Cyclone Yasi hit Australia more than a month ago, but one town that wasn’t even damaged by the storm is still suffering the consequences of a mass evacuation.

In the Northern Territory, the tiny indigenous community of Alpurrurulam still has about half of its citizens stranded out of town, work projects abandoned and a flooded highway cutting off locals from returning home, despite readily available government advice on how to handle indigenous communities during a natural disaster.

Part of the problem lies with the fact that locals evacuated before a national emergency was declared. Among the evacuees were school staff who were flown out and one police officer, leaving the town’s other two officers. Work staff from Mount Isa Skills Association Inc (isaSKILLS) were told to go.

Crikey understands that these people have now returned home, the challenge is now to get the remaining indigenous evacuees home.

Like many towns pinpointed as being in the cyclone’s supposed path, a community meeting was held to discuss the fast-approaching cyclone Yasi on February 2. About 200 of the 350-600 odd residents attended, including members of the Barkly Shire Council, police, health workers, the school and the supermarket.

According to the locals spoken to by Crikey, an official disaster plan for the town was never referred to during the meeting. Instead, locals were told to leave if they could safely — i.e. possessed a road-worthy vehicle and had friends and family to stay with. Police repeatedly said that no one was forced to evacuate.

But during the meeting a severe storm hit and locals decided then and there to evacuate, assuming that the cyclone had arrived. As locals prepared to leave, the community-run supermarket announced at the meeting that they would donate one car load of fuel each to residents (worth about $4000 in total). Within a few hours, the majority of the town had emptied, leaving only 30 locals behind.

But who’s responsible if a town decides to self-evacuate before a disaster? Should governments assist in housing and feeding those evacuated and should they help residents return home?

One of those who evacuated was Natasha Long, a mother of two young children. After spending a week camping at the Tennant Creek showgrounds with other Alpurrurulam evacuees, she travelled to Mount Isa to stay with her parents and has now been there for nearly a month.

The only additional government funding she’s received was a once-off emergency crisis payment of $200 when she was in Tennant Creek.

Long told Crikey that residents are now “desperate” to return to Alpurrurulam: “It’s our home, we have to go home.” Long explains that some of the residents stuck in Mount Isa are missing work back in Alpurrurulam, while children — including her own four-year-old — are missing school and pre-school.

The township was undamaged by the storms generated by cyclone Yasi but with the Sandover Highway flooded, access home for residents who left is not possible by car. The only way home for residents is by plane, a costly expense; the weekly mail plane costs $110 per person and accommodates only two passengers.

Long is part of a group of about 25-30 Alpurrurulam locals — mainly women and children — who have been staying for weeks with various family and friends in Mount Isa.

Mount Isa resident Graham Jacob, a former deputy-CEO of the Alpurrurulam community government council (no longer in existence since the NT intervention) has been attempting to arrange charity flights to get residents home.

“The right thing was done in evacuating people, but nobody thought through the consequences. As a result of that, people have been disadvantaged,” Jacob told Crikey.

This isn’t the only time that evacuations in a remote indigenous community have had long-lasting effects. In 2001 the entire community from WA’s tiny Kiwirrkurra was evacuated for 18 months following severe flooding. Residents were dispersed across the Northern Territory, the community suffered long-term psychological effects and problems with alcohol abuse and Kiwirrkurra is now used as a case study by the Attorney-General as an example of the issues that can arise during a disaster.

Following Kiwirrkurra, in 2007 the Keeping Our Mob Safe: National Emergency Management Strategy for Remote Indigenous Communities report [PDF] was released by the Attorney-General’s office, outlining how authorities should deal with remote indigenous communities during an emergency.

One of the objectives of the strategy is to “increase government commitment and accountability to address issues impacting on effective emergency management in remote indigenous communities.”

The Keeping Our Mob Safe report discusses the importance of developing disaster plans and strategies for coping with disasters in conjunction with the community.

For weeks, Jacob has been planning — in conjunction with the Uniting Church Flying Padre service, Queensland’s Department of Communities, Centrecare Family Services Mount Isa and funded by individual donations — to arrange to fly this group home.

But poor weather at the small airports around Mount Isa have delayed the Flying Padre service plane, which can only fly three passengers. New arrangements have been made for flights leaving next Tuesday or Wednesday, with several trips needed to return all the residents to Alpurrurulam. Jacob also notes that a new group of around 30 Alpurrurulam residents have just arrived in Mount Isa.

