Lack of Indigenous language translations intensified community panic during Tropical Cyclone Trevor

Updated April 06, 2019 10:25:53

Ian Gumbula is no stranger to the destructive nature of tropical cyclones.

Key points:

  • Remote community worker Ian Gumbula said the stress of the coming cyclone was increased by a lack of information in local Kriol language
  • Mr Gumbula said people who had not self-evacuated from Ngukurr in Arnhem Land feared for their lives when the cyclone made landfall
  • This was despite the Bureau of Meteorology updates — all in English — saying Ngukurr would be relatively safe during the cyclone

He was in Darwin for Cyclone Tracy in 1974, and memories of that time were at the front of his mind as his southern Arnhem Land community of Ngukurr prepared for the possible destructive landfall of tropical Cyclone Trevor in March.

“It’s a terrible thing, you know, really terrifying. I’ve still got the memories,” Mr Gumbula said.

As a program manager at the Stronger Communities program at Ngukurr Aboriginal corporation Yugul Mangi, Mr Gumbula was doing his best to make sure everyone was safe in the lead-up to Trevor’s approach.

“I was trying to work with my mob, and same time, listening to the emergency services, especially the police, telling the community that the cyclone was coming towards us,” he said.

“I was frightened too, and I was panicking and saying, ‘look what can I do for myself and for my family, and as well for the community?'”

Mr Gumbula said in Ngukurr, the general stress of the approaching cyclone was increased by a lack of simple, updated information translated into the language that most people in the community speak best — Kriol.

Cyclone information mainly in English

Community members knew a cyclone was coming through information on the radio, television and via local police — but it was mostly in English.

“They were saying in English about the winds, the eye and all that sort of thing, and to the community this just means it’s getting closer, but is it here or back there somewhere — what does closer mean?” he said.

“The explanation in English is very hard to understand.

“In the context of local languages like Kriol, certainly they could understand it because that’s the language of this community.”

Ngukurr escaped Tropical Cyclone Trevor basically unscathed as the weather system tracked further south towards Borroloola, but hundreds of people still self-evacuated from the community.

Police confirmed they had advised Ngukurr residents to self-evacuate if they were able to do so, but there was no formal evacuation as there was in Borroloola and Groote Eylandt.

Mr Gumbula was still in Ngukurr on Saturday March 23, the day the cyclone made landfall, and left very early the following morning.

He said many of the families who had not evacuated from Ngukurr were still fearing for their lives and felt trapped, as road closures made it difficult for vehicles to travel back to collect people who were still there.

This was despite the fact the Bureau Of Meteorology’s updated predictions — all in English — at that stage showed Ngukurr would be safe from the most severe impacts of the cyclone.

No formal policy on translating emergency messages

NT Emergency Services and Secure NT, the agencies broadly responsible for distributing emergency information in the Territory, both said they did not have a policy on translating emergency messages into local languages — even when the emergency is directly impacting communities where English might be a second, third or even fourth language.

A spokesperson from the Department of the Chief Minister, responsible for Secure NT, said translations did happen as “a way of process”.

During Cyclone Trevor, emergency information was translated into Kriol and Anindilyakwa (mainly spoken on Groote Eylandt), the spokesperson said.

But this information, much of it supplied to and subsequently broadcasted by the ABC, mostly related to health warnings including advising people to boil water and warning of diseases like melioidosis, rather than providing rolling updates on where the cyclone actually was or when it was expected to hit.

NT Police Fire and Emergency Services said they had a collection of pre-recorded messages in different languages, supplied to the ABC and the Top End Aboriginal Bush Broadcasters Association, which included information on how to prepare for a cyclone — but they also provided no rolling updates.

Limited Kriol weather translations

An Australian National University-affiliated linguist and Kriol speaker, Greg Dickson, said while the generic cyclone preparedness messages in Kriol were good in principle, they lacked vital, up-to-date information.

“Without similar advice on how far the cyclone is from your community, how strong it is, where it’s actually heading, when it might be expected to arrive, it’s not really equipping people properly on when and whether they should be acting the way that is given in the advice,” he said.

“People are being told what they should be doing in case of an emergency but not really given clear information as to exactly whether or not an emergency is happening now.”

The ABC broadcasts one daily news bulletin in Kriol, but Mr Dickson, who was in Katherine during the cyclone, said that when the system was developing and changing that information quickly went out of date.

During Cyclone Trevor, he started translating updated weather warnings from the Bureau of Meteorology from English into Kriol for free, which he posted on social media and his personal blog.

He said the idea that responsible organisations had no formal policy on translating emergency messaging into local languages was “mind-boggling”.

“It really does boggle my brain that they have no policy of providing stuff in first languages — am I crazy, or is that kind of crazy?

“You are providing emergency information that needs to go to every citizen in a location, but if you’re only doing that in English, you are really only sending that message to a proportion of the place where you’re supposed to be sending the message to.”

Topics: cyclones, cyclone, indigenous-protocols, indigenous-policy, police, darwin-0800, katherine-0850, borroloola-0854, ngukurr-0852

First posted April 06, 2019 07:15:14

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