19 December 2023

Help is coming: Australian Defence Force to start evacuations today

| Matt Nicholls
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The Australian Defence Force will start evacuating Wujal Wujal residents on Tuesday morning.

After two soggy and sleepless nights, the people of Wujal Wujal will be evacuated to Cooktown today after rescue attempts were thwarted by bad weather on Monday afternoon.

Following desperate pleas from community members, the federal government finally called on the Australian Defence Force to mobilise to Far North Queensland to help with evacuations and transporting additional resources to the region.

The ADF has deployed two Chinook helicopters and two AW-139s to the Far North.

Helicopters were on their way to Wujal Wujal when they struck a cell of bad weather at the Daintree, forcing them to abandon evacuation plans. It was a blow to residents who are soaking wet, having spent the previous night on their roofs.

“It’s been really hard for the community,” said Wujal Wujal Aboriginal Shire Council CEO Kiley Hanslow.

“What happens is we think we’re getting the chopper here, then they try and get up and try to bring the chopper here and the weather just holds it back.”

She said that bags of food had been handed out, supplied by a local supermarket.

“Tonight may be the last night that we can afford to just wait around,” she said.

Wujal Wujal has been destroyed by flooding after the Bloomfield River broke its banks on Sunday evening.

Cape York Weekly has launched a fundraiser to support the Wujal Wujal community in the aftermath of the emergency, in the first eight hours it raised almost $10,000.

Premier Steven Miles said no stone would be left unturned to get the people of Wujal to safety.

“An attempt was made to aerially evacuate Wujal Wujal today but unfortunately the rain and cloud is still too strong,” he said yesterday.

“Another attempt is now planned for 8am (Tuesday); it’s a very detailed plan underway for how to do that and then how to take care of them in the evacuation centre.”

That will be conducted with help from the ADF and residents will be taken to Cooktown.

Meanwhile, Cooktown residents worked overtime on Monday to gather bedding, clothes and other items to support the Wujal residents who will be flying in to temporarily live at the PCYC Events Centre.

Once Wujal is evacuated, efforts will focus on those stuck in the small communities of Degarra, Ayton, Rossville and Helenvale.

“Jonesy” at the Lion’s Den Hotel. 15 people were evacuated from the iconic pub by helicopter on Monday.

Those communities have been cut off from Cooktown due to localised flooding and many were rescued by local boaties and a helicopter pilot on Monday.

A boatie rescued eight people from Degarra on Monday afternoon after a helicopter mission was cancelled because of stormy weather.

State Disaster Coordinator and Deputy Commissioner Shane Chelepy said a mustering helicopter and a boat rescued at least 23 people.

At Mount Molloy, adults and children were rescued from rooftops.

“[There were] three adults, two children, who were on roofs of houses from last night,” Mr Chelepy said.

“We were able to get our emergency services helicopter to those people this afternoon.”

Fifteen people were rescued from the Lion’s Den Hotel rooftop by a mustering chopper.

“Thank you to a local member with a mustering chopper who Cooktown Police were able to engage – did an incredible effort in rescuing those 15 people,” Mr Chelepy said.

The Lion’s Den Hotel patrons were all smiles after a successful evacuation.

Police and emergency services are preparing to ramp up their efforts as the weather eases on Tuesday, he said.

“We’re actively planning to be able to re-supply food, water and medical supplies into all of the isolated communities and with weather opening tomorrow morning we can commence at first light in the morning.”

There are some residents unaccounted for, and authorities fear there will be some fatalities when floodwater resides, however, there are no confirmed casualties as a result of this disaster.

A body was found at Holloways Beach in Cairns but he died as a result of a medical episode.

Some people have not been able to make contact with family and friends simply due to the loss of power and telecommunications.

Prime Minister Anthony Albanese says he will visit the Far North “when it is feasible and appropriate”.

He says footage of the disaster was “quite horrific”.

“We are still trying to organise along with the Queensland premier to see whether we could get up there tomorrow,” he told ABC on Monday.

“We would’ve gone today but because of the circumstances, you don’t want to be an impediment, you want to be an assistance.

“So we will certainly see first-hand when that is feasible and appropriate.”

The 51st Battalion, Far North Queensland Regiment has started helping out locals in Cairns.

The Cairns Airport has reopened, although local flights will be dependent on the airlines.

Travellers are urged to check the social media pages and websites of their airline to determine if their flights are still running.

The Cooktown Airport has yet to reopen.

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