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"We fell silent": Orange SES volunteer relives flood mission in Ballina

Callum Cope in Ballina. Photo: Tyler Johnson.

By Peter Holmes

As they waded through catastrophic flood waters under a blazing sun in Ballina, three men from Orange SES - Tyler Johnson, Callum Cope and Ryan Bruin - were confronted not only by desperate people who'd lost everything, but by brown snakes, human waste, motor oil and other contaminants.

The Orange News Examiner spoke to Tyler Johnson, 30, from Orange about his experiences in Ballina and Lismore.

What were you doing when you got the call a week ago to say you were needed up north?

I was actually at work. I was [also] acting as duty officer for Orange City SES. We got a call asking for members to be available. I called around to see who was available at short notice. The details were a little unclear at that stage.

I had to call my boss and say, “Hey I might not be in for the rest of the week”.

You got together a group of three - yourself, Callum Cope and Ryan Bruin?

Yep, we’re all boat operators and in-water rescue techs. That’s pretty rare for a unit to have three. We had three or four techs left in Orange to cover this area.

What happened then?

There are a lot of phone calls for the next three or four hours. This was Monday. Lots of phone calls with our logistics team at SES trying to work out who could get where, what roads were open.

The plan was made, and at 6am Tuesday we drove from Orange to head north. We were in a dual cab ute packed with lots of gear, ration packs so we could be self-sufficient for a few days, lots of water and flood rescue ropes.

There was also a minivan, and it stopped and picked up [SES volunteers] in Bathurst and Parkes and other places.

Submerged houses seen from the air as the Orange SES crew is transported by chopper to Ballina. Photo: Tyler Johnson.

We got into Grafton at about 6 or 7 o’clock [Monday night]. We couldn’t physically get to Ballina. The decision was made to camp on the floor of the unit [SES Grafton].

On Wednesday, a chopper arrived in Grafton to transport you to Ballina?

Yeah, we had a few hours of checking gear, getting breakfast into us and then we went to the airport at midday. The NRMA chopper picked us up around 12:30, 1 o’clock and took a team of four of us - three from Orange and one from Parkes.

Can you describe the scene from the chopper as you flew into Ballina?

I’d never seen anything like that and I'm not sure I will again. It was water up to the gutter of numerous houses. It was quite confronting. You’re not sure if the people below you are isolated and cut off, are they OK?

Everyone went a bit quiet for a minute - oh shit, what are we going into?

Where did you land?

We had to land in Lismore on a makeshift landing ground at a local sporting field, an improvised landing. We were picked up, given a service vehicle and drove ourselves into Ballina.

At that point were you in communication with anyone, or you had no idea what you’re about to face?

It's a challenging one. We were able to get the Ballina team on the radio, but trying to get our vehicle from Lismore to Ballina was a wait and see because of road closures. We tried multiple roads to find a viable route.

The worst thing we could have done was write off our own vehicle in the flood waters on day one.

There was lots of talking to ground staff, council workers, the people making the road closures, just trying to find a path in.

We talked to the local SES in Ballina and agreed to meet at the Bunnings, which was an evacuation centre, with the army involved. That was an initial staging point so we could go out and do jobs. We hit the ground running, got into our wetsuits.

We completed a five- or six-kilometre walk through knee- to-waist deep water, with lots of contaminants, lots of human waste, dead fish, motor oil. It was about 28 degrees.

Checking on people, directing them to the Bunnings site so they could get evacuated by army trucks.

We went house to house.

The water was at a level where people were still in their houses, but not sure what to do?

Yeah. The water is of questionable quality, it’s deep enough people may or may not be comfortable getting themselves out.

L-R: Ryan Bruin, Matthew Hando (Parkes unit) and Callum Cope head out in Ballina. Photo: Tyler Johnson.

You can’t see what’s below. The elderly or people with mobility challenges were the main concern. You're checking both sides of the street, but not knocking on every door. Directing people, answering questions, trying to find an address because someone has raised a concern.

There was no phone coverage at this point. UHF was fine, our radios were fine, but no mobile or internet, so people can't call each other to see if they're okay.

You're doing welfare checks - are they ok, do they have food, water, medication and what help do they need, or do they wish to evacuate? Try to give them some options. Are they OK for the next three or four days if they are isolated?

Was it raining?

No it was incredibly hot, the sun was beating down on us. The storms followed through late that evening.

We completed that task, then another call came in so myself and Callum proceeded to do the same loop. By the end of the day the team had walked close to 12 kilometres through the water, which felt more like 40.

How didyou handle the emotional impact of seeing this devastation - did you switch off?

