Western Australia’s Premier says it could take months before authorities can restore critical infrastructure in remote towns ravaged by the state’s worst floods on record, as a supplies and freight headache emerges.
- There has been widespread destruction in the Kimberley from the floods
- Damage to critical infrastructure is set to take months to fix
- There are warnings delivering freight and supplies will be difficult
Mark McGowan described the infrastructure damage caused by flooding in the Kimberley region as “extraordinary”, with the daunting task of rebuilding towns and communities becoming clearer as water levels drop.
Former tropical cyclone Ellie saw the town of Fitzroy Crossing hit with record water levels last week, with residents needing to be evacuated, homes inundated and significant damage to roads and bridges.
Mr McGowan said the magnitude of repairs was starting to become apparent.
“The damage to the roads and bridge is extraordinary, and will take a long time to fix,” he said.
“This is an issue we’re going to have to manage for months, if not longer.”
The Fitzroy River bridge, the only sealed road linking Broome with the rest of the Kimberley and Northern Territory, was almost completely destroyed.
An alternate crossing at Fitzroy Crossing – an old floodway – is unlikely to be assessed and activated until the waters recede and the wet season ends, due to the possibility of further floods and weather events.
“The bridge will have to be rebuilt, and any work can’t commence until after the wet season,” Mr McGowan said.
“This is a massive logistical exercise and will take a long period of time.”
Freight and supplies nightmare
The major damage sustained to road and bridge infrastructure was proving a massive problem in getting essential supplies into the Kimberley.
Truck drivers said they would now have to complete a 6,000 kilometre one-way journey via South Australia and the Northern Territory to move freight from Perth into the East Kimberley.
Western Roads Federation chief executive Cam Dumesny said the route would be in place for some time — an expensive journey considering the price of fuel.
“If you look at the state of the [Fitzroy River] bridge, and in particular, the amount of road damage up there, this is not going to be a short-term fix,” he said.
Main Roads said the water level at the Fitzroy River bridge peaked at 16.9 metres but was receding.
There is concern small businesses in the East Kimberley would shut their doors due to sharp increases in freight prices.
Local Chamber of Commerce and Industry secretary Kerry Robertson said trucking costs had doubled for those needing to move goods to and from WA’s capital.
“There’s already some talk from businesses saying they can’t afford the freight rate,” she said.
“So there is people saying they are going to scale back their business, potentially close for three to six months, and go and find a job somewhere else. Everyone is really concerned because this is unprecedented.”
Empty shelves in isolated towns
However, authorities say an isolated section of the highway linking Derby and Fitzroy Crossing was expected to reopen in the next day or two after the repair of “minor” pavement damage.
The 250 kilometre link would potentially allow for freight to arrive in Derby by barge or air and then be driven to Fitzroy Crossing.
Main Roads was also hoping to reopen the section of Great Northern Highway allowing travel into Broome from the west to high clearance trucks and four-wheel drives tomorrow, when water levels fall further.
Some trucks are being let through to deliever gas and fuel to Broome.
Supermarket shelves in Broome were becoming bare without a steady flow of trucks coming into town.
Main Roads said it hoped to reopen the road to all traffic by the weekend.
Derby West Kimberley shire president Geoff Haerewa said it could be weeks before the Broome to Derby link was safe to reopen.
“Minnie Bridge and Cockatoo Bridge near Ski Lake [along Great Northern Highway near Willare] are underwater,” he said.
“Fortunately we’ve got RAAF Curtin where large planes can land, and barges coming up from Port Hedland and Broome.”
Main Roads said aerial inspections had shown major damage to most of the Willare section of the Great Northern Highway where water levels remain high.
Water ‘as far as the eye can see’
Federal Agriculture and Emergency Management Minister Senator Murray Watt said the amount of water over land was staggering.
“From the air both as you’re approaching Broome and then heading out to Fitzroy Crossing, the water coverage really goes as far as the eye can see,” he said.
“The Fitzroy River is coming down quite quickly, the flood levels are receding in most parts, but what we’ve been hearing over the last few days is that at points at the peak, the Fitzroy River expanded to be about 50 kilometres wide, which is just an enormous amount of water.
“So it’s a massive flood … it’s a record-breaking flood in what is already a wet part of Australia.”
Around 280 residents of Fitzroy Crossing, Noonkanbah and other Central Kimberley communities have been evacuated over recent days, especially vulnerable people with health concerns.
These displaced residents have been taken to Broome or Derby, with many staying in motels or short-stay accommodation until they can return to their homes.
Evacuees urged to be patient
Department of Fire and Emergency Services incident control officer Glen Hall said the authorities were undertaking assessments and there was no confirmed time frame for residents to be able to return home.
“Thankfully, we’ve had no reports of death or injury. I can only commend the efforts of the community for that,” he said.
“I would just ask for people’s patience. There is an array of steps we need to go through to assess when we can put people back on country. That’s our priority as a team.
Mr Hall said a plan was in place to get people back to their homes, but a sizeable amount of work would need to be undertaken first.
“We need to make sure people are going back to their homes safely. We will have some ongoing health issues that we’re planning for, but we want to make sure that when people do go back on country, it’s safe.”