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Post-traumatic growth.

The February storm left 530,000 Victorian households without power – the largest outage ever in the state from a single storm event – and blasted the hilltop community of Mirboo North.

Jul 2, 2023

Words: Ruth Kelly
Images: Nicky Cawood

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My daughter pleaded for the third time this week, “Mum, let’s go to the pool!”.

“Better not, sweet,” I said. "There's going to be a storm.”

We went anyway. Hot bitumen underfoot, the sky was already blue-black behind the luscious forest of Baths Road Reserve. Locals were splashing with hellos and how ya goins.

The thunder arrived not long after us. The lifeguard blew the whistle and, with that, the summer swimming season abruptly ended.

Still wrapped in our towels, we hurried home. I moved the cars, far enough, I thought, away from the trees. I brought in the washing. We made a dash out to feed the chooks. Then, the hail started.

“Trees lay flattened, like a strike of skittles in a bowling lane.”

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Before we reached the verandah, the hail was pounding like an avalanche on the roof. It seemed as though our garden was flying sideways. This was not a normal storm. Adrenaline took over. Pushing my daughter through the front door, I screamed, “Get away from the windows!” I grabbed my son by the arm, shouting, “Inside! Now!”

Both kids retreated to the centre of the house, hiding under the beanbag, my daughter screaming over the roaring wind, “Are we going to die?”

Just five minutes later, we gingerly took our first steps into a changed world. What had been a secluded garden surrounded by tall eucalypts was now a jagged view of hills and paddocks. My car was crushed. The washing line was indistinguishable among a 10-foot wall of branches and limbs. Trees lay flattened, like a strike of skittles in a bowling lane. The air hung still and steamy, saturated by the greenness of leaves not yet dead and the eerie absence of birdsong.

With only a mere skylight-sized hole through the house roof and one car written off, we were lucky. Many others were not.

The February 13 storm that took out power from some 530,000 households across Victoria – the largest outage ever recorded in the state from a single storm event – had blasted the little hilltop community of Mirboo North.

Victoria State Emergency Service (VICSES) received requests for assistance from 62% of the South Gippsland town's households – in total, 74 houses sustained damage and 25 were completely destroyed. Thousands of trees fell. It was recorded as the fourth busiest event in VICSES’s history.

Christina Stoertebecker, a photographer who worked from home, was left with an uninhabitable house and the feeling that the wider Gippsland community have not fully comprehended the severity of the event. “I wish people would understand it wasn’t just a storm!” she says, describing how slowed down video footage clearly shows the wind “moving sideways and changing direction”.

Christina too recalls sheltering in the hallway. “It was so loud. Our ears were ringing – we were all yelling at each other but couldn’t hear.” Looking down the hallway, they could see the sky beside the broken chimney flue. “Then the wind stopped, and the rain came in and it started flooding straight away. In hindsight, it’s almost funny remembering us rushing to grab buckets to save our carpets – we quickly realised there was no point.”

“We’re still at the beginning of moving forward,” she states. “It’s a weird situation to be in when you suddenly lose your home. Some people say it can take years to get through with insurance.” Local friends who were selling their house offered accommodation to the family; however, the Stoertebeckers are still without a permanent solution.

Wildlife habitat loss is also a top concern. With so much of the canopy ripped away, trees left standing have been twisted and stripped of bark. It is important that they remain, as these trees will form natural hollows and habitat for native animals as the forest heals. “It’s hard to look at the loss of vegetation and trees,” says Susan Koci, a member of Preserve Our Forests Mirboo North. “Forests have a way of regenerating and renewing themselves, but it’s going to take time, and we have to let it do its thing.”

The impacts of the February 13 storm on the Mirboo North community photographed by Nicky Cawood in Gippslandia #31 for 'Post-Traumatic Growth'..
The impacts of the February 13 storm on the Mirboo North community photographed by Nicky Cawood in Gippslandia #31 for 'Post-Traumatic Growth'..

Many of the trees are beginning to show signs of growth, and Susan reminds us not to think “all is lost”. The bright green epicormic growth that usually appears after a bushfire is popping up all over town. The birds have come back. Susan is hopeful of “a renewed interest and passion for people to get involved in helping the environment”.

This passion is evident with the formation of Boo Bird Boxes, offering wildlife accommodation with carefully crafted nesting boxes to suit specific native species such as the greater glider, powerful owl and rainbow lorikeet. Founder Debbie Atkins says, “The wide-ranging support has been absolutely fantastic.” Materials for the boxes have been supplied by Bunnings and Dulux and built by individuals and groups across Gippsland, including Kurnai College students in Morwell. “We’re also connecting with universities and the scientific community to study what happens in an area that becomes so devastated and how the species react.”

Ruth Rogan, executive officer of Mirboo North and District Community Foundation, recognises that everyone in the community has been impacted directly or indirectly by the trauma of the event. “The town lost thousands of trees, lost some of its beauty, and community spaces like Baths Road Reserve and the swimming pool were damaged. For some, the violence of the storm is still on display with snapped trees remaining in their view. It has impacted our sense of place, which in turn impacts our sense of self.”

What we can celebrate, she says, is what our community does so well neighbour to neighbour. Not bound by red tape, the immediate human response residents received was heartwarming.

“Our inability to communicate with emergency response services due to the power outage was a shock, but our spontaneous volunteer response was amazing,” Ruth explains. “We had skilled folk from inside and outside of our community show up at the right time with generous offers of support and it really helped us get through the disaster.”

While it may seem for many in the town that times are uncertain, hope is literally blooming. Plant Hope, supported by the Community Foundation, has initiated garden recovery in front of the Anglican church where people can donate, take or gift a plant. The neighbouring community of Inverloch are bringing plants and seedlings for gardens. Mirboo North Arts have put on a live gig at the shire hall. Drama and theatre workshops are being planned with choreographers Douglas & Mackay. Andrea Windsor has teamed up with BooFIIT to provide free yoga sessions to give locals “a chance to reset their parasympathetic nervous system and get out of the ‘fight or flight’ state”. Free legal services are being provided by Gippsland Community Legal Services and are a well-used resource. A community meeting about how to help the environment recover is set for May 14, as well as another session where clinical psychologist Dr Rob Gordon OAM will talk about what disaster recovery looks like.

To ensure a community-led recovery, the Community Recovery Working Group of locals has been established to identify community needs and liaise with relief and recovery agencies. With government grants and philanthropic contributions, the group will assist in getting help to where it is needed, including developing an energy resilience hub in town. This will have off-grid solar power, batteries, generators and satellite internet, as well as refrigeration for medication, phone charging and medical kits.

Natural disasters can feel like an ending of sorts – what existed before is transformed, and something new appears. Much like the epicormic growth on the trees, the Mirboo North community is experiencing a stage of renewal. A state of post-traumatic growth.

If you would like to assist the storm recovery effort, the wonderful Mirboo North & District Community Foundation has established a special fund for you to donate to:

Gippslandia - Issue No. 31

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