‘You feel a bit abandoned’: families left in the cold as power outages drag on in Victoria’s storm-hit Dandenongs | Victoria


On Saturday, after three days cut off from the outside world, by road and reception, Mark and Rhonda Fergus finally managed to hook their generator up to the TV in time for the nightly news.

A shattered window and a dinted tin roof was the only damage to their place from the storm, but some of their neighbours remained barricaded into their properties, with hundred-year-old gums laying across driveways and counting themselves lucky not to have one slicing through their house.

The pair sat in the dark waiting for the newsreader to say “and on to our first story tonight, thousands still trapped without power in Melbourne’s Dandenong Ranges.” But it wasn’t the top story or the second. In fact, the destruction surrounding them wasn’t on the news that night at all.

Rhonda and Mark Fergus say the sound of a huge branch smashing into their roof was ‘like and explosion’ during the recent floods and wild weather in Victoria.
Rhonda and Mark Fergus say the sound of a huge branch smashing into their roof was ‘like and explosion’ during the recent floods and wild weather in Victoria. Photograph: Rhonda Fergus

“The power is down, the phones are down. The roads are all shut off. You do feel a bit abandoned,” Mark says.

“I was really upset. I was relying on them for information … maybe it was because no one got killed, which is a fantastic thing. But when there is a death toll, people are here straight away.

“We aren’t isolated, but really we are,” says Rhonda. “We are in greater Melbourne, but no one was talking about it for days.”

It’s been a week since the Dandenong storms and the little red generator on the Fergus’ balcony is still being used around the clock. On Thursday acting premier James Merlino stood in Olinda and broke the news that most residents in the area were unlikely to get power back until 10 July – more than three weeks away.

The Fergus family says they weren’t shocked.

“When people were first saying it would be back in four or five days I thought it was the funniest thing I ever heard,” Mark says.

Mark Fergus starts a generator at his property in Olinda.
Mark Fergus starts a generator at his property in Olinda. Photograph: James Ross/AAP

“The wires were across the roads. The trees were across the roads. You couldn’t even drive out.”

Olinda, Sassafrass, Kalorama and the surrounding towns are set in a dense eucalyptus rainforest with overground power lines running along thin winding roads. According to the acting premier, the 200km/h hour winds of last Wednesday created “tree debris that would fill the MCG”.

Locals say the wind was too loud to actually hear the trees falling that night, but instead they felt the thuds and vibrations through the ground.

“The extent of the devastation up there is something that we haven’t seen before,” says AusNet spokesperson Steven Brown. The company originally estimated that power would be back on Friday, but have now apologised, saying they hadn’t grasped the extent of the damage.

“We basically had no network left. The overhead infrastructure is pretty much gone. It requires a complete rebuild.”

Storm damage to a property is seen in Olinda, Victoria.
Storm damage to a property is seen in Olinda, Victoria. Photograph: James Ross/AAP
Constructions crews work to restore power lines in Olinda.
Constructions crews work to restore power lines in Olinda. Photograph: James Ross/AAP

Despite swarms of CFA, SES, arborists and power crews dotted along every road, around 7,000 households in the ranges remain without power.

“The depth of winter and weeks and weeks without power – this is an unprecedented emergency,” Merlino says.

On Thursday the acting premier announced that current disaster relief payments would not cover this situation, and instead, a prolonged power outage payment of up to $1,680 per week will be created for all eligible households.

“I do kind of think it’s a good thing it happened now,” says Mark, who admits one of the scariest parts of the last week was the period of time when all phone reception, including calling triple zero was out.

“This is a warning for the people that are responsible for the infrastructure. If we had a serious bushfire in the Dandenong Ranges … those phone towers aren’t going to last.

“You had people trapped in their houses who couldn’t ring anyone,” says Rhonda. “Imagine if you couldn’t ring an ambulance and you needed one.”

Many locals say they were “saddened”, “frustrated” but overall “not that surprised” that it took the state government seven days to declare a state of energy emergency.

Even then, this declaration was due more to fears that the Yallourn mine, 130km away could flood.

The Latrobe Valley open cut, brown coal mine sits adjacent to the Yallourn power station, which supplies up to 22% of Victoria’s electricity. Cracks had formed in the mine due to the significant rise in water levels in the Morwell River putting additional pressure on its walls, threatening to take the power station out of commission for months if it breached.

Constructions crews work to restore power lines in Olinda.
Construction crews work to restore power lines in Olinda. Photograph: James Ross/AAP

Mark and Rhonda have learnt to make do with their generator, which sputters out just enough electricity to keep the fridge cold, charge their phones and illuminate one or two camp lights.

“If we are feeling really adventurous we unplug all of that and use all the power for the espresso machine to make a coffee,” Rhonda laughs.

“You hear the generator just groaning, it barely makes it,” Mark added.

When asked how they would live for the next three weeks, Rhonda laughs.

“We just will.”

Downed trees are seen at the Masquerade Airbnb in Olinda.
Downed trees are seen at the Masquerade Airbnb in Olinda. Photograph: James Ross/AAP

But there aren’t enough generators for all residents on the mountain range, and some like mother and son Francesca and Cassidy have been left shivering in the cold, boiling water for a hot water bottle on their portable camp stove.

“You have that many blankets on you at night, but when the hot water bottle goes cold you just start shivering again,” Francesca says.

The storm hit the day before one of Cassidy’s final university exams.

“I just drove around looking for reception … It was like a town planning exam, an hour and a half, and yeah just did it on my laptop from my car,” he says.

“I didn’t do too bad I think.”

On the other side of the small town, a colossal gum tree lays on top of the wreckage of Ben’s sister’s bedroom.

“She wasn’t there when it happened,” he says. “We’re just so happy no one was there.”

Ben, who asked for his last name not to be included, says four of the family’s five cars were also crushed in the garage; the old clunker they couldn’t fit inside and decided to “sacrifice”, ironically, the only survivor.

“It’s been really inspiring actually though,” he says. “People have leant us cars for the week. Being in this small community everyone is helping out.”

Down in Kalorama, John Johnstone’s house stands perched on the side of the hill miraculously untouched, surrounded by absolute devastation.

Owner of Masquerade Airbnb John Johnston.
Owner of Masquerade Airbnb John Johnston. Photograph: James Ross/AAP

“My four neighbours have been totally wiped out. I’m going to be lonely because I don’t know if they will come back or not,” he says.

“But everyone has been marvellous. The words ‘thank you’, you couldn’t say it enough.The only thing is they should have had the army here the next day.”

As well as being extremely inconvenient, the extra three weeks without power comes with a huge finical burden for Johnstone and his partner who run a four-bedroom Airbnb at their home.

“I’m just going to have to cancel all the bookings. It’s money I’m not receiving, and therefore not feeding back into the community.

“It is tough, but guess what, keep smiling.”

Johnstone says he is determined not to let the tough situation beat him down.

“Tonight, I’m just going to sit by my fire, on my mattress, with some candles and a glass of Kalorama champagne,” he laughs.

“I’ve been very very fortunate, and I’m very very grateful.”



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