Mufti Vol. 61 No. 2
Photography: The Defence Image Gallery and Anthony Stewart
In what was an already trying year for Victorians plagued with COVID-19 outbreaks and lockdowns, mother nature dealt a cruel twist.
While the Australian Defence Force’s primary role is to defend and protect Australia, it also provides assistance through its capabilities and resources in times of natural disasters, as we have seen countless times.
And this time was no exception.
As strong winds battered parts of the state, residents in the Dandenong Ranges, Gippsland and other parts of regional Victoria suffered devastating consequences.
On June 9, storms damaged homes, brought down powerlines and left a trail of debris. Thousands of homes were left without power, some for weeks – in the middle of a chilly winter.
The Upwey-Belgrave RSL Sub-Branch President, Anthony Stewart, says the destruction was like nothing seen before.
"In military terms, it looked like the place has been artillery bombed. I’m talking semi-trailer trucks driving through trees and the truck being dwarfed by the trees."
Despite the incredible efforts of the State Emergency Services Victoria and other emergency responders like the Country Fire Authority, it just wasn’t enough and extra support was called in.
At the request of the Victorian Government, around 120 Australian Defence Force personnel were mobilized to support Emergency Management Victoria and other local services in recovery and relief efforts following the storm and floods.
Personnel from Victorian-based Army, Navy and Air Force units, including combat engineers from the 4th Brigade’s 22nd Engineer Regiment, deployed within 24 hours of the state’s request.
Commander of Victorian-based Joint Task Group 629.2 Brigadier Matthew Burr says the ADF undertook a variety of tasks.
“We assisted with the distribution of generators to well over 120 homes. We then assisted with community reassurance, and we visited over 500 homes with the Red Cross and supported the Red Cross getting out to households in the region that had basically been without power and certainly had their own individual concerns and shown great resilience themselves as a community but needed that support.
Basically, just providing mobility transport and then supporting with an extra set of hands…We brought some engineering effort to reinforce what had been done locally by CFA, SES or Forest Fire Management Victoria and a range of other agencies.”
Despite being in the epicentre of the storm, by sheer luck, the Upwey-Belgrave Sub-Branch was spared any damage.
“We had people video calling us as they were trying to help people get out of their houses, with the house basically with trees through it. It was really scary,” says Anthony.
Anthony, who served with the Australian Army for 5 years, wanted to be part of the solution.
“The military has taught me a lot about how I can adapt to most situations.”
He flung the Sub-Branch doors open and spread the word.
"We decided to open it up to everyone…we sent out emails and social media posts saying if you’re affected by the storms come in, use the heaters, the power, the internet, the facilities."
And, offered to purchase generators for anyone in need.
The ADF’s Brigadier Burr says a cohesive approach is critical in these situations.
“We always work as a part of the Victorian whole of government response. These are partnerships that have been forged through previous disasters and as recently as the [2019/2020] bushfires. We basically work as part of that wider team, we work as one, shoulder to shoulder with them. I have to give a shout out, my admiration, to the local responders.”
It required some, like Private Nytan Pereira to pivot from the COVID-19 deployment to help with storm-recovery tasks.
“In the first week, we delivered portable generators and the response from people in the community was that they were very grateful, especially elderly residents who were happy to see the ADF and CFA turn up when they needed help the most.”
Brigadier Burr says it’s incredibly rewarding and fulfilling work.
“The response was always great, whether we were clearing a road in Gippsland around a school so the school bus could get through and school could continue. To see all the kids waving out the bus to our people, or people shaking our hand or thanking us as we do those door knocks.
"It gives us great pride to support the communities that many of us are from and it really gives a huge sense of service for our people."
On a personal level, Brigadier Burr draws on his Army Reservist skills as the Commander of the 4th Brigade in Victoria, as well as his civilian career with Fire Rescue Victoria.
"Like any army reservist, we tackle both our civilian career as well as our military career concurrently and that brings great strength as all reservists do to their military and their civilian careers. Both are very complimentary of each other."
Pivoting from their focus on Operation COVID-19 Assist, Australian Defence Force personnel stepped in to help the state government’s response.
Whether it’s on the front line of a pandemic or a natural disaster, Brigadier Burr says it’s become, to a degree, business as normal.
“It’s worth highlighting the agility and the responsiveness of the ADF to be able to support what the State’s needs are at the time and we’ll continue to do that as we go forward.”
No doubt comforting and reassuring words for many.