Last week, as mainstream media across Australia reported on recovery efforts in Queensland following Cyclone Marcia, thousands of Aboriginal people displaced by a different cyclone in the Northern Territory were all but ignored.
Tropical Cyclone Lam was classified as category four when it made landfall on the north-east Arnhem Land coast late on February 19. Yolngu in Galiwin’ku, Ramingining, Milingimbi and surrounding smaller communities and homelands readied themselves as best they could.
People in houses near the sea moved up the hill, shelters were opened, and the entire Goulburn Island community of Warruwi was evacuated to Darwin because it did not have a single building that was coded to category four.
One person told me that, in the days before Lam hit, it was impossible to find out the cyclone plan in some of the communities, with council representatives saying there was no plan.
Cyclones are common in Australia’s Top End and information about cyclone planning is generally very accessible to the English-speaking populations of Darwin and the larger regional centres. But this is not the case in Arnhem Land, where an internet search for designated shelters or cyclone plans proved fruitless.
At Galiwin’ku, on Elcho Island, residents reported being unprepared and uninformed, despite the fact that Bureau of Meteorology tracking maps showed Elcho clearly in the path of the cyclone. One resident told ABC Online: “There were no official communications leading up to it … There was no real time to get ready.”
Paul Daley in Yirrkala described the preparations before Lam’s arrival. He said that in the nearby town of Nhulunbuy, the predominantly non-Indigenous residents were moved into shelters. But the community of Yirrkala has no official cyclone shelter and “few of the buildings here are built to withstand very heavy cyclones”. As the storm got closer, Indigenous residents of outlying camps were eventually evacuated to Nhulunbuy.
Confusion continued after the cyclone. The remoteness of these communities, and the power and communications outages made it difficult to get an accurate picture of what was happening. NT Chief Minister Adam Giles announced on February 23 — four days after the cyclone — that helicopters would survey the very remote outstations to assess the damage.
The same day, communities finally had access to safe drinking water again, but power may still be out in some places for weeks, according to some reports. On February 24, the state of emergency was extended for three days, to give emergency workers more time to assess damage and access outstations.
Alastair King is the CEO of the Arnhem Land Progress Aboriginal Corporation (ALPA), which runs many of the stores in communities. The February 23 NT News reported King as saying: “We’ve got Robertson Barracks right here in Darwin and they’re sending troops into Queensland to help with the clean up after Cyclone Marcia … We’re surprised we haven’t heard from the federal government about sending troops into Arnhem Land because it’s been hit hard and they need more help.”
But if Cyclone Lam is a story of poor preparation and support from the government, it is also a story of the remarkable resilience of the Yolngu people, and inspiring solidarity from friends, families and non-government organisations across the Top End and much further afield.
Yolngu, of course, have lived with cyclones for tens of thousands of years. They have their own strategies for staying safe when their country is battered by the wild storms for which the tropics are famous.
The dangers are heightened now as Aboriginal people live in often under-resourced, poorly serviced homelands and communities. The overcrowded houses, lack of adequate maintenance and appalling lack of cyclone-coded buildings place Aboriginal people in a much more risky situation than they should be. The already-heavy health burden they carry means days without safe drinking water and dry bedding could have even more devastating consequences than we anticipate in disaster recovery situations.
Aware of this, and frustrated with the lack of official response, a few people based in Arnhem Land set up the Cyclone Lam Disaster Support Campaign. At time of writing, their crowdfunding project had raised more than $28,000 in three days. Messages left on the page included, for example: “I’m sorry nothing more is being done by our government”.
The project aims to raise $30,000 in eight days, and funds will be directed to larger items to help the recovery effort, such as generators and chainsaws, as well as food.
In Darwin, people with family and social networks in Arnhem Land spent hours trying to find ways to freight supplies out to the communities, which in some cases no longer have safe barge landings. The amount of good will and generosity was overwhelming, but stifled somewhat by a lack of information or official structures to channel offers of help.
Yolngu Matha speakers in Darwin translated important messages and broadcast them across multiple platforms so people would know if and when it was safe to leave the shelters or drink the water. These messages were shared, texted, and read out over the phone to people in communities, using whatever communications technology they could access.
Meanwhile, the Yolngu people themselves were leading the recovery effort, joined by emergency services volunteers and other personnel from Darwin and Alice Springs. As soon as it was safe to do so, staff and volunteers worked overtime to restock and keep open ALPA stores. ALPA provided food vouchers to people in affected places, to overcome the problem of Eftpos and ATM facilities not working.
Work teams mobilised to inspect damage and clear trees from downed powerlines. In some places, schools remained closed and locals organised activities for children — signs of trauma, such as nightmares, were starting to show, and in many places it was not safe for children to roam freely as they were used to doing.
Milingimbi, 440 kilometres east of Darwin with a population of about 1000, was right in the path of the cyclone. Milingimbi custodian David Marpiwawuy is one of many elders who built timber frame houses in the community more than 50 years ago. He told the ABC that after the cyclone had passed, he headed to an old home that he built with his brothers in 1966.
"After the cyclone, I drove around and I saw this old building," he said. "It made me nearly cry. I was so proud to still see it standing."
While there was widespread environmental damage and uprooted trees across Milingimbi, the community's houses and community buildings have emerged relatively unscathed, with no completely destroyed homes reported in Milingimbi.
"Category four cyclone is strong. We all thought this cyclone was going to destroy all the houses, but that didn't happen," Marpiwawuy said. "And we realise that maybe this design of the houses is the best."
Milingimbi mother and former health worker Ganygulpa Dhurrkay told the ABC that there had also been a lighter side to the cyclone’s destruction.
"We were there for each other. I think the cyclone has brought everybody together," she said. "Everyone is sitting around a campfire. Families sharing meals and sharing stories. It's been funny stories and no Facebook. So that was the nice thing about that."
As of February 25, more than 100 homes were uninhabitable, leaving 400 homeless. For the past week, families from 61 destroyed houses on Elcho Island have been living in the school gym with just six toilets between them. Half the houses at Milingimbi and a quarter at Galiwin’ku still have no power.
Galiwinku resident Yvonne Gananbarr told ABC Online that asbestos had been disturbed in her home, rendering it unlivable. "Asbestos was all over when myself [and another person] went into the house," she said.
"We knew that we shouldn't be there because it is poison."
On February 25 Giles said a “mobile habitat shelter” was on its way to Darwin from NSW. The shelter site will be made up of individual shelters each holding about 10 people and is to be shipped by barge to Elcho Island. The shelter has been used previously to house people displaced by bushfires.
Giles said it was a short-term solution for the families whose homes on Elcho Island were destroyed. The government is also investigating longer-term housing, which could potentially be set up similar to mining camps, using dongas as the primary dwellings. However, it could still be months until families are back in permanent homes.
We can only hope that any permanent houses built are cyclone-coded.