An Australian Urban Search and Rescue taskforce has returned from Vanuatu after a 10-day operation to repair schools and hospitals in Port Vila after Cyclone Pam.
The team was led by Fire and Rescue NSW and comprised of 56 personnel including fire officers, paramedics, doctors and engineers.
Fire and Rescue New South Wales commissioner Greg Mullins told the team shortly after they landed in Sydney that they had done “an outstanding job”.
“Because of your efforts the old hospital is up and running again, schools up and running, so the kids can get back to some sort of normality,” Mr Mullins said.
ABC News was at the arrivals hall at Sydney Airport and spoke to some of the team members about the devastation in Vanuatu.
Chris Lyons from Fire and Rescue NSW said the team “got straight to work” in Port Vila to stabilise damaged buildings.
“When we first arrived there weren’t many full trees, they were denuded, the people were scared and hiding in their houses, makeshift houses,” he said.
Mr Lyons said the crews did a rapid assessment of the damaged buildings before the restoration of all the schools possible and the hospitals.
“It was full on for 12-hour days, just to get everything up and running for them as much as possible,” Mr Lyons said.
“When we saw the kids with the big smiles on their faces able to go back to school, I think it made it worthwhile for all of them.”
No mobile phone coverage, very little power
Graham Tate, who was in charge of the communications, said local telecommunications infrastructure was decimated.
He said he was tasked with ensuring the team had its own satellite communication to coordinate missions.
“After a cyclone the local infrastructure is all down so no mobile phone coverage, very little power, so we have our own satellite communications,” Mr Tate said.
“We can get on the internet, get all our radio and communications up and running so the team can operate safely and efficiently.”
Despite the devastation and destruction, the local people warmly welcomed the Australian taskforce.
“[The locals] were really lovely,” Mr Tate said.
“You’d think after such devastation they’d be really down and out but they were very upbeat, happy to see us, lots of smiling faces so it was really great.”
Superintendent Paul Bailey, who managed crews on the ground, said the best way to describe the devastation was “anything above 10 metres was wiped out”.
“Trees were pulled down, roofs were knocked off, but the people were really quite resilient. They were happy to get on with helping,” Superintendent Bailey said.
He said the Australian crews worked with the local community in creative ways to rebuild.
“It was really a community effort not only from the people there, but from everybody here who used their own skills, own carpentry skills, building skills, to do interesting work that we don’t normally do,” Superintendent Bailey said.
Kids ‘back to school on Monday’
With thanks to the efforts of the taskforce and the community, Superintendent Bailey said at least 3,500 children would be back to school on Monday.
“Those schools would not have opened without the work of these firefighters and ambulance people, so it’s a great testament to the work we’re able to do.”
Tony Camilleri, a fire station officer from Sydney, said a school principal they helped cried when thanking the team.
“He actually said that to lose a few classrooms out of his school was like losing some members of his family,” Mr Camilleri said.
“When we fixed it up and gave it back to the principal, he actually cried, that’s how much he appreciated what we’d done for his school.
“There’s a few big boofy blokes in the taskforce including myself who was brought to tears as well so it was a moving experience for us all.”
Special Operations Unit Inspector Tony Bishenden said the taskforce was welcomed by the locals.
“The local population was still out, they were still waving, smiling at us, so excited to see us but they were just getting on with their life amongst all this sheer devastation,” Mr Bishenden said.
He said he was part of the medical team tasked with keeping the team fit and well during the mission.
“We also did some little medical care for some of the local people that came to see us.
“It was inspirational for us, to have walked in the morning and have a school – that was classrooms, with no roofs, trees down, rubbish everywhere – to by the end of the afternoon to have classrooms that are functioning again.
“It’s all been tidied up so the kids can safely come back into school.”