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Northern Land Council urges reforms as residents slam flood response

Giovanni Torre -

The government response to severe flooding in the Northern Territory has been slow, split families – including separating the elderly from carers, failed to communicate properly, and gave residents contradictory information, the Northern Land Council has alleged.

Council representatives met with Borroloola flood evacuees in Darwin on the weekend and on Tuesday morning joined "with them in urging Federal and Northern Territory governments to address poor emergency communications, evacuation processes, and future preparedness".

The NLC said severe flooding in the Aboriginal community of Borroloola, 970-kilometres south-west of Darwin, has "again revealed the inadequacy of emergency response measures".

On Saturday, the NLC Chair Matthew Ryan met with evacuated Borroloola residents who are receiving emergency accommodation at the Darwin showgrounds. The Council said community members shared their distress about how the situation unfolded and provided insights into how the response "can, and must" be improved ahead of any future emergencies.

The Council noted in a statement that residents noted these extreme weather events will not remain "once in 100 years" occurrences because of climate change.

Mr Ryan said the Council acknowledges "the staff of the Roper Gulf Regional Council did their best to support the community, but the Federal and NT governments' emergency response support has been appalling".

"Nitjpurru, Kalkarindji, now Borroloola… lessons are not being learned and as a result our communities continue to suffer," he said.

"The governments must work together with the communities and the Land Councils to address the key issues. The big one is communication in times of emergency. Evacuee accommodation also needs to be more culturally appropriate, and better processes as well as proper cyclone shelters must be prepared for the future. We cannot wait for the next emergency to happen and have the same problems over and over again.

"Floods are becoming more frequent, but we must not lose sight of how horrific each and every one is for our people caught up in them."

The Land Council said it was fielding alarmed calls from Borroloola residents on Friday, March 15 as locals were being severely impacted by pre-cyclone flooding, noting that people were having difficulties reaching emergency services, including being redirected to interstate call centres, which were unaware of Borroloola's location.

Mr Ryan reached out to government officials that day (15 March) to highlight the communication challenges and urge that they initiate an adequate response.

When Tropical Cyclone Megan hit the region on the afternoon of Monday, March 18, the town's 700 residents were forced to bunker down because evacuation flights had been unable to land. The Council noted that the Northern Territory Chief Minister's directive to locals was to find room inside the local police station, health centre, and some homes that were cyclone graded.

Several residents to whom the NLC spoke told the Land Council evacuations should have taken place much earlier, and that the instructions they received were "unclear, leading many to leave their homes, be exposed to the dangerous weather, and in cases even become stranded in unsuitable shelters".

The heavy rains that followed the category-3 cyclone saw the McArthur River predicted to reach 18 metres on the evening of Thursday, March 21, surpassing the previous record set in 2001 by three metres. The Australian Defence Force responded by airlifting 380 residents to Darwin on Wednesday and Thursday.

Borroloola residents remain split between Darwin and their home, where they had been already working to repair damage caused by Cyclone Lincoln last month.

The Northern Land Council said the chief concern among Borroloola residents has been "a severe lack of communication", from the early moments when the emergency was first forecasted, through to its critical stages.

Borroloola. Image: Roper River Regional Council.

A number of Borroloola residents evacuated to the Darwin Showgrounds provided testimonies to the Northern Land Council on the weekend.

Mr Elton Daniels said; "When they got us to move up to the Roper Gulf to evacuate us, they gave us tags and made us sign our name and address in the rain. And then they cancelled the plane. They should have done it all a day or two earlier when we didn't have so much rain. They were mucking us around."

"Even my father-in-law he took a fit sitting there waiting in the rain and wind," he said.

Mrs Diane Norman said: "We came at 7am o'clock [on Monday] like they said. In the wind and rain, we old people had to stand there while we were waiting for the plane. But it didn't land. It was very difficult."

"We were hungry, we only had only apples. Waiting there [on Monday] until 4pm. They didn't come until Wednesday," she said.

"Having all those old people stand like that, it was very sad. You had to bring one bag, no blanket. And when we get up to the plane, they said we gotta get the ID, but we are standing there in the rain. People were opening their bags to look around for the ID, and then they were searching bags. All getting wet.

"We don't know how long we are here [in Darwin] for, they don't tell us. We will wait for the water. Some of the people saw that they lost their houses. Completely gone."

Another Borroloola resident, Mr Benjamin McDinny, said people gathered in a shire council shed for shelter from the heavy rain.

"The planes couldn't land [on Monday], they circle around several times, but couldn't. People were just there waiting, waiting, old people too, in the pouring rain," he said.

"There are more people still back at Borroloola now, we don't know what it's like there. I heard some people stayed inside the school, they are probably still there. It has been four or five days with no telecommunications working.

"We need to be able to have regular contact if something like that happens again so we can reach our families. My eldest daughter she is there, and I have tried to get in contact with her but I just can't. It needs to be done better, to get more organised. We need the communications up for the next one."

Mrs Iris Hogan said she had to shelter in her own home after it was damaged after being turned back from the airport with "a kid on either side".

