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The responsibility and privilege of covering the Townsville floods

Thursday February 21, 2019 - 19:29 EDT
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Cameraman Stephen Cavenagh filming in unrelenting rain - ABC

As people in North Queensland continue to deal with the impact of extreme flooding, ABC News reporter Allyson Horn, Townsville-based broadcaster Patrick Hession and radio producer Chloe Chomicki explain what was involved in covering the disaster and keeping the community informed.

A difficult disaster to cover

Broadcaster Patrick Hession:

"I've worked for ABC North Queensland, based in Townsville, for 11 years, presenting the Drive and Mornings programs and, currently, the Breakfast program.

"Around lunchtime on Wednesday, January 30, we received the first of the emergency warnings for flash flooding from the Bureau of Meteorology."



"It had already been raining for a number of days by then and we knew more bad weather was coming.

"But the situation escalated pretty quickly, and we went to rolling emergency coverage.

"I walked into the studio with about five minutes' notice and we initially did about two and a half hours live to air and then it didn't really stop for another 10 days after that, with our other broadcasters and production team here working pretty much around the clock."


Allyson Horn, news reporter:

"I'm based in Brisbane and I was in Townsville, from January 30, for just over a week, (Brisbane flew in about a dozen extra staff to help cover the disaster alongside regional teams).

"We'd gone up there (initially) to cover serious flash flooding in Bluewater to the north and then it got much worse and the floods hit Townsville.

It was a really different natural disaster to cover.

"I've covered a lot of cyclones and fires but usually with cyclones, during the heavy rain you're not outside.

"You're sheltering inside and the story is usually about the preparations and then the clean-up afterwards.

"But the floods were unfolding in real time and we were out in the weather."

Filtering a huge amount of information

Patrick Hession, broadcaster:

"It was some of the most full-on broadcasting I have ever done.



It was a challenge as there was so much going on, so much information coming in and you have to collate it and filter it while you're on air.

It's a bit like being a human algorithm.

Even in the age of social media, radio is the first, reliable, trusted source of information and we appreciate that.

We know people are depending on us.

"There are always two aspects to our emergency coverage — firstly, it's aimed at the people directly affected and, secondly, it's about informing everyone else.

We are thinking of the people who need us most, those whose power has been cut off, have no TV or their mobile phone is useless and the only way they can find out what is going on is to listen to the radio."



My gumboots kept filling with water

Allyson Horn, news reporter:

"It was really difficult to cover from a technical perspective due to the amount of rain falling.



It was the most phenomenal amount of rain, just surreal. We were soaked.

"Two of our mics died on the first day and we had to go to extreme lengths to keep the gear dry.

"We wrapped everything in plastic Ziploc bags and had five towels in the car, one each for the cameraman and me, one for the camera, one for the rest of the gear, and a spare.

"My gumboots kept filling up with water, so I was constantly having to tip it out.

"Because it's the tropics it was very humid, which meant we could never have the air-conditioner on (not in the car or in your room at night) because it would mess up the gear and make the camera go foggy.

"Power was down too, so we had to charge our batteries in the car, and communications were difficult, so we struggled at times to be able to do live crosses or feed footage back."



People ringing in were hungry and hysterical

Patrick Hession, broadcaster:

"On radio we were talking to emergency services, electricity services, council services, government agencies.

"There were so many roads closed and it was changing so quickly I had to give up on the smaller, local roads and just concentrate on the major arterials.

People were calling in asking for our help, saying they had no food and were hungry.

"People were asking which supermarkets are open, where can I get food? Where is a GP open?

"Our job is to provide that information as quickly and accurately as possible.

"And so, we'd ring around until we found out or we'd ask our audience and they'd phone in with information."


Chloe Chomicki, radio producer:

"This was the first natural disaster I've worked on and I'd never seen anything like it.

"One day I was in the studio for seven hours producing rolling emergency coverage.

What I didn't expect was how many people would call in, how many phones I would be answering, and how many people were completely stuck and needing help.

"Some people were in pretty serious situations and not knowing what to do.

"Trying to figure that out was difficult.

"They would say they didn't want to ring the SES because they didn't want to use up services for people who really need it.

"I'd give them the latest information I had but if people were in a really bad situation I had to say to them their situation justifies a call to the emergency services.

"One of our regular callers rang in and it was hard hearing how distressed she was."


Allyson Horn:

"In the field we had to be careful about our personal safety.

"When the flooding was really bad in Townsville it was difficult to tell the stories of those affected because we couldn't get around town.

"An extensive part of the road network was shutdown.

"I was lucky I had lived there so I knew a lot of back roads and alternate routes but you had to be careful.

With the rain situation changing so rapidly, you could be in an area that was fine and two hours later was flooded.

"So, you had to make sure you knew exactly where you were and how you were going to get out if you needed to."



Thank you for getting the story out

Patrick Hession, broadcaster:

"As the disaster unfolded, I said to the team here we are probably going to get people ringing us who are hysterical, and we did and that's difficult to deal with.

"We have a real interaction with our audience and it's personal every single time.

"One lady called me on the Monday morning (at the height of the flooding), she'd been evacuated in the middle of the night and had left everything behind.

"In my mind, I saw a picture of a lifetime of a person's valuables left in a flooded house.

"And she'd left her medication behind and wanted to know what to do.

"People rang in with advice and we were able to help her immediately.

And that's what I like about emergency broadcasting.

We know that we are doing something that matters to people, it's important.

"It comes with great weight but it's really rewarding to be able to help people at a time when they need it."



Allyson Horn, news reporter:

"What stood out for me was the community love for the ABC and the role we play in these sorts of disasters.

"Everywhere I went people wanted to share their story and talk to us about their experience because we were the national broadcaster and they'd been listening to us or watching us to get information.

"We'd be standing in the rain filming or doing crosses and people would come over the cups of coffee or a plate of sandwiches, that generosity was overwhelming.

We saw people whose whole lives had been destroyed and they thanked us for getting the word out to the rest of the country about what was happening.

"We worked really hard, but it was a privilege to tell the stories of people who allowed us into their lives in stressful and difficult times."


- ABC

© ABC 2019

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