By KATE BANVILLE
From floods to fires, Queenslanders are no strangers to natural disasters, but the need for community resilience has never been greater.
That’s where the Queensland Reconstruction Authority comes in.
The state agency dedicated to disaster response was established in 2011 in the wake of Tropical Cyclone Yasi, Queensland’s biggest storm on record.
The category five cyclone shattered lives and caused more than $800 million in damage to communities across the state’s Far North and Mid West.
Many of the same communities remain vulnerable to destructive weather events and with an early fire season on the way, the Caller sat down with the man at the helm of the organisation, Major General Jake Ellwood (pictured below).
He’s a military man through and through, with a career spanning more than three decades as an Infantry Officer in the Australian Army.
While his new role no longer sees him deployed internationally, he said it was “service to his country” done on home soil.
“I don’t know of any other organisation like it where the focus day in and day out is on helping the community with both recovering from disaster but also to emerge stronger,” Ellwood said.
Although Ellwood’s role as CEO, which he’s held since March, focuses on positioning Queensland communities to better ‘weather the storm’, he’s familiar with commanding amid chaos.
Ellwood was the national coordinator for the Australian Defence Force’s response to the Black Summer bushfires in 2019-20, a disaster which killed 33 people including nine fire fighters.
“It was devastating to see beautiful tracts of land destroyed, houses destroyed, people’s lives turned upside down,” Ellwood said.
“The scale was almost incomprehensible and then you see the actual fires going on and just when you think the fire was going to settle down the wind would come back in particular areas.
“It was very confronting but at the same time, to be with the Australian Defence Force supporting emergency management services, and volunteers who are all amazing, and support the community was wonderful.”
From fires to floods, Ellwood stepped back into response mode during the deluge that swamped Australia’s east coast in February last year.
As Queensland’s State Recovery Coordinator, Ellwood was was once again applying military strategy to a rapidly unfolding natural disaster.
“When I got that call, it required no thought at all,” he said.
“I don’t look at things with a concern because being worried for me achieves nothing, so it’s about understanding what the threats and opportunities are.
“The scale was massive and it all comes down to prioritisation and exceptionally good relationships with the other government organisations.
“While Emergency services do that (initial) response the Queensland Reconstruction Authority is already standing up, starting to do recovery.
“They’re thinking about recovery before recovery is even begun and that’s key because it makes sure that there is no gap as might happen in other areas because if you wait on recovery, you end up with this terrible space between response and recovery where the community is left wondering.”
It’s these types of lessons learnt from previous weather events Ellwood said would be vital for Queensland’s preparation to deal with whatever’s coming next.
“We’ve got to do what we do need to and take heed of what science would tell us and that is that we will have more frequent and more impactful events,” Ellwood said.
“And so resilience must be at the front of our mind.”
Recent floods in North West Queensland highlighted the fragility of road infrastructure and connectivity for communities when struck by disaster.
Ellwood said it reinforced the importance of tailoring the agency’s assistance to individual communities.
“You look at the North West and the tracts of land are vast, so the problem set for flooding there is different to the problem set of flooding in in say – city where it’s inundation.
“For those rural areas isolation becomes the problem.
“There is an expectation of flooding in these areas and it’s good until it’s not, because that is a cycle that can be really good for for primary producers, but it can also be devastating – as it was in this case.
“And so to me, I’m just clear eyed and making sure that we are moving forward in getting all the works done from previous disasters and seeing where we can make gains to make us stronger as a community.”
More than $150m in multi-level government funding has started flowing throughout the state, with mental health and social wellbeing also a key focus of strengthening community resilience.
It’s something Ellwood said had been a “vital” shift to help communities stay stronger for longer.
“In the past people would see recovery as bricks and mortar and repairing roads but at the end of the day it’s all about people,” he said.
“When communities have been cut off for a long time their livelihoods have been jeopardised.
“So they now have a lack of financial security which puts pressure on the whole family and for children it can be a loss of their sense of emotional security.”
The Bureau of Meteorology recently issued an updated El Nino alert with a 70 per cent chance of an El Nino now forming.
In addition to generally hotter and drier conditions, the weather pattern could also trigger an earlier start to the bushfire season.
With heavy fuel loads built across the state on the back of consecutive years of wet weather, Ellwood said it’s all the more reason to be prepared.
“Those who are ready before disaster are invariably, no matter what happens out there, they are much quicker off the starting blocks in recovery,” he said.
“It’s really making sure that we are postured for whatever comes because you definitely don’t want the community to be worried about fires but they should be thinking about making sure they’re fire ready.
“In the north, the cyclone season will come soon enough too.”
For more information on ‘Get Ready Queensland’, visit www.getready.qld.gov.au.