• Stories of survival from Australiaâs cyclone-hit far north
On the 19th of February, severe Tropical Cyclone Lam hit remote Indigenous communities across the north coast of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory.
By
Laura Murphy-Oates

Source:
Living Black
7 Apr 2015 - 7:52 PM  UPDATED 7 Apr 2015 - 8:10 PM

(Transcript from SBS World News Radio)

On the 19th of February, severe Tropical Cyclone Lam hit remote Indigenous communities across the north coast of Arnhem Land in the Northern Territory.

In the community of Milingimbi, community night patrol officer Michael Lewukan was called upon for a service above and beyond his usual work of keeping the peace.

This is his story.

Laura-Murphy Oates reports.

(Click on the audio tab above to hear the fulll report)

Half a kilometre off the north coast of the Central Arnhem Land is the remote Indigenous community of Milingimbi, the largest of the Crocodile Islands and home to over 1,000 people.

Services and infrastructure are scarce on the island community - there's one store, food is brought over from the mainland by barge, as are the police when there are any disturbances.

The Yolngu people who live here often make do.

"My name is Michael Lewukan, I work for community night patrol here, it's quite a big job here. Picking up people, running around where there's a sick man bring them to the hospital. ... (If) There's a noise there on the street we tell them to be quiet before the police comes; we solve the problem first. We manage ourselves."

On February 19th a tropical low had been brewing over the Northern Territory for days.

The community is scrambling to prepare for the biggest cyclone it's ever seen - severe tropical cyclone Lam.

Without a police force or emergency services workers present, regular members of the community like Michael are called upon to ensure everyone gets to a cyclone-proof house or the cyclone shelter at the airport, 15 minutes drive from the town.

"We were picking up, people, rushing to the shelters. Still picking up, make sure nobody has to be in their places, make sure nobody has to be in their places just check up, check around the house on the street, see if they call us or ring us, still go around camp by camp."

60 year old grandmother Barbara Dhamany lives in one of the beachfront houses most vulnerable to the destructive cyclone winds.

To her relief, Michael picks her up at 6pm.

"Thursday when we heard the cyclone nobody went to help us. Any kind of special trip to pick us up, no. Only the community was here to help. The night patrol took us over to shelter at the airport for the cyclone."

By 11pm most other cars stop driving - it's too dangerous - but Michael and his patrol partner Alfred push on.

"I was driving faster because of the wind - too much for me, I can't handle the steering. I open the back gate and it threw my hands away with the wind, trying to rush, close the door, close the gate. I have to drive slowly and I couldnt see the road. It was falling so much harder I can't even look. I told my workmate to get out and walk on the road to show me the way."

Many are still trapped in houses, too scared to go outside.

Robert Maliwanawuy is unsure whether his house is cyclone coded - especially for a category 4 - but he is unable to reach the cyclone shelter.

Reporter: "Did you ever think about going to the shelter?"

Robert Maliwanawuy: "Yeah we tried to call them and oh the satellite was off too, tried to call on the phones, ring them for some guys to pick us up with the car. We didn't sleep we just had to stand around walk around and had a peek through the window. Scared, very scared, yeah."

At 2am the centre of the cyclone crosses the mainland coast, 15 kilometres southeast of Milingimbi.

Wind gusts reach speeds up to 260 kilometres an hour - but Michael keeps driving.

"I saw trees falling when I was coming back from shelter, falling just made me scared. (reporter asks, All through the night?) "Yeah all through the night. One flew in front of us, one flew in front of us. (reporter: Flew in the air?) "Yeah flew in the air, landed that way."

At 3am as Michael is making his last trip back from the airport shelter he sees something fall on the road, ahead in the dark.

"When I was coming back to pick another lot, that was the last lot, I thought I was going to not make it. Because I was very very scared. I couldn't even look at the road. When I came back from airport that's when the tree fell into the road."

Trapped, Michael sits in his car in the middle of the cyclone.

Michael's wife of 30 years, Margaret, is waiting anxiously at a neighbour's house for news of her husband.

"Sitting, waiting for Michael to come back home that night. I went ot the window and opened the window, noise outside trees, whistling, then tree fell off.... and I told one of my neighbours that the tree is going to crush us as we're sitting there, waiting for them to come back."

Hours later, as the storm is dying down, another car comes to Michael's rescue and clears a path around the tree.

He returns home at 5am, just as Milingimbi is waking up to a very different town - with 19 homes declared uninhabitable, 100 residents displaced and a more than $17 million-repair bill.

Asked if people have thanked him, Michael replies:

"No, because I work for the community."

Reporter: "That's your life?"

Michael: "That's my life, the helping, saving, yeah."