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Coping with the Kimberley Floods

14 Aug 2023

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.

Lake Argyle spill­way, flow­ing for the first time in five years.

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.

Image: DFES. Noonkan­bah evacuation/​relocation.

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.

Shoal Air pilot, Alex, cap­tured these images of Fitzroy Cross­ing while sup­port­ing Hori­zon Pow­er con­trac­tors to keep the pow­er sta­tion and net­work running.

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.

Image: DFES. Dam­aged road lead­ing to Fitzroy Bridge, Jan­u­ary 2023.

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.

New seedlings plant­ed in April are mak­ing up the large and hope­ful­ly pro­duc­tive vege patch.

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.

Inter­est­ed in learn­ing about wet-weath­­er dis­eases? Read our sto­ries on Melioi­do­sis and Japan­ese encephali­tis virus.