The calm before and after the storm

Guest blog

Hi, preparedness and recovery folk. I’m Margaret McCarthy, a colleague of John at Red Cross, coming to you from a town in storm recovery. I’m here to take give you a break from pandemics, earthquakes and bushfire recovery by taking you on a whirlwind tour of a town called Blackwood in Central Victoria (Population 350).  

The “weather event” came in strong from an unusual direction – the east – and stretched across Gippsland, Dandenong, Macedon, to the edges of Ballarat. Tragically, two people lost their lives in Gippsland, and while it damaged many houses and left more without power for weeks, the real miracle is that more lives weren’t lost. For 12 pitch black hours, cyclone force winds buffeted the wills, our little fibro shacks. My town, though not as badly affected as others, was virtually isolated for three days.

I have previously experienced the disruption of storms.  In 1996, I sheltered with my terrified three-year-old in our tiny rental while massive hailstones pelted our house – damaging our car and roof, and made a mess of neighbouring suburbs. As the green sky delivered the storm it threated, I ran around closing  all the curtains and shut ourselves in the kitchen,  the most protected room in our house,  where, oddly enough, our piano lived.  As the lights flicked on and off, we banged along on the piano noisily for the duration of the hail, a desperate act to demonstrate to my child how I wasn’t scared (like hell, I wasn’t). Around us windows were threatened by tennis-ball ice. The tiles were breaking. Later our roof exploded. Six months later,  I collected the car from the smash repairer and left for a safer place: the country.

I’ve also learned about social recovery through my work at Red Cross after other storm events. Though we’re still recovering in my town, here are a few early personal observations.

Preparedness and volunteering builds social capital

Way before the storm, the “locals” set an expectation that everyone volunteers in some shape or form.  Although less than 350 people in town, there are plenty of volunteer and social opportunities. When I arrived in 2015, I was told:  “This is a volunteer town. It’s not an easy place to live. Remote. No services close. If we want something we have to make it happen ourselves.” I volunteered as a first responder with Ambulance Victoria. Others join CFA, Progress, Senior Cits, or book club. One of my friends here is Red Cross. There are FaceBook page admins, a local newspaper, gardening groups, Landcare, bands, playgroups, a sneaky radio station, and of course…the pub. You wonder how anyone has time.

These mobs then organised themselves and drew down on existing resources – the government and emergency management. The town has the proverbial “one road in and out” – a  single sealed highway that runs through the forest connecting two shires. The town had evacuated following the fires near Daylesford in 2014. On Black Saturday the fire trucks were called out of town, which provided a wake-up call to the town for fire protection.  It was difficult to build here due to complex building codes, especially post Black Saturday. In 2016, the community worked with Emergency Management Victoria and Local Government to develop a Community Emergency Management Plan (CEMP) under the “Safer Victoria” program. It was at these talks that I first learned about Municipal Emergency Management Plans, and met the key people who would advocate for and support the community if (when) needed: the council emergency manager, the CFA Captain, the local community action group, and so on. Soon after, this same crew developed and submitted the Blackwood Action Group Submission the Inquiry into Fire Season Preparedness in June 2017.

It’s easy to be blinded by fire risk

Despite knowing about the need to prepare for all hazards, I too expected the emergency to be a fire. At one of the meetings to develop the CEMP, someone joked, “we know you’re at high fire risk, but we also hear for the other ten months of the year you’re just trying to keep warm.” Like others, I thought that when the emergency came, I’d be “not here”. I had a “leave early” plan in place. My backup plan was “go to the fire refuge next”. Right to the time that stormy night, when the power went out and the sky turned green, and even though I was part of preparedness for the severe event with my work, I dismissed the risk to myself. Storms may be dramatic here, but they are tempered by the forest, the wind from the east is mild. Despite all the warnings, all the information, no one here anticipated that a storm would stop us in our tracks.

As things got worse that night, and the winds concentrated through the valleys, townspeople started communicating via social media on the local Facebook page. “Is everyone ok?”  The constant drone of the wind was akin to standing beside a jet engine at the airport, punctuated by the crack and crash of thousands of trees, then a ping of someone would reply back:  “We’re sleeping in the car with the dogs. Trees down front and behind house”.

At first light, we ventured out and surveyed the damage. I posted an ”I’m ok” video online for friends and family. We talked with our CFA friends (who were driving around in the main truck) to get info. People checked in from my work. A Red Cross colleague from the next town (which missed the wrath of the storm) telephoned. “I hear the town’s been hit pretty hard. Are you ok?”

One local house was cut in half. My own place had a tree resting on it and minor damage. Lots of sheds and a couple of cars were crushed, but the word from the CFA was: no injuries. There were however, people still trapped in their properties, and news was coming in from the rest of the state. I had been for a little walk outside, but it was too dangerous to stay out. I reported in to work: “The trees are still falling. The mobile tower is just about to go, so time for communications is running out.” The streets not already cut off by more trees and powerlines were being cordoned off by the CFA. The night previous, I’d been organising a generator to continue work from my home office. It was now soberingly clear I could not continue to work. I had become an ‘affected person’ in an ‘affected community’. I logged off my work for what would become the next week.

