Torres Strait pleads for help as super moon king tides hit

People in the Torres Strait have called for help after king tides coinciding with the super blue blood moon have inundated islands throughout the region.

Tide peaks of almost 4.5 metres, boosted by heavy weather and winds, have hit the far-north Queensland island communities on the border with Papua New Guinea.

Waves crashed through houses on Yam Island and left coral from the surrounding reef littered throughout the buildings.

A video posted by a Yam resident shows torrents of water running through houses and people desperately trying to salvage their belongings.

Residents plea for help.
Source: SBS News

“See what we have to put up with every year, it’s crap,” said a woman in a video posted online.

“Can’t you see what’s happening. We need help. This is unbelievable.”

Queensland MP Cynthia Lui for the Cook electorate - which covers the Torres Strait - is from Yam Island and in November’s state election became the first islander from the region ever elected to any legislature in Australia.

“This kind of weather happens every year, but this is the worst I’ve seen it,” Ms Lui said from Cairns.

“The issue with the king tides is that it is well above the normal level, you’re seeing inundation with water throughout the communities. The heavy rain and winds are not helping the situation at all.

“I’ve experienced this kind of weather for myself when I was living on Yam, but to see the kind of impact and devastation that it has caused to homes, where people have lost their homes and belongings.

“It makes me feel very sad, these people are my family.”

"This is the worst I’ve seen it," says Queensland MP for the Cook electorate Cynthia Lui.

Hopes for sea wall shattered

For more than a decade Torres Strait authorities have called for federal and state governments help to deal with king tides that inundate islands damaging houses, infrastructure and ruining crops.

In 2012 the Torres Strait Island Regional Council (TSIRC) received $26m in federal-state funding.

Last year people on one of the worst affected islands celebrated after as sea walls were finally rebuilt on Saibai to the tune of $24.5m, but in the past 24 hours waves have broken over these defences.

The community of almost 400 people hoped the sea wall would protect the island for decades to come.

“It was a very unusual weather event and you can’t build for all contigencies,” said local federal MP Warren Entsch by phone from the Cocos Islands off the Western Australian coast.

“What was built there was an outstanding job and very expensive, but what you have is a mud island.

“We know there is more to be done.”

On Boigu, another badly affected low-lying mud island just metres above sea level, a tide peak of almost 4.5 metres was recorded.

On the region’s administrative centre, Horn Island the main jetty went underwater and a fishing trawler was swept away and then washed ashore.

Mr Entsch was instrumental in securing the federal funding.

Water breaks over the sea wall in Saibai.
Source: Supplied

“I was given a figure to do the six islands, unfortunately there was a whole lot of different scenarios. What was originally budgeted just did Saibai, and there’s a little for Boigu. What was for six islands was spent on one," he said.

“One of the reasons I was keen to get to Cocos is to see the work they’ve done here, they have very similar issues and have been very successful in the amount of ground they have reclaimed.

“They have these special bags, they are massive and use local materials and sand and are very resilient.

“I’m going to go back and talk to the the Torres Strait and say they should come and have a look at what has been done on the Cocos. I suspect this could be a solution.”

Ms Lui declined to comment if enough had been done by the federal and Queensland governments for the communities.

“I’m not going to make any comment on that but I would like to talk to all different levels to see what was actually done and whether or not it was enough,” she said.

The devastation on Yam Island.
Source: Supplied

Ongoing talk of relocating

The federal Department of Environment and Energy has identified the Torres Strait islands as one of the most at risk places in Australia from rising sea levels caused by climate change.

In recent years there has been discussion about relocation.

“These islands are home for many generations and I consider Yam island home,” Ms Lui said.

“It is a hard task and there will be that ongoing dialogue on whether it is the best option at this point in time but we also need to consider that these are people with a real connection to the region.”

Source: Supplied

Ms Lui said she is in talks with state authorities about providing assistance.

“No resources have been pre-deployed in the region and there are currently no plans to send any up there,” a spokesman for Queensland Fire and Emergency Services said.

“We are liaising with the Torres Strait Island Regional Council who are the lead agency in the region and we will rely on them for advice and provide resources if requested.”

The TSIRC did not respond to SBS enquires.

Published 31 January 2018 at 7:00pm, updated 31 January 2018 at 7:54pm
By Stefan Armbruster