As the flood waters rose in Lismore, hundreds of locals went out in their boats to rescue those whose homes had suddenly been swallowed. The community flotilla dwarfed the crews filled by volunteers for the State Emergency Service, who at one point were ordered to pull back because the situation had become too dangerous.
The Australian defence force arrived later, rescuing 113 people. The speed of the response was widely criticised by locals, sparking calls for a specialised arm of the ADF which is trained and resourced to respond to natural disasters.
The royal commission into national natural disaster arrangements, which examined the ADF in response to the 2019-2020 bushfires, said the ADF should “not be seen as a first responder for natural disasters, nor relied on as such”.
But experts have said that while there are cultural, practical and constitutional issues with making the army a frontline first responder to domestic disasters, it is the only organisation which currently has the funding to do the work required.
On Wednesday the number of ADF personnel on the ground in New South Wales more than doubled, to a force of more than 3,000, most of which were deployed in the northern rivers region. There were another 1,200 working over the border in south-eastern Queensland.
They were tasked with helping clean-up efforts in Lismore, Broadwater, Cabbage Tree Island, Coffs Harbour, Grafton, Murwillumbah, Port Macquarie, Tweed Heads-Byron Bay, Wallum and Woodburn, as well as conducting welfare checks via helicopter and helping the SES with remote food drops.
Peter Dutton told breakfast television on Tuesday that he was “not going to cop criticism of the ADF” for the speed of their response.
The prime minister, Scott Morrison, echoed his defence minister during a press conference in Lismore on Wednesday, defending the speed of ADF response.
However he did concede they could not be made “available on a moment’s notice”, saying that was an unrealistic expectation.
But locals who have been coordinating their own disaster response for more than a week say it is unreasonable to expect community volunteers to have to crowdfund their own emergency response in the absence of sufficient government support.
Emma Palmer is one of the civilians who has spent the past week covered in mud, trying to deliver food to those trapped by flood waters and help with the long clean-up process. The Griffith University lecturer lives at Bangalow, an area of the Byron Bay hinterland that was out of the reach of flood waters. Her husband was one of the boaties out in flood waters in Lismore on 28 February, rescuing people from rooftops.
“If the community had not gone in there with their private boats, hundreds of people would have died, there’s no question about that,” she says.
There is significant anger in the community that the ADF did not take control of that first response.
“There has been a group in this country that can go in and save lives, unless we think it’s acceptable for those lives to be lost,” Palmer says.
She spent Tuesday at Woodburn, helping clean up and provide food to volunteers.
“I did see some ADF troops … mostly standing around, seems to be the common theme,” she says. “I also saw a lot of community members out there with gloves on – some of them not with gloves on – shovelling mud, loading people’s belongings into wheelbarrows, and piling it all up and moving it along. A lot of very frustrated people, but a lot of community spirit coming through.”
Palmer says there is a need for a properly resourced and trained national disaster response agency, similar to the Federal Emergency Management Agency in the United States, which is able to quickly respond to disasters. It would need to be flexible, locally responsive, and not rely on a top-down organisation. Those criteria would exclude the ADF.
“The disasters that are confronting us in Australia require that kind of assistance,” Palmer says. “And if they can’t do it then someone needs to.”
Palmer says it is unreasonable that the burden of response and recovery has been placed on affected communities.
“It’s reasonable to expect and foresee a community will lift up and help each other in a time of emergency,” she says. “But given how foreseeable it is that this crisis will continue, it is just not right or appropriate or safe or sustainable, or even productive from an economic perspective to make [community volunteers] the main arm of recovery.”
Former commissioner for the Australian Capital Territory Emergency Services Authority, Peter Dunn, said he felt “quite angry and disappointed” that state and federal governments had not improved their emergency response in the wake of the 2019-2020 bushfires.
The NSW premier, Dominic Perrottet, admitted during a Radio National interview on Tuesday that the state had not improved its emergency response after the devastating bushfires, but said it would do so in response to the floods.
Dunn told the ABC: “We need to have a system where people are deployed into areas that are isolated to actually act as the coordinating pivot point for any of this response, and then the recovery that follows that.
“And that’s not happened and I feel quite angry and disappointed that after all the reviews and all the reports and the commission reports and everything following fires and floods previously, our leaders have done nothing about this. The lessons are there. They haven’t been learned and they darn well need to be.”
The royal commission, which handed down its final report in the ebb between the first and second waves of the coronavirus pandemic, warned that the “increasing complexity of disaster risks presents new challenges that could overwhelm the capabilities of our emergency services”.
More than 20% of all submissions to the royal commission referred to the ADF, and suggested it could be a source of support in national disasters. But the final report stated that while the ADF could provide support in recovery, it should not be relied upon for more than ancillary support.
“Generally, the public perception was that the ADF could assist in every aspect and was always readily available,” the report said. “This is not, in fact, the case. Nor is it a reasonable expectation of the ADF.”
Mark Duckworth, a senior research fellow at the Centre for Resilient and Inclusive Societies at Deakin University, said there was a need for a well-funded and trained surge capacity of first responders in addition to back-up help from the ADF.
“We turn to the ADF in the absence of anything else,” Duckworth says.
“We do need to fund and maintain increased surge capacity. One of the problems in Australia is this type of surge capacity, in times where there isn’t an emergency, is seen as superfluous resources which we don’t want to maintain. But you can’t conjure up resources in a time of disaster. We should be looking at additional surge capacity that is funded and trained, in addition to the ADF.”
Dunn suggested part of that the investment should go into local governments, to take over in a professional capacity the response, rebuilding and recovery work that is currently being done by thousands of volunteers.
Prof Susan Harris Rimmer, a researcher in climate justice at Griffith University, also said the investment should go to local first responders – after investment in mitigation efforts to reduce the risk in the first place.
“You should never bank on volunteers, but our system banks on volunteers,” she says. “People have got to understand that climate change changes the game. You can’t have people doing this kind of work for free on a voluntary basis. This stuff is actually predictable and bad and it’s gone up a notch and we need professional coordination.”
Harris Rimmer grew up in Lismore and helped her father evacuate from the city. She says Lismore will not recover without “massive government investment”.
“Those people aren’t going to be able to put that town back together by themselves no matter how strong a community they are,” she says. “This is a community I love, this is where I spent my high school years, in that school that everyone’s seen with the water up to the roof. And it’s not the people of Lismore’s fault that that happened to them.
“So where are we in that conversation then? Should they bear all the responsibility for living in Lismore in the first place, is that the way it works now?”
Research on disaster response shows that investment at a local community level is more effective than a top-down national approach, Harris Rimer says.
“You see these people who are left alone for days and days feeling justifiably angry, but if you don’t invest in first responders that’s what’s going to happen,” she says. “It takes time to deploy people from other places especially in an emergency so you need to have that localised first responder network really organised.”
But she says that a failure of government planning and investment means that there is no alternative but to use the ADF in disaster response when an emergency is bigger than can be managed by local networks alone.
“The defence force is the only one with decent funding,” she says. “They are so expensive to use, they’re not designed for these types of issues, and it’s not appropriate to use them. But we haven’t made decent plans.”
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