“All is well on Palm,” said Premier Anna Bligh at a recent press conference, referring to concerns over residents of Palm Island after cyclone Yasi. “Well” means property damage, roofs off, power shortages and phones down, but also, thankfully no reported deaths or serious injuries.

Queensland Police Service informed social media: “Palm Island reporting property damage, including roofs off and power outages, but no serious injuries.”

New Matilda managed to contact mayor Alfred Lacey this morning, who said things were better than expected, with no housing damage and minor damage to public buildings. Lacey also spoke with ABC Radio 612 Brisbane saying that mobile connection is available, but limited and landlines are down. He said although there were still strong winds, Palm Island was mostly OK and it was time to begin the clean-up.

Crikey spoke to former Palm Island mayor and resident Robert Blackley yesterday afternoon, who had held grave fears for the island where the majority of properties are not cyclone proof.

“People are woefully unprepared,” Blackley told Crikey, just hours before the cyclone was due to hit.

But the current mayor of Palm Island, Alfred Lacey, was quick to defend the Island’s preparations, saying that Blackley was just “scoring political points.”

“We’d been planning this for Cyclone Anthony, and our cyclone preparations are certainly bedded down,” said Lacey. Lacey also told the Koori Times that most houses and centres were high enough to avoid the storm surge, although he notes that two of the Island’s evacuation centres were below the storm surge and couldn’t be used.

Lacey told New Matilda that many residents had fled to higher ground and he was confident that “all are in homes that are cyclone-rated”, and although he couldn’t give a percentage of how many Palm Island properties were cyclone-proof, “… we do have quite a few brick buildings in town.”

Palm Island sits off the coast between Cardwell and Townsville. It’s a predominately indigenous community, with a tumultuous history and relationship with the Queensland government.

Blackley, a former adviser to then Queensland Indigenous Police Minister Judy Spence, is also president of community organisation Bwgcolman Future Inc and co-ordinates the island’s Men’s Group.

“Everywhere else there have been door knocks, all along the coast in Townsville, the army is on the street enforcing vehicle curfews and the police are door knocking. These mechanisms are in place, here on Palm there is nothing, there’s just word of mouth. People just have to rely on themselves…” said Blackley yesterday afternoon before the storm hit.

Blackley told Crikey his partner and children has left on an emergency boat, made available by the local council for citizens to evacuate on Tuesday, but according to Blackley it only held 250 people (around 3,000 live on the island). “There was an emergency boat… but no one really got on it because you had to buy a ticket. Tickets are between $12-27,” claimed Blackley, who noted that the price was significant deterrent for many Palm Island residents.

“There’s been a recent government report that says 70% of housing is unsound and given that they knew that, why didn’t they evacuate people?” asks Blackley.

Residents and tourists at other islands in the line of Yasi’s expected fire — like popular holiday destinations Hamilton Island, Daydream Island and Lindeman Island — were evacuated.

Last July Mayor Lacey spoke with the Courier-Mail over news that eight families were living in a shanty town built of corrugated iron on the island. Lacey refused to move them — “there is nowhere in town for them. Where are they to go?” — as a severe housing shortage in Palm Island had left just 375 houses for 3,000 people, meaning severe overcrowding of properties.

Just over a month ago, an article in the Townsville Bulletin reported that despite $14 million being pledged by the government to build new homes on Palm Island, no houses had yet been built.

Blackley and his partner had covered their home in plywood, prepared backpacks full of emergency supplies and were ready to run upstairs to hide in the bathroom if the expected six metre storm surge reached their house.

Crikey was only able to reach Blackley by SMS today, with Blackley saying: “Can’t really look around much but there is lots of damage, powerlines down, iron off roofs, trees uprooted etc. I will look around when I can drive.”

Others on the island — including councillors, community leaders and the police station — were unable to be contacted by Crikey this morning.

UPDATE: Latest text from Blackley “Post office has no roof, TAFE partial roof damage, storm surge damage to foreshore, huge trees split, uprooted and stripped of leaves.”

Peter Fray

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