Sapphire Coast SES Commander Michelle De Friskbom has just returned from Northern NSW where she was assisting flood-affected communities with rapid damage assessments.
Ms De Friskbom flew to Ballina on Thursday, March 10, only hours after she could assure her own Bega Valley community was safe from the threat of flooding.
After working and volunteering in the Valley, she was asked to head north by SES state operators, so she boarded a plane and flew to Ballina where she stayed until Monday, March 14.
She was asked to assist as a rapid damage assessment coordinator for 10 Local Government Areas. Ms De Friskbom also ended up taking on the morning role of briefing and deciding where the various emergency assistance teams were needed that day.
Most of her work involved gathering statistics to send through a situation report for the chain of command. That data would then be used to assess whether it was safe to get people back to their communities.
Ms De Friskbom said when she left there had been well over 14,000 rapid damage assessments conducted for buildings, homes, businesses, and roads. One Fire and Rescue team she worked with on Saturday, March 12 had done 1445 assessments in just one day alone.
"The Fire and Rescue teams were very good at their job because they have search and rescue capabilities, they're very knowledgeable about the structure integrity of buildings.
"They were making assessments about whether buildings were totally destroyed, damaged, and uninhabitable, or whether they could be returned to be washed out by returning RFS or strike teams, because basically they're hosing out entire houses," she said.
She also coordinated emergency teams to reach some of the small communities, such as Huonbrook in the hinterland that had experienced landslips and extensive damage to roads.
She said the Fire and Rescue teams even trekked an hour on foot into some of those small communities to conduct rapid damage assessments.
"It's just amazing what the teams were doing out in the fields to get this done and to feed the information into the right people to get the assistance that was needed," she said.
READ ALSO: NSW floods affect 37,000 Indigenous people
On Monday there was a transition from the response phase into the recovery process, whereby recovery and disaster support groups would take over for the next phase.
It wasn't an easy job for Ms De Friskbom, who said she had experienced a number of natural disasters over the last few years in her role, and that seeing all the damage had really taken a toll on her.
"I tried to protect myself a little bit," she said, "I knew that I didn't really need to see much more."
"I was up in Lismore in 2017, so I knew already what that looks like and I knew it was going to be a lot worse this time.
"Floods come through and they destroy everything, but there's still so much left and it's a stark reminder when you see people with their entire houses out in the street waiting for the dump truck to come along and take basically their life's possessions away," she said.
She said the communities up north are still largely in shock - "I was in shock seeing it" - and said that even she struggled to find the right words to describe what it's actually like.
"It's unimaginable, it's sad, it's frustrating because there's just so many people to help and it almost seems an impossible task to help every single person.
"I saw a lot of displaced people when I flew into Coolangatta and their homes were the all same - uninhabitable - and talking to the human face of people is just extremely sad.
"I think the challenge is going to be what we had from the fires, it's how do we start the recovery process, it's different for every individual, for every community, there's not a one size fits all for recovery," she said.
The other issue Ms De Friskbom flagged post disaster was the issue of housing and housing crisis. She said the Bega Valley was an example of what happens in these small communities of displaced people.
"We're talking about communities that were pretty much wiped off the entire map, the whole community was just completely flooded out, it's like total annihilation for some of those towns" she said.
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