Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that the following article contains the name of a person who has died.
In the Kimberley, the wet season hits thick and fast. Come summer, the humidity rises, rain falls and the rivers swell. It happens like clockwork. When the clouds roll around – as they do every year – locals know to stock up on baked beans and put new batteries in their torches, to brace for when the roads to town get cut and for the possibility of the power going out.
As the wet set in at the end of 2022, everyone thought they were ready. They’d made it through the wettest November on record, but nothing could have prepared them for what was to come.
Natalie Davey, from the Darlngunaya community on the outskirts of Fitzroy Crossing, recalls the exact moment she knew this wasn’t an ordinary flood.
“The water was surrounding my house, but the way the water was moving was unusual. I noticed there were rips. We don’t get rips on land.”
Memories of the flood are burned into Natalie’s mind: the wallabies desperately seeking refuge on her vehicle, the waves coming over the veranda, the fear.
Come morning, as the waters continued to rise, Natalie knew she had to get out.
“I tried to call for an evacuation, but nobody answered,” she says, eyes wide at the memory. “So, I called our local Rangers and asked if they were doing rescues, and they sent a boat. They’d been doing evacuations all night and the day before. If they weren’t doing that, we would have lost people for sure.”
Natalie’s neighbour, Koharna Ross, stayed in her community for as long as she could. She watched as the water inundated her car, (which she had tied to a tree) then swept away her pigs and came for her home. The water was up to her ankles inside when she eventually jumped in a tinnie and headed towards the evacuation centre on higher ground.
“Once the boat got out onto where the road once was, I got scared,” she tells The Weekly. “It was like an inland sea. You couldn’t see any trees, it was just water. And there was still rain coming. It was too much water.” Koharna was grateful her kids (aged two, 13 and 17) were away visiting family.
On the other side of the river, in the community of Muludja, Nina Cherel made her way to the local school, which had a flat roof. She was planning for the worst and thought the helicopters would be able to land on the roof. They couldn’t. And so the people of Muludja could only wait. When the water receded enough for helicopters to land on a cleared area nearby, elders were evacuated first, then mothers with children. Medications were brought in. For those who stayed, Nina helped arrange food and water drops and made sure everyone was boiling their water.
“We were worried about the elders and children,” she says. “We’ve been flooded out so many times before, but this was different. The water was too high. We were completely cut off from the shops, hospital and everything else.”
At Kalyeeda Station, 200 kilometres west of Fitzroy Crossing, pastoralist Camille Camp was keeping a close watch on the water level at the property where she lives with her husband and their baby son.
“It all happened so quickly. At 5am, we could see water from our veranda at the homestead, but by 9am there was a river at the front of our house,” says Camille, who saw her then one-year-old son’s pony swept away in the torrent. There was nothing she could do.
“My husband tried to move as many cattle as he could, and we put 50 head of cattle, three horses, eight chickens, a mob of wallabies, one cat and our dogs in the homestead yard. There’s no way we could have taken them with us, and it was so hard to leave them,” she adds.
Before the family evacuated, Camille called the Department of Fire and Emergency Services (DFES) to tell them that they were out there on the station. The situation was getting more desperate by the minute, and no one had checked on them. She wanted someone to know where they were. At 2pm, when the river still hadn’t peaked, the family decided they didn’t want to be sitting on the roof of their house with a frightened baby in the middle of the night. They hired a helicopter themselves and went to another station on higher ground.
“We’d never seen anything like it; we never thought it would get as high as it did because it never has before,” says Camille.
A deluge like no other
Locals were in utter disbelief. They’d known it would be a big flood – thanks to Ex-Tropical Cyclone Ellie – but this was something else entirely. It was a torrent. At its peak, authorities say 60,000 cubic metres of water was flowing through the Fitzroy River every second. Enough water to supply the city of Perth for 20 years was raging down the river each day. It’s hard to imagine what that much water looks like, and even harder to comprehend the damage it leaves behind.
