveries.

And there were those who needed to charge their mobile phones or plug in their laptops so they could get important work done like sending out invoices or email insurance companies.

“Many displaced locals also relied on the Post Office to access cash through Bank@Post to buy essential items. The banks were shut, and no power meant the ATMs and EFTPOS weren’t working either, so Bank@Post was a crucial service during this time for daily needs and survival.

“We offered a free Mail Redirection service to small businesses and anyone who’d lost their home. For those we couldn’t reach, we held their mail at the Post Office for free until we saw them again.”

Stepping up for their community

Despite their personal struggles, the entire team at the Batemans Bay Post Office rose to the occasion to provide moral support and comfort to their community. Janette still marvels at their resilience and generosity.

She says, “I have the best team in Australia Post. I don’t know how they held it all together. And the community reciprocated by sending us morning tea, flowers and thank you cards.

“People don't realise it, but we're a lot more than a Post Office. We don’t just provide transactional services. We build rapport with our customers and during a crisis like this, we're sometimes the only people many of them get to talk to.”