Richmond and Winton's resilience an example for all

North west flooding resilience lessons shared by Winton, Richmond


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Flashback: The wall of water that confronted north west Queensland in February's disastrous monsoon event.

Flashback: The wall of water that confronted north west Queensland in February's disastrous monsoon event.

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Putting local leaders in charge of disaster management and supplying what they asked for was one of the factors that helped north west Queensland shire cope with February's monsoon disaster.

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"The best thing that came out of the monsoon disaster was, they asked us, what did we need."

Putting local leaders in charge of disaster management and supplying what they asked for and no more was one of the factors that helped north west Queensland shires cope with February's disaster, according to one of the mayors who was in the thick of it.

Richmond's John Wharton was part of a panel debating regional resilience at the Western Queensland Local Government Association conference in Longreach this week.

Together with the Winton shire's CEO Ricki Bruhn, who had been in the job for four months when the district moved rapidly from drought to a sleetstorm, they told it like it was on the conference floor.

From having the means to cope with 70 stranded travellers for two weeks to supporting a woman alone on a property with two young children and dead stock all round, to keeping young first-responding helicopter pilots in the air and coping with the tragedies they were seeing, the two men showed why western Queensland councils can provide a blueprint for resilience planners across the nation.

Mr Bruhn said that while Winton's local disaster management group was initially focused on how high floodwaters would encroach on the town, the loss of livestock caught them completely by surprise.

Staff took it upon themselves to ring every rural property owner within the council area to determine their situation - how much rain they'd had, whether they needed medical supplies and food, whether they needed to be evacuated, and how they were coping.

"There was one instance where a young lady and two kids were alone on their property and no access," Mr Bruhn said.

"They had cattle in distress. They had a horse that had passed away underneath their vehicle so they couldn't move it out of the garage.

"We helicoptered one of our staff members in to put down the livestock suffering, to remove the dead horse, and just to spend a couple of hours to reassure her and provide some company.

"I think this is what community resilience is all about."

Recognising the needs, both physical and mental, of the fleet of 14 helicopters stationed at Richmond airport was one of the mesmerising messages shared by Cr Wharton.

He explained that once the Australian Defence Force personnel arrived with fuel, the small army of choppers left every morning with a drum of fuel slung under their machines, to return at dark.

Related: Chopper army bears witness to the pain

"They went all day, these guys. In a lot of cases they were the first responder to people's disaster and it was fairly distressing for them," Cr Wharton said.

"Most of them were young fellows. They'd fly in to the property and see all the dead cattle.

"These guys would have to take them (property owners) for a fly and show them what happened.

"When they got back at night, a few beers and a barbecue - teamwork comes up all the time."

Both he and Mr Bruhn emphasised the support they received from various agencies and state and federal leaders.

In Winton's case, two staff from their sister city, the Moreton Bay Regional Council, flew out to help as well.

Cr Wharton shared the funny side of one occasion, when Brigadier Stephen Jobson flew in with Senator Linda Reynolds and addressed 14 soldiers who had just disembarked from a Chinook helicopter nearby.

"Brigadier Steve comes over and introduces me to them. He said, now you do whatever this fellow wants.

"I thought, that's not too bad because most b---s in Richmond won't do what I want."

Cr Wharton emphasised that having that support meant they could concentrate on what they needed to do as local leaders.

A local disaster management plan prepared in advance meant they had the situation under control, citing the swift knowledge of how fodder suppliers were to be handled and paid as an example, thanks to operating food drops as part of their normal wet season operations.

Mr Bruhn said all contact with the people bearing the brunt of the disaster had been done by local council staff over the phone.

"We thought it was better for our own local staff to contact our local people rather than other agencies who didn't know the people personally," he said.

For the stranded truckies, tourists and other travellers, while they were supplied with meals and activities each day by the council, most wanted information on what roads were open and shut, so mayor Gavin Baskett took it upon himself to go along and share that each day.

The night before the roads were opened, the council was able to arrange for a personal hardship payment of $180 to be made to each of those affected to help them fuel up, have a meal and get on their way.

"A lot of good friendships were built," Mr Bruhn said.

Cr Wharton said that while a lot of people wanted to help, in a number of cases they got in the way.

He said the community was now dealing with the fragile aftermath but people were moving on.

"I'm pretty proud of my community," he said.

Read more: 'We're on our knees'

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