Operation Flood Assist daily briefing
7 March 2022
GEMMA VENESS: We're going to take our audience live now to Sydney where the ADF is speaking about its response to the flooding in northern New South Wales.
DAVID THOMAE: ... that's the national headquarters for the ADF for coordinating response to domestic operations, including events during the high-risk weather season, as are occurring .
I'd just like to start by acknowledging our thoughts are with the families and friends of the people who have tragically lost their lives in the flood waters in Queensland and northern New South Wales and to those who are suffering and to all the residents returning to their homes and face the massive clean-up effort that lies ahead.
Thank you also to the SES and volunteer organisations who responded to the types of – these types of emergencies. They've been putting in a tremendous effort and banding with residents to get the help out there that's needed.
We currently have 2,000 Australian Defence Force personnel currently on task supporting the New South Wales and Queensland governments and their communities. Our efforts are being coordinated under my headquarters – Joint Task Force 629 – following the request from the New South Wales and Queensland governments. This is coordinated and prioritised through the state emergency operations centres.
Since day one in northern New South Wales – that's the 27th of February – our soldiers from the 41st Royal New South Wales Regiment based in Lismore have been out in their own community helping since that day. Since Friday, 25 February aviation support has been provided to south east Queensland, northern New South Wales and the Sydney region. Our people have rescued 113 people and completed 71 helicopter missions rescuing people off roofs and in very trying weather conditions. And they continue to be challenging. Liaison officers and planning personnel are embedded at state emergency operations centres and also at the local level. This allows us to facilitate planning and to ensure ADF personnel can get out to the areas of need as quickly as possible.
So how are we today? Today we have 637 personnel on task in northern New South Wales and more than 1,358 on task supporting southeast Queensland. Included in that 637 are 119 who are airborne at the moment having loaded on two Chinook 47s out of southeast Queensland and on their way to three locations in northern New South Wales – Coraki, Woodburn and Broadwater. We are supporting both south east Queensland and northern New South Wales, however, our priority is reaching the isolated communities in the north of New South Wales as well as major communities such as Lismore.
There are reinforcements arriving today and over the next 24 hours we'll have another 656 people available for taking in northern New South Wales. In the last 24 hours we've had plant, engineer plant equipment, arriving in Lismore with soldiers from the 6th Engineer Support Regiment, route clearance to isolated clearance outside of Lismore – Woodburn, Nimbin and Kyogle.
Our personnel are conducting food distribution tasks to Coraki, Mullumbimby, Evans Head, Upper Wilsons Creek, Lismore and Woodburn; clean-up operations in Lismore, Port Macquarie, Grafton, Tweed Heads and Crabbes Creek, Ocean Shores and many other locations. Our teams have set up helicopter landing zones in Casino to assist with medical evacuations supporting the state medical authorities.
In Queensland for the last 24 hours we continue with clean-up efforts in Gympie, Gatton, Saint Lucia, Fairfield, Graceville, Rocklea, Esk, Grantham, Goodna and Logan.
In northern New South Wales in the next 24 hours we will continue to provide support to isolated communities including Mullumbimby, Murwillumbah, Crabs Creek, Ocean Shores, Wardell, Kyogle, Nimbin, Urbenville, Woodenbong, Tenterfield, Tabulam, Tumbulgum, Coraki and Woodburn. And this will be a combination of air mobile operations and land effects. helicopter insertion of ADF members into Evans Head and Broadwater as additional, and planning our force flow which will see 5,000 people on task nationally available by 12 March with a focus on putting the logistical support in place to avoid placing stress on the communities.
And I might end it there and open to any questions.
JOURNALIST: Major General you say there is a lot of support going today and over the last couple of hours to the affected hours, especially in northern New South Wales, where there were helicopters last week there were only four there and only two flying at one time. That's obviously [indistinct] needed.
DAVID THOMAE: I think it's really important to look at the time line for our this occurred. So if we remember that this emergency started in south east Queensland and the federal government activated the commonwealth disaster plan on Friday the 25th of February, and we conducted search and rescue operations from that time and utilising the assets that were most available to us, which was in south east Queensland. So those four aircraft have been on station since that time. And many of those rescues that I've just described were conducted by those helicopters.
We've continued with those search and rescue operations through the 26th and 27th February, and then as the storm moved further south and the need changed to northern New South Wales the reserve soldiers from 41 RNSWR – Royal New South Wales Regiment – who live in that community immediately responded to the requirements and supported those air operations from the 27th of February.
As the weather and conditions allowed – and I think it's important to note that the conditions in northern New South Wales have been very difficult to conduct both air and land operations where most of the roads have been cut off. We've been expanding our footprint to meet the needs of the local community.
