by Peter Carruthers
SHE wasn't at ground zero when Cyclone Debbie stormed the Whitsundays on Tuesday, March 28.
But that is exactly what made it possible for the founder of Volunteer Whitsundays to launch an organisation which proved to be a life-line for so many people in desperate need.
Before the cyclone hit, Jo Sweeney "woke up feeling the fear and the pain” of all her friends and clients back in the Whitsundays, the place she had called home for 16 years, working as a creative strategist.
"People were very honest on their Facebook feeds saying they were hiding in their cupboards and this was eight hours before the cyclone really hit,” she said.
Ms Sweeney began to follow what was being reported in the media, using a screen shot from a Channel 7 broadcast to update boat owners who had no power and limited internet access on what was happening to their vessels at Abell Point Marina and the anchorage beyond.
In the cyclone's immediate aftermath she was given the job by one of her clients, Fish D'Vine, to spread the word that free food was available for the community.
Then she began coordinating efforts to supply generator fuel to a pop-up emergency medical centre while all roads to the Proserpine Hospital were cut.
"I was contacted by Whitsunday photographer Andrew Pattinson, who was stuck in Brisbane, but knew the pop up hospital needed fuel,” she said.
"I was getting short, sharp messages like 'need more fuel' or 'find a commercial generator' and my digital footprint then grew.
"I coordinated through social media and Andrew coordinated with the medical centre to get the necessary fuel.
"I woke up to so many private messages on Facebook from people locally who needed help and people from out of town trying to get help in.
"And this was all before the military could even get in.”
As there was no way to get external help into Airlie Beach and Cannonvale, Ms Sweeney said she started to hear about "chainsaw heroes” getting stuck in and helping people themselves.
She then contacted Whitsunday Times editor Sharon Smallwood and through her support invited Whitsunday community champions to be admins of a new Facebook group.
And this is how Volunteer Whitsundays was born.
"My goal was to help people be positive. For people to feel positive in the community they needed to also feel safe and happy in their homes,” Ms Sweeney said.
But it was seeing the effect of the group's work on the ground that moved her to tears of joy.
"When people couldn't find their elderly parents and all infrastructure was bottle-necked, I would get a message from a woman in Melbourne trying to find her 80-year-old mother at Midge Point as no one was able to get in there to check on her,” she said.
"We sent someone to the house and to be able to tell that woman her mum was okay was a beautiful gift to give a family.
"Anyone can make a difference - if you act with that pure giving side it is contagious.”
At the last count Volunteer Whitsunday had more than 1100 members and had raised over $14,000 through their Go Fund Me page.
Ms Sweeney gave a special shout out to volunteer Tracey Lord, who she described as a "community champion" that had driven the Go-Fund-Me page and helped people on the ground directly.
She also gave a shout out to Heather Batrick, who took charge of organising clean-up operations, job scheduling and volunteer sign-ups, and Chris Panan who as well as being the media liaison was "very active on the chainsaw”.
Andrew Sloane was another volunteer Ms Sweeney wished to thank "for adding military precision to our volunteer group”.