“They just rounding us up like cattle” The catastrophic failure of emergency services in Borroloola.

22 Mar 2024

Monash University researcher and Euahlayi man Bhiamie Williamson has been yarning with Borroloola residents, and learnt that emergency evacuation orders have been poorly planned, disorganised and distressing for community.

Bhiamie Article

Despite what we’re seeing in the mainstream media, emergency services in the Northern Territory have failed the residents of Borroloola. Community members are left confused and fearful, as flooding continues to inundate the town. 

I have spoken at length with Garawa Elder and Borroloola resident Jack Green, who explained that: Usually the way they do it when a cyclone is coming, is they [the emergency services] round everyone up and have a big meeting and talk about it. That way they let us know if we should be ready to evacuate. Nothing like that happened this time. I don’t know what happened.”

The emergency warnings about Cyclone Megan – which made landfall as a Category 3 system on Monday 18 March – came late, and were confusing to residents, Green explained to me.

‘We had no warning. We just get word from other people here to get your things and go to the airport. Then people got there but them mob already left.’

Throughout this week, rainfall from the tropic low has caused the McArthur River to swell. As the McArthur runs through the community, a major flood peak is predicted in the coming days.

Misleading and confusing information

Despite these predictions, residents have only received patchy, and often confusing, information.  Green summarised:

“Someone came and told us to just go up where the bridge is. But they just rounding us up like cattle, putting us onto this bus, in that car. People don’t know where they are being taken to […] ‘People got hungry because they dropped off food, but they were still telling us to buy food from the shop. Now lot of the people here lost their wallets and things from that cyclone so we couldn’t buy the food.”

Cancellation of evacuation orders

Hundreds of residents remain stranded in Borroloola. Despite community members asking to be evacuated, the evacuation order was cancelled without proper explanation or information provided to residents.

Borroloola resident Josie explained “We wanted to evacuate, we were all ready, but then they came and told us ‘no more planes’.  

The cancelling of evacuation orders confused and angered residents, especially those whose houses and camps have been inundated and severely damaged. Josie shared:

“We don’t know why they cancelled that evacuation. Everyone here at the store got no homes to go back to. Where we gonna sleep? There’s no beds. We slept at the Land Council office last night on the floor. No beds and not many pillow and blankets’.” 

After the community were told there would be no more evacuations, without further information or explanation, Green had to walk to the police station to try find out more information.

“They not talking to the people” said Mr Green. 

Damage to roads

Residents also expressed concerns about any temporary housing due to the damage to roads in and out of the town. 

“I don’t know how they gonna get any new houses in here cause them road be no good” said Mr Green.

McArthur river mine

The community also remains concerned regarding the impacts from the McArthur River mine.

The Borroloola community has a long history of protest against the mine, with concerns of seepage of waste and toxic chemicals into the McArthur River. The community also remains concerned regarding the impacts from the McArthur River mine.

The Borroloola community sits downstream from the mine, meaning any contamination of the river will run directly into the town and outwards into the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Immediate concerns:

Immediate concerns remain with the unfolding event.

Emergency services have not provided local people with relief. Instead, all reports from the ground indicate that the emergency service response has contributed to the stress and anxiety for of residents.

As the water recedes and the damage is assessed, the official decision to cancel the evacuation response from emergency services for the failed evacuation must also be examined.

It is time authorities stopped making decisions for the community, and started to make decisions with them.

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