Recovery starts on day one

That first few hours we walked and drove around in a daze. Our lives looked like a news reel. Once vertical power poles leaned precariously. Power lines strewn around like spaghetti on a baby’s highchair. Trees snapped in half, with their tops on the other side of the road. We stopped mid-road to talk to each other in the rain. We sat in strangers’ cars and shared news, and offered help. Many of us relaxed our safety behaviour around wires. We walked and drove repeatedly over and under them. Is it safe to walk around? Someone shrugged. “What else can we do?” and then assumptions. “Well, the power’s out. Right?”

By 2pm that first day, it became clear that we needed to coordinate. The CFA had done their bit and were now focussed on getting the cell phone network generating going. The post mistress was trying to contact people who might be vulnerable or need help. People were dropping by the centre of town to see what was happening. But no one seemed to know what to say, or what to ask. We milled, and wandered off.

We organised ourselves, prepared a notice board and community meeting time. We take for granted mobile phones, Facebook and the rest. Without telecommunications, it’s very difficult to share information. Together with the local post mistress, we established a communication point – a whiteboard, and a time: 9 am the following day. I drove around and flagged people down to let them know. “Town Gathering. Post office. “ The post office offered free ice-cream. We established a supply share point. Candle. Matches. Baked beans. We told everyone: there’s a notice board, keep an eye on it.

The 9am meeting drew a crowd of 20 people. We ran through a simple agenda. Is everyone ok?  What do we know? What do we need to know? What do we need to do? Who’s going to do it? We decided to meet every day a 1pm “until no longer needed”. At the 1pm meeting there were 50 people. As a group we worked through what we needed. After working out there were no injuries, we starting identifying who else needed to be cut out of the bush, or needed checking in on. Someone offered to bring pizza at that night for anyone hungry. Someone else offered a bbq. Then a truck of wood and a 44 gallon drum. By 5pm that night we had a street party. 100 people, adults and children shared our resources on the clear icy Friday night, the next night after the storm. Food, music, fires and even traffic control.  In effect, we had set up our own relief centre.

The meeting the next day, 1pm Saturday, had around 60 people. Kids ran up and down the street. The street party has consolidated us, but the reality of our situation was setting in. We stood in a huge circle and soberly shared what we knew and what we needed. We still didn’t know what to do about the power. We decided to ask for expert help. It came in the form of an electrical company employee.  Jason, a young man in a fluro vest with a cap, bravely stood up in front of this great set our people. We asked: is it safe for us to walk and drive over powerlines. “Just to get to this meeting, to leave our house, we have to cross the power wires.” Jason, all of early 20s and a local himself, explained the wire networks to us, the chances for live pockets, and the mechanism that the company would test before turning fully on. He described a Christmas tree lights. His candour and honesty was reassuring and….really practical.  Is it safe to drive over power? No. When would the power go back on? Jason took a breath and told the swelling, unswashed, crowd how it was. The lines have to come down through the forest. If you’ve been to the edge of town, you’ll see know what I mean. I know the message say today and tomorrow, but realistically, and I’m a local too. ….we’re f*&%ed!

Then he stepped back. The crowd applauded him.

We had other questions. Was the water safe to drink? When would the roads be opened? What was happening in Trentham? What would happen next?

Recovery doesn’t look like you expect it might

Over four months we’ve had recovery hubs, Red Cross outreach, Emergency Management commissioner, bushfire recovery and lots of council and services. We’ve just had a community “MS Teams” Recovery meeting, and are collecting our “lessons learned” with the council and Bushfire recovery Victoria  As often is the case, people are still coming out of the woodwork for help. 

As forest dwellers, we look for signs in the natural world of recovery. The landscape is not what we expected. It’s not the view Australians are psychologically prepared for.  Being a BAL 40 to BAL FZ rating town, where surrounded by bush in and out of the town, we expected that, post disaster, we’d be looking at blackened sticks, and that that signs of recovery would be heralded by the magnificent burst of green against the charcoal.  In other types of emergencies, Australians  might look for painting over of flood lines on walls, and fresh carpets. Or memorials to those lost, and those remaining. Storm preparedness and recovery are more elusive. A forest flattened is unfamiliar. The emergency for the trees toppled quickly, is felt slowly, as they take their time to brown and die off. The signs of regrowth will take decades, so we need other symbols.

I’m writing from my kitchen table, where once I could only see trees around my house. Now a new view been cut across the Lerderderg  valley – a gappy edge,  like moth-eaten lace. I see the river (a bonus), the other side of the valley. The violence is also clear –  the tree trunks down, their leaves browning, rootballs exposed like mad professor hair. Hanging “widow makers” everywhere. Some walking paths have been cleared, the twisted wrought iron rail of the bridge has been repaired.

Measures of previous emergency learning can help.

More than 20 years since I experienced the hail storm which broke my first roof and terrified my child, and with years in community and training and experienced in emergencies big and small, I still wondered what I’d actually do if a large emergency hit my town. Would I know what to do? Would I be subsumed? I was super pre-prepared for fires a few years back, but as disaster work gets busier, my own preparedness fell behind. So, like everyone else, I drew from what was already in the bank of resilience: Social Capital is protective. Community Preparedness kept us going, at least for the first 72 hours. Our recovery will surely be better for it.

Riders on the Storm, The Doors:

Photo credit: Brendan Hehir

2 thoughts on “The calm before and after the storm

    1. A wonderful lived experience story so clearly articulating the value of social capital and the sadness of loss of environment – Thanks for letting Margaret share your wonderful blog John


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