JOURNALIST: We've spoken to a lot of people on the ground who are absolutely distraught saying there is not enough help from the ADF. We've got all these fantastic pieces of machinery and now that they're there [indistinct] flood over, they're not stopping. They haven't had food. They haven't had food for a week. Why is it taking so long?
DAVID THOMAE: Well, it's a combination of things in that question, which is about what I described as the conditions that we've had to operate in and our ability to conduct air operations. As the weather has improved we have been doing food drops and getting out to those communities. Through the local emergency operations centres we prioritise those tasks and lean forward into those to start doing that.
So in the last couple of days we've been using our aviation assets to conduct reconnaissance of those communities. Yesterday we started landing in some of those communities to determine the need and our air mobile operations starting today will allow us to start pushing people into it.
The conditions have been dreadful. A lot of those communities have been cut off and a lot of landslides, so it's going to be difficult to get into those communities. So, we will be prioritising those communities most in need, most isolated in the coming days.
JOURNALIST: There are even other pilots up there who were doing their own drop-offs, the community up there based in Lismore, some of those pilots are using their own aircraft to drop food to people who haven't had any delivered for a week. Is it – you know, could we have helped more at any point?
DAVID THOMAE: I think we've done all that we can within the conditions that we've been faced with. So as conditions have improved we have. And it's great to see other community members supporting their own community. It's not an ADF – just an ADF response; it's the local government, it's the local emergency services who have worked very hard over the last week. We support them. And if local communities is supporting their own community, I think that's a great thing.
JOURNALIST: It’s been over a week now since those floods hit northern New South Wales. When people were on their roofs calling for help and getting picked up by people in their own boats, where was the ADF?
DAVID THOMAE: Well, we were there. So we conducted rescues of 133 people in that time. Now, you'd accept that when that happen on the 27th of February we were doing those search and rescue operations and – but the scale of devastation is extraordinary in that area. So we had been operating within the weather conditions that allow us to safely operate.
JOURNALIST: But, people needed help because it was so unsafe. That was when we needed help. Do you accept that they feel abandoned? Do you think they could have more help?
DAVID THOMAE: Look, I'm very sorry for all of those people who have felt that they haven't been supported. And I empathise completely with their plight. The scale of devastation is extraordinary in northern New South Wales. It is something that is very sobering for all of us to look at.
What I can say is from an Australian Defence Force perspective, we have thrown the resource we have had available immediately to respond, and that has saved lives.
JOURNALIST: [Indistinct] people flying in now it's more than a week later. Do you think there needs to be a review of how to get help quicker?
DAVID THOMAE: I think it's fair to say that after every disaster we always want to have a look at the arrangements we have in place. But I think it's important to remember that most of those communities that we've been describing were cut off up until the weekend. So, it's very difficult to get any land access to those places. We've been pushing into those places as much as we can since the start of the flood event. And we continue to do so.
JOURNALIST: [Indistinct] that’s the very reason they needed help because they were cut off?
DAVID THOMAE: And I understand that. And it is very distressing for those communities, and we understand that distress. But we have to operate in a safe manner. And if our aircraft can't safely operate to get into those locations because of the conditions last week, then that explains part of that answer that you're asking for.
JOURNALIST: Did you have to wait for a call from New South Wales state government to be able to help in northern New South Wales, or when did you get tasked?
DAVID THOMAE: So – and I think that's really important to understand that, as I described, the commonwealth disaster plan enacted on Friday the 25th of February set in place our authority to support the state governments. So once that was initiated – and it's important to understand as well that the Australian Defence Force maintains what's called an emergency support force. So in every state and territory we have 150 people on 24-hours' notice during the high-risk weather season who were immediately able to respond. And that's what happened. So whether it's in northern New South Wales with the reservists from Lismore supporting their own community or in south east Queensland with the ADF assets who were able to immediately respond, we did that.
JOURNALIST: Why were those helicopters at Enoggera [indistinct]?
DAVID THOMAE: Sorry, which helicopters?
JOURNALIST: The Chinooks?
DAVID THOMAE: So the CH-47s, so the Chinooks, two of them are from the Singaporean Defence Force, so we've – the Singaporean government has very generously offered those and the Australian government has accepted to use those helicopters. Those Chinooks that are on operations today from Army are based out of Townsville. So all of our Chinooks are moving south to support the operation.
GEMMA VENESS: Okay, that was Major General David Thomae from the ADF addressing efforts in the flooding situation in northern New South Wales. He says 637 personnel are on task in northern New South Wales, 119 of them are airborne and on their from Queensland and that they'll be focusing on Coraki, Woodburn and Broadwater, and that personnel reinforcements are also on their way.