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Coping with the Kimberley Floods
Senior Psychologist for the Bush Support Line, Dr Nicole Jeffery-Dawes, reflects on the emotional and professional challenges her community faced during the floods in the Kimberley earlier this year and shares what she’s learned about resilience, community and never taking a crisp lettuce for granted.
When I was asked to write my experiences for this article, I didn’t think much of what I had been through, as I was only just out the other side of things. However, it provided me an opportunity to do some reflective journaling of sorts, and I realised just what the community, myself included, had been through in a relatively short period of time. Writing this was a cathartic experience, and has also allowed me to reflect on how I can better prepare myself for the coming wet season.
I moved to the Kimberley for work over ten years ago, but Kununurra has become my home.
I fell in love with the landscape and country, the big sky, the waterfalls and swimming holes, the people and the sense of community. I’ve worked in very remote communities and experienced their unique challenges, and I’ve also been here in town for some significant challenges too: when the town flooded in 2014; as a “vollie” I fought the bushfires that almost took out town in 2018; and I was Planning Lead in the local pandemic response in early 2020 and watched as State and Local Government Area borders shut, and everyone stayed at home to protect one another. And, pretty much every year without fail, the Great Northern Highway will get cut off between here and Perth during some stage of the wet season due to flooding, and they can’t get fresh food to us for a week or so. Despite all of these challenges, we plan as best we can. We pull together as a community and know it won’t last forever, and that we can get through this.
However, this year seemed different. Starting on the 30th of December 2022, the remnants of ex-Tropical Cyclone Ellie hung around the Kimberley and dumped torrential rain across northern Western Australia. This caused the Fitzroy River to swell to record highs, sweeping away the instruments used to measure the flood height, and they observed some of the highest flow rates ever in an Australian river. Multiple bridges and roads were impassable, and many of the region’s remote Communities were either inundated or cut off and required emergency evacuations.
The road between Broome and Derby had washed away in kilometre-long stretches and needed to be rebuilt. However, it wasn’t until around the 9th of January 2023 that it became apparent that the Fitzroy River bridge was so severely damaged as to be deemed unusable. This bridge is part of the only sealed road that links the East Kimberley to anywhere else in WA, including Perth, where our food comes from.
Due to strict quarantine rules in WA, we can’t bring any fresh produce into the state. Nor can we grow much up here at this time of year, due to weather and insects that eat everything. Like our mail, our fresh produce goes via Perth to be sorted and distributed.
With the bridge out of action, the only alternative route was along the Nullarbor, up the Stuart Highway in the centre, and turn left at Katherine. This adds about 2000 km to the already 3000 km trip, but after a few weeks of no fresh food, the trucks started arriving.
Although the fresh produce, dairy and frozen food range in our only major chain supermarket were extremely limited (around one-tenth of the normal range), we made do as best we could. Our local independent supermarket reviewed their supply chain and brought in fresh food from Perth by boat. We supported them when they could meet the increased demand.
The local butcher also did his best, but this wasn’t a great help for vegetarians. I learnt I could order fruit and vegetables through an independent buyer in Perth and have it trucked up, so that’s what I did: but I only got the chance to put the one order in.
The new internet hardware I had ordered at the end of January with the hope of improving and maintaining my video connection for work was still nowhere to be seen in the post at the end of March.
In another turn of events in early March, both the Timber Creek and the Victoria River in the Northern Territory (NT) flooded and cut off the only other access road in the supply route to the East Kimberley, essentially turning us into an island. We could no longer get fresh food, let alone mail and other stock and supplies to businesses.
Aviation fuel is also trucked in, so there was insufficient fuel for aircraft to fly from Perth as they couldn’t adequately refuel. Only one commercial airline flies between Darwin and Kununurra, and even during a typically erratic wet season, you can’t always depend on catching a flight.
