In a summer of natural disasters, more than 1200 soldiers, sailors and aircrew from Joint Task Force (JTF) 664 responded within hours of Tropical Cyclone Yasi crossing the North Queensland coast.
Many soldiers reported for duty, arriving in the disaster zone while their partners and families managed posting cycle relocations in and out of the Townsville area. Commander JTF 664, Brigadier Stuart Smith, thanked the military families for both their understanding and their sacrifices, commenting,
"Some families have recently arrived in North Queensland and many of their removals have been affected by the floods, so it really has been a demanding time."
ADF personnel were warmly received by the North Queensland community and their efforts and contribution proved highly effective.
"Army has the ability to bring lots of manpower into a site to repair damage and move debris off roads in a coordinated fashion, and provide early reconnaissance in hard-hit areas," Brigadier Smith explained.
The teamwork and rapid response capability of the ADF, allied with the hard work and initiative displayed by its personnel, ensured the effectiveness of the ADF contribution to community recovery in the aftermath of Cyclone Yasi.
Army and Navy joined forces in the aftermath of Cyclone Yasi when an amphibious beach team from the 10th Force Support Battalion and 35th Water Transport Squadron established a beachhead in Mourilyan Harbour to receive Army’s Landing Craft Medium (LCM8) and the Navy’s Landing Craft Heavy.
The landing craft delivered critical supplies, including food and water, for the civilian population at Tully Heads, as well as assets and personnel from the 3rd Combat Services Support Battalion. These included engineering equipment, trucks and ambulances for Operation YASI ASSIST.
LCM8 crewman Private Tate Ellis explained that, once they had delivered the first load of food and water, they would return immediately to Townsville to prepare for another trip north.
"On the next trip, we brought up a bladder containing 35,000 litres of diesel for use by the units operating in the area," Private Ellis added.
"It was fantastic to get out and do the job to help and support the locals."
On clean-up duty
Armed with chainsaws, axes, shovels and a generator, the soldiers of 3rd Brigade got down and dirty to lend a hand in the Cyclone Yasi clean-up.
The Officer Commanding Alpha Company (A Coy), 51st Battalion, The Far North Queensland Regiment, Major Steve Paton, said that the soldiers’ presence lifted the spirit of local communities. Many people exhibited an obvious sense of relief when they saw help arriving.
"Our role included route reconnaissance and establishing access along the major highways and roads to key infrastructure," Major Paton said.
Many soldiers from Lavarack Barracks were quickly deployed throughout Townsville to help repair damage and clear debris.
Lieutenant Tobias Pitt, from Bravo Squadron (B Squadron), 3rd/4th Cavalry Regiment, noted that the main challenge lay in coordinating the effort since all areas had been equally affected.
"We started working in the Gulliver area at noon straight after Tropical Cyclone Yasi had passed and finished at dusk each night," Lieutenant Pitt explained.
"The work was coordinated with the State Emergency Services Queensland, while the Queensland Police Service cordoned the roads we worked on."
Air support welcomed in cyclone zone
Air assets from the 5th Aviation Regiment (5 Avn Regt) in Townsville and the Army Aviation Training Centre in Oakey thundered into the Cassowary Coast regional area bringing troops and vital supplies. Six Black Hawks, one Chinook and eight Kiowa aircraft were force assigned to provide critical Defence Assistance to the Civil Community in the cyclone-ravaged areas of North Queensland.
The Kiowas were used as observation platforms to meet the commander’s information requirements on the status of the affected communities, the condition of roads and the level of damage to infrastructure such as power lines. The Chinook and Black Hawks moved troops, equipment, water and food into the disaster area.
The Commanding Officer of 5 Avn Regt, Lieutenant Colonel James Brown, described the work as steady, allowing the commander the flexibility to hurdle blocked roads and receive instant information.
"The weather was the biggest challenge for us; all our aircraft were flown to Mackay to weather out the storm because of concerns about the tidal surge," Lieutenant Colonel Brown added.
"We had missions which were cut short because of the weather and a number of tasks were modified because the cloud cover and rain were too extreme for operations."
Aircraft and crews from 5 Avn Regt were also involved in the evacuation of Theodore and in assisting Emergency Management Queensland in the Queensland flood relief efforts at towns such as Emerald, Ipswich, Biloela and Rockhampton.
Lieutenant Colonel Brown said that, although the Army Aviation Training Centre was not an operational unit, the way it had responded to the two urgent Defence Assistance to the Civil Community requests had been magnificent.
"As usual, the work we did under the conditions was a testament to the training and dedication of the air and ground-crews of 5 Avn Regt, as well as the whole of the aviation capability. The 6th Aviation Regiment from Holsworthy also responded quickly and effectively at extremely short notice to look after the people of Queensland," Lieutenant Colonel Brown added.
The task force for Operation YASI ASSIST was formed early and quickly established command and control elements under the command of Brigadier Stuart Smith. This enabled the local disaster management groups’ requests to be handled through Headquarters 3rd Brigade.