What a day for Mallacoota!
On Wednesday, March 10 the Mallacoota community was proud to welcome the HMAS Choules on her first return visit to the town following the 2019-20 Black Summer Bushfires.
The Choules played a positive and calming role for the Mallacoota community in its time of need, conducting the largest domestic maritime evacuation in Australia’s history -more than 1,300 residents, holidaymakers and pets – in early January 2020.
Mayor Cr Mendy Urie, Cr Arthur Allen and a large turnout from the community were at Bastion Point to officially welcome the Choules, then-Commanding Officer of Choules Captain Scott Houlihan and the ship’s company for the ceremonial homeporting.
The announcement was widely welcomed and made more special given many of the Navy personnel who forged a strong bond with the people of Mallacoota during the evacuation were present for the ceremony.
The connections between the Choules, her crew and the community are significant.
“It is this connection that prompted Council, on behalf of the community and with the strong support of Minister for Veterans’ Affairs and Minister for Defence Personnel Darren Chester to permanently recognise the critical role the Choules and the ship’s company played in the town’s history,” Cr Urie said.
“We all know the events surrounding the fires and the immediate response was both atraumatic and uncertain time for our community, and visitors.
“The Australia Defence Force and the Choules provided certainty and a sense of calm at this time. In the many stories which locals and visitors have shared since that time, the efficiency, genuine care and respect that the crew demonstrated during the evacuations remain very strong feelings of that time.
“It is remarkable that in only a matter of a few days, the Choules had completed two evacuation voyages from Mallacoota by sea, when evacuation by road was not possible. It was the most significant domestic naval evacuation of civilians in our history. And as we know, the vulnerable, very sick or injured were also evacuated by aircraft.
“The provision of supplies was also an integral part of the humanitarian effort into Mallacoota, and across East Gippsland.”
Captain Scott Houlihan, of the Royal Australian Navy, said it was one of the most rewarding moments, personally and professionally, of a 30-year career.
“Choules has a home,” Captain Houltian said.
“We are humbled and privileged you have chosen to share this incredible part of the work with us. It is a great honour and with the deepest respect we can now call this piece of paradise Choules’ home.”
Captain Houlihan said the Choules was the perfect ship and the ship’s company were the perfect people to support Mallacoota.
“After watching my team interact with the people of Mallacoota, it was clear to me something special was happening,” he said, reflecting on January 2020.
An afternoon tea hosted by Council, supplied by Mallacoota businesses and held at the Mallacoota Clubrooms followed the ceremony.
Residents, community leaders, visitors and school children mingled with Navy personnel, inspected the MHR-90 helicopter (which also played a major part in the bushfire response) and heard from Minister for Veteran’s Affairs and Minister for Defence Personnel Darren Chester.
“The opportunity to maintain a positive and lasting connection, stemming from the support and comradery formed after the bushfires, is very much welcomed by the East Gippsland Shire Council, and most importantly by the Mallacoota community,” Cr Urie said.
“Thank-you to everyone who turned out for what was a significant and important event in Mallacoota’s history, and to the Royal Australia Navy and the HMAS Choules for choosing Mallacoota,” Cr Urie said.