Palm Island Pulls Through Yasi


Yesterday we reported that the mostly Indigenous community of Palm Island, off the coast of Townsville, was unprepared for the approaching tropical cyclone.

We spoke to residents on the island who told us they feared for their lives and questioned why the entire island hadn’t been evacuated. They said much of the housing on the island was not built to withstand a storm of Yasi’s strength.

Thankfully the island was not as badly hit by the cyclone as expected. Queensland police have told us that all residents are okay, although power has been cut and the phone lines are down.

It’s not yet clear what level of damage has been done to the rest of the island’s infrastructure. As soon as we can get through to others on the island we will post updates here, and will continue to do so for the next 24 hours.

If you’re just coming to this story now, the oldest information is at the top of the page. If you’ve been following it since yesterday and want the latest updates, go to the bottom.

12.45PM WEDNESDAY: Residents on Palm Island are preparing for the worst as Cyclone Yasi looks likely to submerge and flatten large parts of the island.

Victoria Laine, who is a registered nurse working in the island’s hospital, said only about 600 of the predominantly Indigenous population of 3000 had left the island, while another 300 had made their way to one of the island’s two evacuation centres. The rest remained in houses that were not built to withstand a cyclone of this strength.

"Much of the housing on the island is what we call informal — so made of tin sheets," she said.

Laine said medical staff and police had made the decision to stay on the island, which is 65km north-west of Townsville, to deal with the cyclone’s aftermath.

"We’ve decided that as long as the hospital still has a roof we will practice. There’s no other building on the island suitable for us to move to, except maybe the courthouse."

She said the island was also expecting a storm surge of between four and six metres which will submerge many houses.

No official order had been made for residents to evacuate the island, Laine said, although a ferry and a number of extra flights evacuated some residents yesterday.

News of the cyclone was received by the local population with scepticism, she told New Matilda, in part because Cyclone Anthony, which swept past the island late last week, had not been as damaging as predicted.

The airport is now closed and the island has not received any fresh food since the day before yesterday, she said.

Asked if she was nervous about the approaching storm, Laine told New Matilda that "afraid is a better word to describe it".

We will continue to post updates on the situation on Palm Island provided the Telstra tower remains intact and we are able to get through to local contacts.


I’ve just spoken to Victoria again and she says the wind and rain have picked up but no damage has been done yet. They have been advised that very strong winds will start after 7pm local time (8pm AEST).

She said the whole island, including the ambulance service, is now in lockdown.


UPDATE 5:45PM WEDNESDAY: Crikey has picked up on this story and has some more details about the situation on Palm. A former mayor, Peter Blackley, has told Crikey "People are woefully unprepared. The state of Queensland has abandoned us."

"Twenty minutes ago two blokes were walking down the street drunk and kids are playing in the backyard, with 90 km wind. And yesterday, when I looked around, boats — not on trailers — were sitting in people’s front yards, car bodies. Essentially, deadly missiles all over the community and should have been picked up, mostly by the local council."

Read the full story here.

And here’s more from AAP: 

Mr Blackley said a local ferry service had put on an emergency service to remove people from the island on Tuesday.

"But it was at their own cost and not many people jumped on the boat because they don’t have the resources because it’s a welfare community. People have very little funds."


UPDATE 7.25PM WEDNESDAY: I’ve just spoken to the current mayor of Palm Island, Alfred Lacey, about the situation on the ground.

Lacey disagreed the community was unprepared for this event, telling me "We’d been planning this for Cyclone Anthony, and our cyclone preparations are certainly bedded down".

He described the mood on the island as "pretty good, everyone is calm".

He clarified that there are four evacuation centres on the island but that two of them are too close to the sea to be of use in this event. Of the other two, the mayor estimated that there were 100 people at one and 80 people at the other.

I asked where he thought the rest of Palm Island’s approximately 3000 residents were: "Most people have gone to higher ground". He said he was confident that "all are in homes that are cyclone-rated".

I asked what percentage of housing on Palm Island is cyclone-proof and he said "I couldn’t give a percentage but we do have quite a few brick buildings in town".

"I’ve lived on Palm Island all my life. In that time we’ve had about 20 of these kind of events happen around us — not directly at us, but around — and some of those [old]houses are still standing today."

Asked about the claim by former mayor Peter Blackley that the Queensland Government had abandoned Palm Island, Lacey said: "The former mayor can take that up with the state government — I’m not in the mood to attend to any stoush at this point."

He added that Blackley was "scoring political points".

He described the weather at 7pm AEST as "very windy and rainy" but said that it was still possible to move around the island, and that emergency services were still checking on residents.


UPDATE 9AM THURSDAY: I tried to get through to the Palm Island hospital this morning but calls are being redirected to the Townsville hospital. A spokeswoman there said that the phone lines on the island are down.

I then spoke to mayor Alfred Lacey on his mobile, although reception was very bad.

Lacey said the island had fared much better than expected and that there had been no reports of injuries and no homes damaged across the island – although there has been structural damage to some public buildings. Given the situation on the mainland, and the fact that the phone tower has been damaged, this seems like a minor miracle. I’ll be trying to get on to other locals throughout the day to get more information.


UPDATE 10.15AM THURSDAY: Queensland Police have just told us that everyone on the island is okay. There have been no reports of injuries. The power is out, although the generator at the police station is operating. That’s all the information they have at this stage.

More to come.


UPDATE 4.10PM THURSDAY: I’ve just had an update on the situation on Palm from Josh Ridgeway at National Indigenous TV, who spoke earlier to Tim Miller, the manager of Bwgcolman radio station on Palm Island.

Miller confirmed to NITV that there had been no injuries or fatalities on the island and said SES crews were heading over from the mainland this afternoon to assess the damage. Power company Ergon was also due to start reconnecting the power supply.

He said most residents are still in evacuation centres and are being advised to stay inside as it’s still raining heavily.

The post office has lost its roof and there has been damage to some other public buildings. Apparently the island’s cliff now looks bare after trees were razed.

He said the major concern on the island now is food spoilage as there is no power and all fresh food gets shipped in from the mainland.

Miller also confirmed that there was no free evacuation service offered on the day before the cyclone hit and that residents were still being charged for this service.


If you have more information about the situation on Palm Island, email us.

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