"Next day I had to take myself down to the edge of the water. I asked the police why were all these young people were going across in the boat, not the sick and older ones that should go first. They said the community should have gone and got me. But the police could have used their siren again to tell us there was a boat down there. Then they said to wait for the SES, or you can jump on the bus, but the kids have to stay. I said who is going to look after me? I'm not going on the bus, I'm staying with my kids – we are going to die together then!" she said.

"For three nights I was sleeping with no power…there was eight of us sleeping in that room, hungry because no shops open. My granddaughter and this other girl, they were carrying me on [to the plane] and I was shaking, my bones, it was just terrible. I cried in the plane.

"The Borroloola police were so rude and racist. They were shouting, barking, at me to get on a bus. I'm an old lady, you don't shout at me. When the army mob pulled up, they helped us and asked if we were alright. It is also better here [at the emergency accommodation in Darwin], all these people of different cultures. They are kind."

Mr Simyon Pluto said just four emergency workers were trying to ensure 700 residents from Borroloola had "tags" to identify their home community.

"They drove the old people from the council shed to the airport and they sat there in the bus for around eight hours. They were hungry, asking for food. There was no support from the

local town shops or the council for food supplies, just apples. When the police came around the night before they told us just one bag and no food, you'll go straight to the airport and onto the plane; that didn't happen," he said.

"I blasted the police and ADF mob, there should have been local police working with us straight away. They knew what was going to happen, I said to all the families, we all got to stand up and help each other, we are from this community.

"Then on Tuesday, we had the sun out all day; they should have had the evacuation that morning. The word came around that they would try to evacuate tomorrow [Wednesday], and we said, what? There will be another big rain coming down.

"Wednesday, old people were waiting at the airport gate, rain pouring down, no shelter there. You think they would have had portable tents, but nothing. Old people had a rag over there head standing up."

Mr Pluto said his son remained to Borroloola to help those who had not yet been evacuated.

"By the time I got here [to Darwin] and I got in contact with my son [back in Borroloola], he said we've been using the boat to get people across, we are here for our people… My son said 'look this is our community, I am going to help them'."

Mr Dickie Dixon, a Robinson River resident, raised concerns about food supplies to the communities being cut off by the flooded and damaged roads.

"Canberra don't know community, they aren't there. We are trying our best, with many of our people having skills to help, like the Rangers. We stand up for ourselves, but why aren't they [the police and SES] helping before it gets so bad?"

At the NLC's Full Council meeting on March 12, the first concern put to Prime Minister Anthony Albanese was by members from the Borroloola/Barkly region who stressed that telecommunications blackholes and outages have long rendered their community highly vulnerable. At that meeting, inadequate emergency response was specifically identified as a key issue across all seven of the NLC regions. V

Victoria River District Council Members shared harrowing photographs from severe flooding they had encountered and highlighted the "grossly inadequate" response in Nitjpurru (Pidgeon Hole), which has been evacuated twice this Wet Season.

In Borroloola, residents relied on the limited NT Police personnel on the ground to provide face-to-face directions, because electricity was down, and unreliable telecommunications reception meant people could not consistently receive messages nor online alerts.

Residents also advised the NLC that there was a lack of clarity and contradictions when messages did get through.

Borroloola residents were told they would be evacuated on an elderly-and-vulnerable-first basis, however people to whom the NLC spoke stressed that this "didn't appear to happen". They also raised concerns of families being split, including dependent individuals being separated from their care providers or those that could carry essentials such as warm blankets.

Residents were only able to bring one bag, and had to leave behind family members and pets, with some even being unsure of their whereabouts or safety. Those that could not be evacuated found refuge in damaged buildings, without electricity nor food supplies, as wind and rain streamed in.

Residents at the Darwin showgrounds emergency accommodation told the Land Council they are unsure of what will come next. Some people have left to stay with family or sought to purchase accommodation. There are "levels of discomfort with the overcrowding, open-plan nature of the facility, and refusals to permit relatives to visit to provide support".

Many community members praised the staff for the care they have shown. Across community there is also "a strong desire to come together and find a better way forward, to prevent so much distress from occurring again", the Council noted on Tuesday.

The NLC said it will support Borroloola residents to host a full community meeting when they are able to return. The Council backed calls for government and emergency services representatives to attend and to plan collaborations on infrastructure and telecommunications repair efforts, as well as future emergency response processes and the construction of appropriate facilities, including a cyclone shelter.

The Council noted that if kept informed and up to date by authorities it can help in emergency responses, noting it has locally based staff and assets, such as vehicles and boats.

"These could be mobilised in times of emergency if proactive planning and agreements can be reached, for which the NLC has been lobbying the government since February 2023," the NLC said in a statement.

"Imagine being out there stranded, surrounded by rising water, not getting any clear direction, and seeing planes circle but then just leave? Or if you can be evacuated, your life is in just one bag, there's uncertainty of where you'll stay, if you can see your family, and if anything will be left when you are able to return home?" Mr Ryan said.

National Indigenous Times has contacted the NT Minister for Emergency Services for comment.

Borroloola. Image: Roper River Regional Council.

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