According to David Shoobridge, CEO of the the Barkly Shire Council, “there is a disaster plan for Alpurrurulam prepared by NT Emergency Services, although it does not come officially into effect before a natural disaster is declared.”

Yet the Keeping Our Mob Safe report states “Nobody would deny that a cyclone impact is an emergency …”

The disaster plan is implemented by the local police sergeant and NT police told Crikey:

“… there was no emergency declared in relation to cyclone Yasi, as the predictions from BOM did not indicate any such need. Police were aware that Alpurrurulam would probably experience localised flooding and as such access to major centres could be cut off, so we advised anyone in the community who did not want to be isolated whilst the roads were cut to leave in plenty of time.

For whatever reason, quite a few members of the community decided to travel to Tennant Creek and Alice Springs rather than being inconvenienced by being isolated for a few days. What needs to be made clear is this was an advisory only and as such residents were responsible for their own transport and care once they reached town. There was NO EVACUATION and indeed, no need for an evacuation given the information we were getting from the flood forecasters.

The counter-disaster committee in Tennant Creek, which has responsibility for this area, was not activated, however the local controller (Police Superintendent for Barkly) did maintain a watching brief over the region and monitored all subsequent forecasts. All advisories we received from BOM indicated the ex-cyclone would likely bring significant rain but not enough to evacuate the town — and this is exactly what occurred.”

Because so many residents left the community voluntarily, this caused pressure on Tennant Creek in particular and NTES, assisted with the provision of camp stretchers.

The government strategy also notes that the longer-term consequences should be planned for in disasters, including issues of evacuation:

“For emergencies, the general focus of the community and emergency management personnel is on the response and recovery processes in the short term, which rarely takes into consideration the cultural orientations and traditions of remote indigenous groups and the consequences of mainstream recovery processes (for example, the consequences of prolonged evacuation or evacuation to culturally inappropriate locations).”

One problem with the self-evacuation of Alpurrurulam residents has been the issue of severe overcrowding at the houses of friends and families where the residents are staying.

There are reports of 20 adults living in three-bedroom houses and the stress of this overcrowding and the evacuation leading to alcohol-fuelled violence.

Queensland Police confirmed that they “are aware of the difficulties that some people are having in returning to their communities following self evacuation, and the short-term accommodation and safety challenges presently being worked through” and confirmed that there have been issues “surrounding overcrowding and anti-social behaviour”. It did not confirm or deny reports that Queensland Police have asked Alpurrurulam locals to move on from Mount Isa due to the problems.

But how can the Alpurrurulam residents leave when they can’t get home? Who assists in paying for their return?

The Keeping Our Mob safe report notes that “flexible funding” should be made available by government to help remote indigenous communities and that authorities “be aware of the low capacity of remote indigenous communities to pay for services for emergency management”.

Barkly Shire Council says it helped pay for evacuations, helped residents obtain temporary accommodation in Tennant Creek, helped organise Centrelink and assistance and gave emergency payments. “I would guess that the majority of people did not realise what the shire was doing for them,” said Shoobridge.

Long and Jacob said they have had no contact with the council. The NT government is aware of the issue in transporting Alpurrurulam residents home, but have yet to offer help. Crikey attempted to contact the NT government on numerous occasions and had no response before deadline.

Back on the community, Bruce Hein from isaSkills (the Mount Isa Skills Association, which runs training and jobs programs) says at least one large project, building community houses, has been greatly affected by the delay in locals returning, and some workers have had to be put back on Centrelink benefits as the project is on hold.

Principal of the Alpurrurulam school Kae Scott says that while people are slowly returning and this sort of delayed return is fairly typical in a remote community, the self-evacuation has raised the need for a more in-depth community disaster plan. “You need plan A, plan B, plan C, plan D. I don’t think the community has ever before been faced with a situation where they needed these sort of things.”

For Natasha Long, the past month has been very hard, explaining that she’s spent the time “just finding a way to go home. I have family at home to go home to.”

Peter Fray

Save up to 50% on a year of Crikey.

This extraordinary year is almost at an end. But we know that time waits for no one, and we won’t either. This is the time to get on board with Crikey.

For a limited time only, choose what you pay for a year of Crikey.

Save up to 50% or dig deeper so we can dig deeper.

See you in 2021.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

SAVE 50%