Flood-stricken residents say it feels 'like Australia has completely forgotten about the Kimberley and Derby' as tensions rise

Flood-stricken residents say it feels 'like Australia has completely forgotten about the Kimberley and Derby' as tensions rise

Tensions are simmering in the wake of catastrophic floods in northern WA, as supplies dwindle and a tropical cyclone forecast for the region threatens to further delay repairs. 

Key points:

  • Derby residents are increasingly frustrated at intermittent food shortages and two-week alcohol restrictions in wake of floods
  • Authorities have assured residents extra barge and aircraft deliveries are being scheduled to boost availability of fresh food
  • The WA government says it will take four weeks for a new gravel access road to be built

Community leaders say they have never seen morale so low in the town of Derby, as residents scrounge for supplies of fresh food, alcohol and cigarettes.

Longtime resident and former Shire of Derby-West Kimberley (SDWK) president Elsia Archer said she had never seen people in Derby “so low”.

“Some food is delivered and then quickly there’s none,” she said.

“It’s no wonder people are panic-buying.”

An older woman with dyed brown hair and a colourful top sits, smiling at the camera

Long-time Derby resident and former shire president Elsia Archer.(ABC Kimberley: Erin Parke)

Liquor ban fuel to the fire

The bulk of the flood damage occurred 200 kilometres east, but damage to the Great Northern Highway has cut off freight routes and left the town of Derby isolated.

The arrival of 150 evacuees in Derby — left homeless when their houses were washed away — has further exacerbated tensions.

An orange bus and white four-wheel drive with some people standing between them.

More than half of the flood evacuees have travelled home, with more due to return this week.(ABC Kimberley: Erin Parke)

A spike in alcohol-related violence in the days after they arrived caused WA police to shut down local bottle-shops and limit sales at the town’s two bars.

The reaction was initially muted, but when the restrictions were extended until late January, about 50 locals turned up at the local police station to protest.

Officer stands outside Derby Police Station and speaks to a group of people

A police officer discusses restrictions with residents, after an upswing in violence in the community.(Supplied)

“The people that were there on Thursday were are not alcoholics and not big drinker,” Ms Archer said.

“They’re just ordinary people who like to have a drink.

“I couldn’t care less if I never went to a bottle shop, but that’s not the point. It’s not about me. It’s about the community.”

A SDWK spokesperson said they hoped the liquor restrictions would be eased by the end of the week.

Residents take to TikTok

Maita Sheerin-Angouin managed a roadhouse and said residents were having a “very hard time getting food”. 

Empty shelves in Derby supermarkets

Freight has been making its way into the town via barge and plane, with DFES coordinating drops.(Supplied: Tianya Hetherington)

“We’ve had evacuees come into Derby, which is fine, we open our doors for people.

“But our medical supplies and doctors and nurses were already in short supply, so you add a whole bunch of evacuees into a small town like this that’s already struggling — it’s going to cause a bit of mayhem.”

She shared her thoughts on a video posted on social media.

“It feels like Australia … has completely forgotten about the Kimberley and Derby, and left us on our own to figure it out for ourselves.”

A map of the Kimberley region of WA.

The Fitzroy River rose to a peak of 15.81 metres at Fitzroy Crossing.(ABC News)

Town an ‘island’ for another month

A Department of Fire and Emergency Services spokesman said they were doing the best they could to support the town.

A large room with people in fluros and uniforms

The flood response is been coordinated from the Department of Fire and Emergency Services control room in Broome.(ABC Kimberley: Erin Parke)

Incident controller Leon Gardiner said barges and military aircraft were being used to get supplies to Derby — and from there on to Fitzroy Crossing — as quickly as possible. 

“We want to reassure people that we’re doing everything we can to support communities with the transportation of food, fuel and essential goods,” he said.

“For example just today we’ve got 44 pallets of food and two pallets of medical supplies flying into Derby today using Royal Australian Air Force aircraft, and two barges will arrive tomorrow containing 24 containers of food and essential equipment.”

He said authorities were trying to get deliveries to the affected towns as consistently as possible.

“It’s not without its challenges in terms of weather, mechanical issues, and so forth … occasionally there are challenges that crop up and it results in a slight delay.

“But people can rest assured that any food intended for Derby and Fitzroy Crossing is moved in as timely a manner as possible to try to keep up that supply.”

The WA government has confirmed a temporary gravel access road will take four weeks to complete, which would restore road access to Derby in the second half of February. 

A front on picture of a large army helicopter on the tarmac

Australian Army CH-47 Chinooks helped evacuate people from Fitzroy Crossing.(Supplied: Australian Defence Force/Jarrod Mulvihill)

Shire calls for calm

SDWK chief executive Amanda Dexter said it was a challenging time for everyone involved.

Empty shelves at a grocery store in Derby

An influx of people and cut off road networks has meant food insecurity for many residents.(Tianya Hetherington )

“I think we are in for a tough six months — food and road access is going to be limited,” she said.

“We are going to have to pull together and cope.

“Hopefully by working together and really talking, we’ll get through it.”

Empty refrigerated milk shelves in a shop

Shop shelves have been bare in the weeks since floodwaters damaged the Great Northern Highway, cutting off road delivery.(ABC News: Erin Parke )

Police in Derby are also investigating the theft of cigarettes from a local service station, although it is not known if the raid was linked to shortages.

CCTV from a service station camera of two men allegedly stealing cigarettes

People have allegedly broken into the local service station and stolen stockpiles of cigarettes after the town ran out last week.(Kimberley District Police)

Cyclone on the horizon

Meanwhile, resupply missions are likely to be interrupted by a tropical low that’s predicted to develop into a tropical cyclone off WA’s northern coast on Friday or Saturday. 

The Bureau of Meteorology is expecting a tropical low in the Timor Sea to intensify and cross WA’s northern coast on Saturday 28th of January.

A view from above of extensive flooding over fields

The Fitzroy River floodway, photographed from the air the week after the floodwaters peaked.(Supplied: Kimberley Land Council)

It’s possible the system could bring a large amount of rain to the water-logged landscape, and further delay repairs.

It is likely the system will result in resupply missions being paused while the storms pass.

Posted , updated