Australian Troops Seen Taking Photos and Drinking Coffee While Flood Victims Lead Recovery Efforts

“You see them walking around with coffees, helping out in the civic centres, but that was the last I’d seen of them.”
A flood-damaged house
A woman walks past a flood-damaged business on March 4,in central Lismore,. Residents are returning to their properties to survey the damage following unprecedented storms and the worst flooding in a decade. (Photo by Dan Peled/Getty Images) 

Community leaders from across the flood-stricken communities of northern NSW continue to coordinate their own recovery efforts, long after the arrival of hundreds of Australian Defence Force (ADF) personnel. According to people on the ground, the ADF’s contribution has, for the most part, involved drinking coffee and mining disaster zones for media content. 

In the wake of chest-deep floodwaters, communities across the northern rivers of NSW have only been able to depend on themselves. Days after the government sent in Defence personnel to help them, these communities say they are no better off.


During a week that has seen a deluge of biblical proportions, some locals haven’t needed an invitation to step into leadership roles. They have been coordinating privately chartered helicopters to drop off food, water and medical supplies. They have been leading extraction efforts, supported by neighbours who might never have expected to be in the position they currently find themselves in.

For some, that has meant retrieving dead bodies from roofs and from trees. For others, it has meant rebuilding internet infrastructure and connecting victims with evacuation centres. 

Imagery pouring out of these areas, most commonly depicting lackadaisical-looking Defence Force personnel providing a backdrop to civilian flood recovery efforts, has put due pressure on the Coalition. To alleviate some of it, the federal government first mobilised ADF forces to support civilian-led efforts like those in Mullumbimby late last week.

Locals, though, say they might as well have stayed home. 

Russ Berry, a local wineseller, told VICE that they were nowhere to be seen until about 5p.m. on Friday. By then, he and the hundreds of volunteers he had been coordinating had already done most of what locals were hoping the ADF had come to do. 

“We’ve been told that they aren’t allowed to use hiking or climbing gear. And apparently, if they have trades, they aren’t allowed to use them. In other words, it is understood by locals that ADF personnel who might be qualified plumbers or electricians, aren’t allowed to engage in their trades, unless the work falls into their orders. “And that’s what we need,” Berry said. 


“So, instead, they’re walking around houses, asking women if they’re ‘okay’, and it’s like, ‘What are you doing?’ You see them walking around with coffees, helping out in the civic centres, but that was the last I’d seen of them.”

A spokesperson for the ADF was unable to provide VICE with a response before the publication of this article.

Various other locals who in many cases have just lost everything – their belongings, homes, even loved ones – reported similar behaviour to VICE. In one video that has been widely shared on social media, 10 ADF officers can be seen filming themselves unloading a trailer before dumping its contents out of shot, by the side of the road.

In the meantime, locals have continued to lead their own recovery efforts. Berry himself has played a major role in not only coordinating a large-scale volunteer workforce but also in offering directives to federal officials who are new to the region. By Tuesday morning, Berry said he and the small volunteer response team he had set up from his home were still receiving requests for access to helicopters and satellite phones. 

“We have 15 starlinks being donated to us, and last night we put a database together of all the contacts we’ve been able to [collate] in hard to reach communities and reached out to each of them,” he said. “Today, we have teams going in to set up the starlinks to get them some communication [infrastructure].”


Over in Lismore, locals share similar frustrations. 

Simon Tozer, a Lismore local who has spent the last week helping with the city’s cleanup, said community members haven’t bothered getting their hopes up for a meaningful federal response. Like the scenes coming out of Mullumbimby and its surrounding areas, he said locals are still leading recovery efforts more than a week after the flood struck Lismore’s CBD.

“And if they do,” he said, “we’re always taking it upon ourselves.” 

“In what I’ve seen, it’s just been locals and civilians doing any and all organising, getting volunteers together, and it’s just been on their own money, their own time.”

Locals in Lismore have been crowd-funding helicopters, turning to their own resources to drive the city’s recovery. Some have been managing major fundraising efforts, which have in some cases drawn donations as large as $100,000. Come Monday, the ADF had started to attract heat for its failure to step in. “Why weren’t their helicopters being made available?,” locals asked. “Why are we paying for it?”

On Thursday last week, the NSW government announced a $437.7 million funding package for flood victims, co-funded by the Commonwealth government. That cash, Perrottet’s office said, will be used to help communities clean up and remove debris as well as set up business grants for “primary producers”, small businesses and not-for-profits. 


But members of these disaster-stricken communities say they have yet to see any of it put to work.

Disaster relief funding has become, among other things, an Achilles heel for the Morrison government. Since 2019, the Coalition has been sitting on more than $4.7 billion worth of funding meant for emergency responses to events like those unfolding in Australia’s northeast. But they have refused to even allocate it – let alone spend it. (The longer they withhold it, the more interest they earn). 

Major General David Thomae was left to bear the brunt of the community’s criticism at a press conference on Monday. Asked if the personnel deployed to parts of the northern rivers, like Lismore and Mullumbimby, could have done more, he demurred: “I think we have done all that we can within the conditions we have been faced with.”

“It is great to see other community members supporting their own community,” he said. “It is not just an ADF response, it is the local government and local emergency services who were working very hard over the last week. We support them,” he said. 

But the reality of the situation, scores of locals say, is that they shouldn’t have had to do as much as they already have. Mullumbimby local, Reilly Baum, told VICE that all the excuses made by federal officials for the ADF’s delayed response, like not being able to access some communities due to extreme floodwaters, shouldn’t have happened. 


“There are systems in place, like the State Emergency Service (SES) and the Defence Force, who are trained to respond to catastrophes like this, and should be able to mobilise quickly and efficiently,” Baum said. 

She said that the government’s inaction, and inability to respond to a crisis of this scale in a timely way, “means there’s a lot of heartwarming success stories to publish.”

“Locals working around the clock to help families, people with tinnies rescuing neighbours from their roofs, residents doing welfare checks on the elderly while wading through chest-deep floodwaters,” Baum said. 

“Once we run out of success stories to publish, people will still be dead. Families who have lived in the community for generations will be pushed out by the exacerbated housing crisis. Mould and mosquitos will run rampant,” she said. 

“We will still be sweaty, muddy, exhausted, itchy, broke, and grief-stricken when the cameras turn away.”

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