SBS: What will Australia’s fire and flood evacuations look like in the middle of a pandemic?

(21 Dec) As flooding recently forced evacuations across northern New South Wales and preparations get underway for bushfire season, emergency services have had to rethink how to plan for disaster in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

While last December saw hundreds of Australians fleeing their homes from bushfire, last week saw evacuation orders for flooding issued along the northern New South Wales coast. 

Thousands of residents across several regions faced evacuation their homes, many who would usually seek accommodation in evacuation centres set up in large community spaces such as schools, clubs and town halls. 

But this year, emergency agencies have also had to contend with the dual crisis of the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced changes to how evacuation centres and other support services are able to operate.

In the NSW Tweed Shire, which saw evacuation warnings issued near Tumbulgum, the local council urged residents to treat seeking shelter in evacuation centres – which are open for the minimum time required – as a last resort.

“We started 2020 with a flood that went into bushfires that went into a pandemic, and we’ve ended up with a flood,” Tweed Shire Council general manager Troy Green told SBS News. “I think there’s a broader awareness in the community of everyone’s individual responsibility to be better prepared for these types of events.” 

He urged residents to have a plan in place in case of natural disasters and not to expect “there’s going to be an SES boat right at your door when you need it”. 

“If you think about requirements around the pandemic, and the one person per two [or four] square metres … our evacuation centres that were in place pre-COVID certainly were not going to be able to cope with incidents like this,” he said. 

With the COVID-19 crisis developing just weeks after last year’s catastrophic bushfire season, state and territory governments were forced to move quickly to rethink traditional disaster planning models. 

Marg Prendergast, executive director of Resilience NSW – the state’s disaster agency – said the pandemic posed a number of unprecedented questions about how to support people in the aftermath of last year’s fires and ensure any evacuations this year were COVID-safe.

“We’ve had to be really agile and think about how we can do things differently,” she told SBS News. “Because in a COVID world, it is going to be tricky for us to manage a large-scale evacuation.”

The development of the COVID-19 procedures for evacuation began in March, Ms Prendergast said, and include plans to screen all people entering an evacuation centre for symptoms where practicable, intermediate staging areas, including drive-through options, staggered meal times at evacuation centres, commercial laundry facilities and barriers between family in sleeping areas. 

Emergency Management Victoria said it has adopted similar social distancing requirements at control centres, with COVID advisors to be stationed at locations across the state. “Similar roles have been created in the event that emergency relief centres need to be established,” a spokesperson said. 

In Queensland, which has also seen significant rainfall and flood warnings, superintendent James Haig from the Rural Fire Service said coronavirus measures were first introduced during its fire mitigation season.

This involved ensuring the minimum number of firefighters conducting hazard reduction burns in one area, holding briefings outdoors or digitally, ensuring a limited number of people were using the same piece of equipment, and making sure meal times for crews were COVID-safe.

There was also planning to ensure there was no loss of capability if there was a confirmed COVID-19 case in the middle of an emergency, such rotating internal staff across different shifts.

The pandemic was “always going to be a challenge, but then we are quite used to dealing with unexpected challenges,” Superintendent Haig said. 

While COVID-19 has complicated the delivery of emergency services, he added ensuring the safety of yourself and others in the event of a natural disaster was still the number one priority.

“If you are jeopardy, your safety is compromised, and you are directed to evacuate, do so,” he said.

“We ask people to try and follow COVID protocols, but the first priority, the most important priority, is immediate safety.”

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