According to the Australian Red Cross, the flood had a severe impact on communities within the 104,000 square kilometre area of the Shire of Derby-West Kimberley. Notably, the Fitzroy Crossing Bridge was irreparably damaged, making the mighty river uncrossable. People were isolated and unable to access essential services, hundreds were evacuated, and countless homes were damaged. It was Western Australia’s worst flood on record, and the emergency response faced extreme challenges.
In this remote corner of the country, many families are marginalised and live below the poverty line. Trauma is intergenerational. Houses are often overcrowded, so instead of having to evacuate five people from one residence, it can be more like 20. In many communities of the commuities alcohol is restricted and food insecurity is high. Throw a once-in-a-century flood into the mix, and you’ve got one hell of a crisis.
Yet sources on the ground were shocked at the limited outside assistance and media coverage of the disaster. Many people didn’t know who was in charge or who they could turn to for help. Information was scarce. Community members report that major aid organisations like the Red Cross didn’t have a presence in Fitzroy Crossing. In the townships of Broome and Derby, where evacuees were being sent (often with just the clothes on their back), it was once again locals, both community members and local organisations such as the Social and Emotional Wellbeing team at the Broome Regional Aboriginal Medical Service, who were supporting the displaced people with the basics: Food, clothes and funds.
Locals acknowledge that this was an emergency situation like no other for the Department of Communities (which was the deployment agency), but mistakes were made. The aircraft sent in by the Australian Defence Force (ADF) were unable to land on the Fitzroy Airstrip because they were too big. Cultural protocols weren’t respected, people were let down and their trauma was compounded.
The community rallies
The hardest part of the ordeal, locals say, was not knowing. “We had to fight to get basic information from the official channels. It was difficult because the responding departments didn’t have people on the ground to reassure locals or explain what was happening,” says Natalie. She became a go-to source of information, posting live updates from community meetings on social media and broadcasting announcements from the local radio station about rescue missions, food supplies, power outages and available services. When everything felt uncertain and questions were going unanswered, the community turned to each other.
As an Elder of the Danggu muwayi (Country/clan estate), Mrs M. Aiken did countless Welcomes and Smoking Ceremonies for the relief teams who made it to the region. It was important work: she made sure the visitors to the land were appropriately welcomed within Bunuba Country. And by donating her time and energy so generously, Mrs M. Aiken led the way for others to do the same.
“All the inductions and updates for people coming in were done by local people – not outside sources. It was individuals who stepped up and got things done,” adds Natalie Davey.
In Fitzroy Crossing, Bunuba Elder Patsy Bedford rallied local organisations to secure food for people who had none. Her granddaughter, Obby Bedford, volunteered every day, collating and distributing food packs.
On the other side of the river, which was cut off entirely from the services at Fitzroy Crossing, shopkeeper Vivienne Gordon organised ADF food drops for her isolated community.
“It was my job to feed the mob on my side of the river,” says the Gooniyandi woman. “Every day we worked to get food to those who needed it and to settle the chaos when people started to panic.”
Keep calm and try to carry on. That’s what the women of the Kimberley did in the wake of an unprecedented emergency that threatened lives, homes, and their Country. On Bunuba Country, and further downstream in the communities of Noonkanbah, Looma, Jarlmadangah and Pandanus Park, it was the women who rose to the occasion. “We have really strong women here,” says Vivienne. “I’m a single mum and I was raised by a single mum. The flood has brought us women together and showed us how strong our people are.”
Camille needed all the strength she could muster when she returned to her home two days after fleeing the floodwaters in a helicopter. She had no idea what she would find, or what would lie beneath the still-receding floodwaters. What Camille saw was overwhelming: fences and paddocks were destroyed, their saddle shed was damaged and the much-needed airstrip had been turned into a gorge.
Thankfully, the floodwater hadn’t breached the house and the animals in the homestead paddock were still there. Others weren’t as lucky. Like many other stations in the region, Kalyeeda lost cattle, but only a couple of hundred. It’s estimated that the livestock death toll from the flood is in the tens of thousands.
“I’ll never forget the horrible dead animal smell after the flood,” reveals Camille, whose homestead “island” became a hay store, from where helicopters picked up hay bales and dropped them to surviving cattle across the region.
“When we got home, there was a croc in our shed and we killed 20 poisonous brown snakes in one week,” she adds.
