Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Murrumbidgee Floods

It goes without saying that the summer of 2011-12 has been one of the wettest on record. So when the figure of 75% of NSW is affected by floods it comes as no surprise. The latest area to be inundated was the Murrumbidgee region, the Burrinjuck dam was overflowing and as a result the downstream communities of Gundagai, Wagga and Griffith were affected.

As part of the SES management of floods I was deployed to Wagga on Tuesday 6th March. The town had already been cut in two by the rising Murrumbidgee River and the CBD was now being ordered to evacuate. Every business and residence in the exclusion zone were sandbagged in anticipation. As night fell on the 6th everyone watched and waited for the river to peak at its predicted 10.7m. This predicted height would be enough to top the levee bank and in flood the CBD, but as the night unfolded and with a bit of luck the river didn’t reach its expected levels. The maximum height of 10.56m was recorded and many thousands of locals breathed a sigh of relief.

Arriving back at the Wagga SES after a good night’s sleep I was quickly deployed to Griffith where flooding had occurred for the first time in 100 years. Like Wagga, many Griffith residents had been forced from their homes taking very few possessions. I was tasked to the local Unit as the new Incident Controller with a briefing of “make it happen”. The local guys were burnt out, tired, over worked and swamped by the sheer volume of work that needed to be undertaken.

We quickly set about tasking fresh teams and standing down the guys that had been going all week. It didn’t take long for the size of this incident to become apparent. As soon as one chapter closed another quickly opened and quite often a new never-seen challenge would present itself.

Over the next couple of days I struggled with the concept that Griffith was flooding when there are no rivers in town and the sun was blaring. Irrigation canals and run-off from recent heavy rains seemed to be the cause. Canals would randomly burst their banks resulting in us continually chasing our tails. There were no gauge heights, nor predicted peaks to measure this phenomenon by, we literally flew by the seat of pants and occasionally we made mistakes.

Our focus was on the outlying communities of Yenda, Bilbur, Beelbangra and Yoogali. These towns had been under an evacuation order for a few days and the residents were keen to get back into their homes. However with the threat of flooding still possible this was a delicate situation as some residents had left pets behind while others couldn’t get to work as their business was part of the evac order. On the 9th March there was great relief for both SES volunteers and residents as much of the area was given the “All clear” to return to their homes. For me, this decision was like a weight lifted off my shoulders, the phones rang less, the public turning up at our HQ was reduced and there was a sense of accomplishment across the members.

Our euphoria was short lived, the next day had a different challenge. Waters travelling downstream were impacting on another area of Griffith and it was decided to evacuate another resident in an attempt to divert water flows through his property. Once again the members sprang into action and we assisted to evacuate this particular land owner. A selfless act of courage by this resident that I’m sure won’t go unnoticed.

Just as our day started to slow down a call was received for a possible breech in a levee bank, we tasked a team to do recce. It was soon after this that I received a frightening call saying “the guys had been washed off the road, and needed help”. My floodrescue training proved vital and within minutes we had despatched teams and Westpac Lifesaver III to the scene. It’s at this point that minutes seem to take hours, but we soon had notification that all 4 members had been winched to safety. A positive resulted but a mark on the “Service” and my time as I.C.

As my deployment came to end there was still so much to be done. Additional teams were arriving all the time, the replacement I.C arrived just in time and as I departed the Griffith HQ I was comfortable with the job my team and I had accomplished.

Thanks to my fellow OOA team for a job well done.

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