Tropical Cyclone Monica is one of the most intense Australian cyclones in recorded history, and threatened several Indigenous communities in April 2006. It prompted the evacuation of the remote island community of Warruwi, and caused considerable damage to the mainland township of Maningrida. The evacuation of Warruwi went smoothly as emergency services personnel, the community and the airline cooperated to airlift some 350 people to designated safe areas on the mainland. We show that local institutions culturally embedded in Indigenous ways of understanding and responding to the world were important in providing essential but 'unofficial' services during the emergency. Recognizing and respecting the resilience of the local process involved in everyday Indigenous life is revealed as central to ensuring local cooperation and effective involvement of state and national institutions in delivering effective measures during emergencies. Ensuring that local, state and national authorities offer recognition and understanding of these Indigenous institutions, and develop strong relationships with them, should be a priority in developing approaches that limit conflict and trauma where emergency services risk overriding local protocol.