• High tides have breached a seawall at Saibai, potentially creating a water contamination risk. (TS Connect)
Families have 'lost everything', power lines are down and water supplies are at risk of contamination in the Torres Strait, where monsoonal tides are sweeping through communities, breaching a $24.5 million seawall built just six months ago.
By
Ella Archibald-Binge

31 Jan 2018 - 6:16 PM  UPDATED 31 Jan 2018 - 7:31 PM

Residents on Yam Island were forced to evacuate their homes on Tuesday, as king tides inundated low-lying sections of the island. 

The island's worst affected area included three "tin sheds" and a "donger" (prefabricated house), built as a contractor's camp but currently used as emergency housing for four local families without a permanent home.

Elizabeth Kepa, whose sister and her two grandchildren live in one of the tin sheds, described the area as a "danger zone". 

"The wind came right in the houses, blew everything, crushed down all the walls in the houses. Most of the families burst out crying because they lost everything," she told NITV News.

"[The houses] are actually falling apart."

WATCH: Residents evacuate their emergency housing on Yam Island *language warning*

Fridges, washing machines, TVs, lounges and mattresses have been destroyed, with most residents staying with relatives in the village until they can find alternative housing. 

Josephine David, who lives in the donger with her partner and three boys aged between 5-14, said there was barely any external support available for the community on Yam Island, which is a 20-30 minute plane ride from Thursday Island. 

"Especially when the weather is like this, all the planes are grounded or the choppers are grounded, there’s no one to come out and help us, so we’re doing it all on our own. No experience or anything, just families helping families out. It’s sad," she said. 

Ms David said after the tide receded yesterday, the Islanders heard a "big bang noise", and realised a transformer had burst into flames just metres away from where they'd been walking a few moments earlier. 

"We didn’t even know what to do!" she said. 

"If there were experts coming outside, rescue or something, they would’ve told us nobody can go in that area until things settle down. But the first thing we did was, we ran! 

"Lucky Ergon [Energy] came down, turned it off and I was like what’s going on? What if that triggered off while we were walking here? We didn’t even know it was still live!"

Residents say they face the same situation around the same time each year, but Ms David, who's lived in her so-called temporary housing on and off for eight years, said this year was the "worst ever". 

"We’ve been promised a house year after year but we’re still not getting anything," she said.

"Give us a new home, because this is like every year we have to move out because of the high tide... and we’re not just moving out by ourselves – we’ve got families of our own, we’ve got kids."

Torres Strait Island Regional Council Mayor Fred Gela said one of the tin sheds had been "significantly damaged", and alternative living arrangements would be made for that family.

Mr Gela said the makeshift houses were built by the previous council before amalgamation in 2008, and the council was currently working to relocate families to more suitable properties outside the flood-prone area. He said the council had secured Commonwealth funding for several houses currently under construction, which are expected to be completed in 12-14 weeks. 

Mr Gela said negotiations with Traditional Owners had hampered the construction process. 

"We would've hoped to have those newly-constructed homes well and truly constructed. Sadly we've had prolonged negotiations in regard to access to land, that has resulted in the construction only just recently started," he said. 

"As council, we can bring the investment, however in order to actually roll out the investment we really need the endorsement from Traditional Owners in terms of access to land."

Mr Gela said the council's community disaster groups ensured families were "in the know" with severe weather warnings and alerts. He said council workers were on the ground assisting families with clean up efforts.

Tide breaches $24.5 million seawall built six months ago

Meanwhile, on Saibai Island, locals say tides have breached a $24.5 million seawall built to protect the community just six months ago after rising water threatened to erode graves at the local cemetery. 

"They finished the project last year to be able to be prepared for these types of situations, however, it’s been proven ineffective because now that this monsoonal tides and weather has hit, the thing has already been breached and it’s not even a year old," says Patrick Mau, founder of Torres Strait multimedia consultancy company TS Connect. 

Mr Mau says such breaches leave the community vulnerable to water contamination, as freshwater supplies can be affected by the rising sea levels. 

Mayor Fred Gela said there was no risk to water contamination on Saibai Island "at this stage", and claimed the seawall had in fact proved its effectiveness, given that only one property on the island was flooded. 

"I can honestly say that the seawall has proven effective, because without that seawall, three-quarters of that community would've been flooded," he told NITV News. 

"[Residents] need to reflect on what life would be like without that seawall in place. It would've been much, much worse."

But Patrick Mau says governments should look to other countries with similar challenges in order to find a more effective solution. 

“It does get worse every year, simply because you’re trying to develop and create new solutions to it which are ineffective, which shows you something’s not working… more houses will be affected, more communities will be affected, more people will be affected, more infrastructure, the works," Mr Mau said.

"This is not just an issue happening in Australia or the Torres Straits, this is a global issue. So there are other countries that are offering solutions that we need to actually be looking into. We need to try to adopt some of those things to see what we can do to protect the communities."

The tide on Yam Island peaked at 3.84m at 12.10pm today, according to the Bureau of Meteorology. It's set to get even higher tomorrow with a 12.46pm high tide forecast to reach 3.87m.

A spokesperson for Queensland Fire and Emergency Services said they'd been liaising with the local council but hadn't yet received a request for resources.

Follow Ella Archibald-Binge on Twitter

RELATED CONTENT
Floods wreak major havoc across Northern Australia
Wild weather and flooding is causing evacuations, school closures, and considerable damage across communities in the Northern Territory.
Broome left isolated after massive rainfalls
The coastal tourist town has been smashed with record rainfalls just four weeks after Cyclone Hilda hit.