While the early days after the flood were tough, Camille says the worst was yet to come.
“The aftermath has been the hardest part. It was only my husband and I out here cleaning up after it happened, and it was an extremely daunting task. Everyone was supportive when the actual event was happening, but now it feels like we’ve been forgotten about. We’re still feeling the effects of the flood and it’s going to take a lot of work, money and time to fix things. The Kimberley is really struggling at the moment,” she admits.
This is the first time any of these women have spoken so openly about the trauma they’ve experienced. Their words drip with shock, but there’s a quiet strength in their voices. They don’t waver. They want people to hear their stories.
It’s a bright day in May and Natalie is sitting outside the Mangkaja Arts Centre, where she’s processing her flood experience through her art. Remnants of the flood are inescapable. Natalie points to the wall of the art centre and explains how high the water came up. The building was extensively damaged and five per cent of the artwork in storage was destroyed. But thanks to some quick thinking by Amber McCarthy, who is a descendent of the artists of the Ngurrara Canvas, the acclaimed piece was saved. The Canvas is one of the largest Aboriginal desert paintings, measuring eight metres by ten metres, and it was painted by more than 60 Indigenous artists from four language groups. An image of young Traditional Owners, Bunuba Rangers and artists from Mangkaja carrying the giant, heavy, rolled-up artwork through shin-high water became a symbol of the town’s resilience and unity. Five months after the flood, Mangkaja launched the ‘Rise Above’ fundraiser to support the flood-affected art centre and its artists.
“The clean-up is enormous. Every household that’s been affected can’t do it themselves – we need help,” says Natalie, who has been homeless since her house went under in the flood. “I say I’m houseless – not homeless – because I have a home, I just can’t live there.”
On the day we meet, it had been five months since her home was inundated. Despite multiple attempts to find out when and how the houses in her community will be assessed and cleared out, Natalie still doesn’t have any answers. She says the recovery process has left her feeling isolated, helpless and low – that the real trauma has been trying to navigate the recovery.
Natalie is giving The Weekly a tour of the arts centre when her phone rings. It’s good news. After all this time, a clean-up team has finally been dispatched to her house. The task at hand won’t be easy – mould has set in and everything inside the property will need to be removed – but it’s progress at long last.
Natalie rushes to the Flood Hub in the centre of town to find out more. Inside, huge aerial photographs of the affected areas cover the walls. Members from the shire council, the DFES and the Department of Communities take phone calls. Locals line up with questions and requests for assistance.
After the Kimberley floods
On the opposite side of the river, at the Fitzroy River Lodge, things are just as busy. After becoming a hub for residents during the flood, the Lodge is now bustling with high-vis-wearing tradies here to rebuild the Fitzroy Crossing Bridge. The bridge is vital to the road to recovery. A low-level crossing was established in April, but a more permanent and solid crossing is needed to reestablish the vital freight highway.
If it weren’t for the bridge, locals fear they might have been forgotten altogether.
“This flood has shown that we need to create infrastructure on the other side of the river for an event like this in the future,” explains Vivienne, who saw her cut-off community struggle to get food, supplies and medical care. “I’m hopeful that having this focus on Fitzroy Crossing will help us with a lot of our issues and get things moving forward with the government for us Aboriginal people.”
There is an opportunity here to learn from the disaster and rebuild better for a brighter future for the community. For that to happen, Natalie says, there needs to be more information available on funding and the plan ahead.
“We need more regular updates on the recovery process, better communication, transparency and agency,” she says.
Natalie considers herself a climate change refugee. “This was a wake-up call,” she adds. “It’s a reminder of our responsibility to protect Country. We don’t own this Country, it owns us. We belong to it. Taking care of it is part of our duty.”
Looking out over the Fitzroy River with the sun gently setting behind her, Vivienne is determined to find silver linings in the aftermath of the disaster.
“This has brought us together as strong women in the valley,” she says. “We will continue to support our mob and create a better place for the next generation coming through.”
We would like to pay our respects and send our sincere condolences to the family and community of Mrs M. Aiken who sadly passed away in June. May her legacy live on.