As a Community, we did as we normally do during challenging times like this: we banded together, used humour where we could, swapped and shared the food we did have with our family and friends, and had a darn good rant to one another.
People put up funny posts on the local Facebook Community Noticeboard, trying to sell a piece of suss-looking broccoli to the highest bidder and the like. The banter in the comments sections was pure comedy gold.
The local restaurants were inventive with their menus and the produce they had available to them, with one establishment even including a menu special of an “East Kimberley Salad” made up of half-mouldy lettuce and tomato with a $50 price tag.
We were regularly reminded through media and word of mouth of those who lost so much in the recent flooding and were grateful we still had our homes, our families together, and our relative comforts. But after over two months of ‘making do’ and now this most recent challenge of being completely cut off and short on food, cracks were starting to show.
Given the past few years’ challenges, people were becoming tired of constantly trying to maintain a cheery outlook and do without: resilience was at an all-time low. People were quick to snap at one another, becoming easily irritable, and tempers were quick to flare.
It was really disheartening to go to the supermarket and constantly see nothing but bare shelves in the meat, dairy and produce sections as you walked through the doors.
The uncertainty of not knowing if the bridge would still be there in the NT after the water receded also added to people’s worry.
It was over a week after we were cut off that we heard that the Government was enlisting the assistance of the ADF to fly in food for us and that barges loaded with trucks of produce would arrive in the next three to four days. This news excited everyone, boosted their spirits and gave them something to look forward to. The local port workers built a landing platform for the barges, to code, in a day! However, when the plane arrived, it was carrying dry goods, which was less of an issue as our supermarkets keep a stockpile for potential flooding and road closures. What we needed most was fresh food. This was a disappointment for everyone.
This is where self-compassion came in. Yep, things were looking pretty grim right about now. We were upset that items that we had ordered weeks, if not months ago, to help make life a little more comfortable in this remote setting, weren’t arriving by mail. We acknowledged this, and also that we were tired of trying to meet our own and our family’s food and nutritional requirements. We gave ourselves permission to feel the disappointment we experienced. We gave ourselves space and allocated time to go there: to express our feelings and cry, scream, whatever was needed to let the frustrations out. We allowed ourselves to go there but also knew we couldn’t live in that space.
So, we dusted ourselves off, pulled up our big-person pants, and reminded each other and ourselves of all the things we did have and were grateful for.
We weren’t starving, only facing limited options. We swapped increasingly creative recipes that had ever-diminishing ingredient lists. We used humour at every opportunity. We were reminded by the ‘old timers’ of more challenging times when they needed to get their orders into the store by September as there were no deliveries at all, including any (let alone fresh) food or mail, until the following year at the end of the wet season around March.
Some children were given a firm but honest talking-to about adjusting their expectations during these times. We compared ourselves to other areas in the world, including those at war. We were reminded that we had our health, safety, food to eat, homes to go to, and good friends to lean on.
We were, in fact, so fortunate and this latest, albeit prolonged challenge of no access to fresh food, limited goods and services in other shops (I had ordered new tyres at the start of December), no flights to Perth and no mail, only served as a reminder about the little we need to survive and what really is important in life.
Ironically, fresh food arrived by barge and by plane on the same day the highway reopened and the trucks could get through. It was also like Christmas when the mail started arriving at the post office! But this challenging time has reminded us to be grateful for what we have and not to take things for granted. Things still aren’t back to ‘normal’, and won’t be for months, if not years until the bridge is built, but that’s okay. I’ve got my vege garden up and running for this year and seem to be growing and preserving enough to feed half the town.
But I know that come the next wet season, our food security will be compromised again for months, and I want healthier options to choose from rather than food full of chemical preservatives. During this dry season, we’ve been buying and putting away a few non-perishable items into the ‘wet season pantry’ so that we won’t have to do a big (and expensive) shop later in the year. And now, when we have a yarn with others, we laugh about it all and then swap produce and ideas about storage.
Together, we can get through anything.