South West SES volunteers celebrated for helping communities after cyclone Seroja struck

Email Shannon Verhagen

Local knowledge of farming communities was paramount in the aftermath of ex-tropical cyclone Seroja, according to State Emergency Service volunteers who helped with the recovery.

The category three weather system left a mammoth trail of destruction throughout the Mid West and Wheatbelt upon making landfall in Kalbarri on April 11, destroying homes and plunging communi-ties into darkness in complete isolation.

Phone towers were down, with many unable to let family and friends know they were OK, let alone request help.

Bunbury SES volunteers helping Wheatbelt communities after ex-tropical cyclone Seroja.
Camera IconBunbury SES volunteers helping Wheatbelt communities after ex-tropical cyclone Seroja.

Thirteen local governments were affected: Northampton, Morawa, Perenjori, Mount Marshall, Carnamah, Chapman Valley, Greater Geraldton, Mingenew, Shark Bay, Three Springs, Coorow, Dalwallinu and Dandaragan, with the affected area totalling 133,430sqkm.

More than 4600 insurance claims have been submitted, totalling $112 million.

About 70 per cent of properties were damaged in Kalbarri, which copped the brunt of the system with 170km/h winds as it crossed the coast in the middle of the night.

However, the system did not stop there, travelling far further inland than previous systems, and battering farming towns — many of which were not cyclone-rated — with 120-140km/hr winds.

Farmers in the midst of seeding awoke the next morning to tanks upended, parts of their roofs missing, sheds destroyed and livestock roaming after fences were ripped from the ground.

Bunbury SES volunteers Emma Ness, Colin Keys and Vanessa Dickinson were the first on-scene in Morawa — joined by Department of Fire and Emergency Services firefighters — setting up an operations centre and triaging jobs in Perenjori and Three Springs.

GEN Cyclone damage at Perenjori. Pic. Iain Gillespie The West Australian
Camera IconGEN Cyclone damage at Perenjori. Pic. Iain Gillespie The West Australian Credit: Iain Gillespie/The West Australian

But with no reception, they said residents — many of whom were volunteers themselves — and the Shires played a big role in helping them locate those in need.

“The main communications was word-of-mouth ... local people coming to the Morawa station and informing us where the damage was,” Mrs Dickinson said.

“Many of our farmers put on a brave front and thought there were people worse off than them and didn’t come in for quite a long time to report the damage,” Mrs Ness said.

“We had the public coming in and saying ‘old mate down the road has got damage but he’s living with it and bearing with it, can you go and have a look?’.”

With most of the road signs down, volunteers were also given country directions to properties, based on landmarks and forks in the road.

“The local knowledge was paramount for this deployment,” Mrs Ness said.

Bunbury SES volunteers helping Wheatbelt communities after ex-tropical cyclone Seroja.
Camera IconBunbury SES volunteers helping Wheatbelt communities after ex-tropical cyclone Seroja.

Perenjori Shire president Chris King said in the days afterwards , community members checking on each other “the good old-fashioned” way.

“Once the reception was down, no one knew what was going on,” he said. “People were checking on their neighbours and did the good old-fashioned thing and visited them to see how they were.”

The town of about 600 was badly damaged by the cyclone, with many homes and the local watering hole left with gaping holes in roofs and puckered by debris.

Mrs Dickinson said they were able to make homes liveable for families, including one which had a tree fall on their home and collapse into their living room.

Bunbury SES volunteers helping Wheatbelt communities after ex-tropical cyclone Seroja.
Camera IconBunbury SES volunteers helping Wheatbelt communities after ex-tropical cyclone Seroja.

Mr King said the help of the many volunteers who attended in the weeks following the disaster had been greatly appreciated.

“It’s been quite extraordinary,” he said. “We had people from everywhere — including over east — that came in to help. It was brilliant work, what they did. They’re very quick and very clever. We’re particularly thankful of the SES and DFES crews that came in.”

Bunbury SES local manager Chris Widmer.
Camera IconBunbury SES local manager Chris Widmer.

Bunbury SES unit local manager Chris Widmer — who was tasked with overseeing the whole recovery effort in the first seven days — commended the hundreds of volunteers who helped with the effort.

A good percentage of the 550 were volunteers who had jobs and families they went away from to help their fellow countrymen, so without that commitment, where would we be?

Chris Widmer

WA Emergency Services Minister Reece Whitby said their contribution to the State was “invaluable”.

Mr King — who has a mixed sheep and cropping farm near town — lost four water tanks and a windmill, as well as receiving damage to his home, roof, veranda and an “awful lot of fencing”.

Clean-up of the Mid West town is ongoing with assessors on the ground, with the damage bill now anticipated to be far more than first thought, he said.

And as the leaves on the fallen trees begin to brown, he said it was become increasingly clear just how much damage had been done.

“The landscape has changed quite dramatically,” he said.

When they had fallen over and the leaves were still green it wasn’t quite so obvious. Now that they’re dead. . . the impact is visually quite dramatic.

Chris King

Get the latest news from thewest.com.au in your inbox.

Sign up for our emails