Recognition for Tropical Cyclone Debbie responders

A Mobile Service Centre parked on the road at Airlie Beach. There are trees in the background, including one that has been uprooted.

The Department of Human Services’ Cyclone Debbie Response Team has recently been announced as winners of an Exceptional Team Performance award, as part of an annual staff awards ceremony.

When Tropical Cyclone Debbie hit earlier this year, the team came together from all corners of the organisation to help devastated communities.

Their award, presented at the Pinnacle Achievement Awards in Canberra, recognised the unique challenges Cyclone Debbie presented for a department experienced in responding to natural disasters.

Severe weather events persisted for 10 days and affected an area of over 1,200kms in distance, from Airlie Beach in North Queensland to Lismore in New South Wales.

"Golden Bosun" yacht run aground on Airlie Beach.
“Golden Bosun” yacht run aground on Airlie Beach.

So while locals searched for safe and high ground, staff from around the country flew and drove their way to help those who had lost everything in the storm and floods.

One group drove the department’s Mobile Service Centre (MSC) from Coolangatta to Rockhampton to prepare for the Tropical Cyclone’s impact.

The team, who staffed the MSC and its onward journey from Rockhampton to MacKay, was organised from a hospital bedside by program manager Kylie Dwyer.

“Many roads and airports that would have ordinarily been used were closed, making an already tricky task even more complex,” Kylie said.

“In a phone meeting on Saturday I was tasked with organising a team on the MSC in North Queensland as soon as possible.

“You might have a plan to go somewhere, but then you get intel from the ground and you can no longer go that way.

“It took us much longer to get there because of the road conditions. The truck is 20 tonnes; it’s not easy to get through.

“I made those arrangements from my dad’s bed at the hospital. We know to always carry our laptops with us!”

Mobile Service Centre parked behind uprooted trees at Midge Point beach.
Mobile Service Centre parked behind uprooted trees at Midge Point beach.

And it didn’t get any easier when staff arrived, with social workers playing a key role in supporting people who in some cases had nowhere to turn.

Senior Social Worker Ann McConnell, who was on the ground providing support, said people would arrive not knowing what it was they needed, or just looking for someone to talk to.

“All types of people come to us wanting help, from families with young children, to the elderly,” Ann said.

“These are unseen events for a lot of people and the impacts will be felt for a long time.

“We spoke with one man who didn’t have insurance on his small business. He will never be able to open again and lost everything in the floods.

“Part of our role is linking people to relevant services, both within the department, and to external services that can help.”

Mobile Service Centre outside Lismore Railway Station.
Mobile Service Centre outside Lismore Railway Station.

The department had 1,100 emergency-trained staff who took over 60,000 calls and processed over 26,000 disaster recovery claims worth over $25 million in payments, in response to the cyclone.