The Orange unit has a term for it. We go game face. You’re focused on the job, doing the maximum good we can. Everyone switches off the emotions and is focused on what we can do right now, how do we keep ourselves safe and help the community there.

All the jokes stop, the banter stops and we focus on the task at hand.

You’re wading through thigh and waist deep water - were there spiders and snakes floating by?

We saw couple of brown snakes. That was our main concern. We were out at about 10 or 11 o’clock one night. We’d seen a few through the day, but once we switched to night operation with head torches we were checking every stick quite closely to see if it moved or reacted when we got close, and some of them did.

Were the snakes floating?
Usually near the water's edge, just where the water started on a street. Some seemed to be floating a bit. Every stick became a question mark. After we saw a couple everyone was being very careful about what stick they bumped into.

How did you know it was time to knock off each day?

SES has official fatigue management guidelines. We heeded them as much as practically possible. There is also a conversation with the team - there are times where you haven't even reached your safe limit but the team is absolutely exhausted and can't make safe decisions.

There were some long days and we tried to manage those fatigue levels. [You don’t want to] burn yourself out on the first day. We got some bedding at our hotel, soft beds, no lighting or electricity.

So you’re in the dark, I guess you just crashed out ?

Yeah, you do everything by head torch. You get out of your wet gear, get it rinsed in the shower, get ready for the next day.

How do you deal with the contaminated water and make sure your gear is clean but you're not getting this stuff on yourself as you clean it?

It's one of the biggest health risks we face on the individual level - what if my wetsuit gets faeces or human sewage in it? In our situation we didn’t have access to much of a decontamination process, so we put our wetsuit through the shower, rinsing for as long as possible, and monitoring for symptoms if we started getting sick.

Everybody is okay at this stage but we’ll keep monitoring this week and check on each other. I'm getting the Dettol out and doing a full decontamination at home. You give yourself a really thorough shower, make sure you get everything, as the last thing you want is an open wound or cut.

What did you eat?

We all took ration packs, army style, 24-hour heat packs and two meal choices, which can keep you going for 24 hours. Some nights we had ration packs, just by the side of the road.

Other times the unit provided food. Locals were dropping off food. We had crab and prawns one night as the local seafood shop had all this leftover stock. Army, police, emergency services, we sat around for 20 minutes of downtime, eating and having a chat.

Tyler Johnson. Facebook.

How long were you in Ballina?

We stayed until Saturday morning. We were planning to leave on Friday - everyone had agreed with their partners and work, but the logistics were a bit complex for getting us out, so we made the decision to wait the extra day to make sure more roads would be open.

We worked in Ballina on Friday, helping on the scene. We got power back late Friday at the hotel. We were able to help with more medical checks, transporting, and there were some situations forming around some elderly people.

I had a woman about 80 years old crying on my shoulder on Friday while we were doing some checks. She was running out of medication, and she’d lost everything, no insurance, and she had an elderly partner she seemed to be caring for.

The view from the air as the Orange SES crew is transported to Ballina. Photo: Tyler Johnson.

She became emotional as we talked to her, she realised her blood pressure medication was running out the next day, most of her furniture was ruined, and she wasn’t sure she’d be able to rebuild. Completely overwhelmed. She’d lived there for 25 years, and been in the area longer. She didn’t expect Ballina would ever flood like this.

What other moments will stay with you?

That first day seeing how high the water was, and the sheer number of houses affected.

In Orange we get flash floods, a car in some water, or we’ll get a couple of houses affected. This was the equivalent of all of Summer Street, all of March Street, Dalton Street, being flooded.

Mostly it was about half a metre high through the houses, and water bubbling up through drains.

How was the mood on the trip home?

We had a great dinner on Friday night before we went to bed. We sat on the side of the street in the dark eating pizza and having a bit of chat.

Everyone was glad to be going home, but a bit torn. It's really hard to walk away.

We drove through Lismore and saw the high water line, three stories high. Just the sheer destruction. People emptying the entire contents of their house onto the street.

We fell silent as we drove through Lismore. We thought Ballina was bad, and it was, but then you realised it was worse again. The sheer destruction across both towns was pretty hard to comprehend.

I think everybody needed a mental break when we left Lismore. Stay focused, rotate drivers, keep some music on, try and focus on getting home. We've done what we can. We like to say that we didn't make any situation worse, we only helped. We could've used more people, yes - but we could've had 1,000 people and it probably wouldn’t be enough. You do what you can.

Has it changed your view on the volunteer work you do?

You get people who are tragics. Myself, Callum and Ryan I’d put in that category. I can't see any of us hanging up our boots any time soon. I’m really appreciative of my partner and the company I work for, that I could go.

The mood was definitely that if this happens again we want to be there sooner, we’d definitely go back.


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