News State NT News ‘We won’t stand a chance’

‘We won’t stand a chance’

tropical cyclone nathan
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Bunumbirr Marika knows if Cyclone Nathan strikes Nhulunbuy this morning his house will be washed into the sea.

At the Northern Territory Indigenous community known as Birritjimi, or Wallaby Beach, halfway between the Gove alumina refinery and the town centre, 25 houses are perched precariously on the edge of the Gulf of Carpentaria.

Old houses no place to hide from a cyclone
Some of these houses are 50 years old. Photo: ABC

“If the cyclone comes this way these houses won’t stand a chance,” Mr Marika said.

“They’re 50 years old. There’s asbestos in the house.”

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Cyclone Nathan has moved west across the tropical gulf and was upgraded to a category two storm late Saturday night, when forecasters predicted it would make landfall with gusts up to 155 kilometres per hour between Nhulunbuy and Groote Eylandt.

Though it was not yet over land, the weather system had already collided with other kinds of social and economic turbulence.

The remote mining town is where a large and mostly transient, mainly white population of mining employees meets one of the most culturally and economically powerful Indigenous groups in the country.

NT coast readies for Cyclone Nathan
NT coast readies for Cyclone Nathan . Photo: ABC

It is also home to vivid examples of inequality.

Last year the ABC reported several hundred company-owned mine workers houses remained abandoned and empty while there was a 10-year waiting list for public housing accommodation.

In the centre of town, members of the surf life saving club – an outdoor restaurant and bar – examined the rock armour that had been eroded by the most recent cyclone, Cyclone Lam, about one month ago.

The high tide will be at 10am tomorrow, close to the time Cyclone Nathan has been forecast to make landfall.

Only 100 metres further down the beach and beyond the storm surge protection were a huddle of tents where Indigenous people camped year-round.

While the government buildings had been boarded up and public pool shade clothes lowered and stowed away, at the Yirrkala Indigenous community 20 kilometres south – and therefore closer to the forecast path of the cyclone – there appeared to be general ignorance about the storm.

“Cyclone Lam?” Dhoni Wanambi asked when he was told a cyclone was approaching over the ocean.

Household bins had been left on the verge for collection and yards had scrap that would blow around in the forecast wind gusts.

Cyclone awareness in East Arnhem Land
Yirrkala residents know little about the cyclone. Photo: ABC

“What time is it coming?” Mr Wanambi’s granddaughter asked.

“And what category?”

Sitting cross-legged at the centre of a rug, and presiding over a gaggle of grandchildren splashing in an inflatable pool, Mr Wanambi said his family lived in a brick house and would not seek shelter elsewhere.

On the other side of town, Mr Marika was equally adamant.

“My family will be moving over to the cyclone shelter in Nhulunbuy like we did last time it passed us one month ago,” he said.

There would be plenty of room in the shelter, he said.

After the Gove refinery closed in 2013 more than 1,000 workers lost their jobs and the town’s population almost halved.

Qantas stopped flying from Darwin, and there were widespread predictions the white enclave of Nhulunbuy would slowly become a ghost town.

Fishing enthusiasts, Gove, NT
The fishing contest will resume, post-cyclone. Photo: ABC

At the heart of its culture was the ritual of taking the boat down to the ramp and motoring out into the Gulf to go fishing.

The 2014 10th Ladies Fishing Classic competitive angling event (slogan: “Size does matter!”) was to be the last.

But this year it was raised from the dead. A meeting was held last night on whether to postpone the event scheduled to start Saturday.

Local fishing club president Ralph Pellenat cast the deciding vote.

“It was really difficult,” he said. “This year there was an excess of 35 teams and 102 anglers. It’s been a really well patronised event.

“It gives everyone a big relief and allows women to get away from the rugrats. They make their husband do more work,” he said.

“He has to be the man steering the boat and unhooking the fish and baiting up; all the good stuff. They get pampered for the weekend.

“There’s a big presentation night on Sunday – they all get dressed up in their finery and costumes and you name it, and just party hard.

“The club is like a big family. We are responsible for everyone on the water – even if something happened out there unrelated to the cyclone it would come back and impact on us.

“I’m sure most are very disappointed.”

Beach camp at Nhulunbuy, NT
Hundreds of locals camp year-round at Nhulunbuy. Photo: ABC