East coast low—Wednesday, 9 June – Thursday, 10 June 2021
On the morning of Wednesday, 9 June 2021, a low pressure system commonly known as an east coast low began to move across the Gippsland coast. By around 2:00 pm, southerly winds began to increase across areas of higher elevations and a constant, driving rain set in. Here at Mount Dandenong, 600 metres above sea level, the winds tore through the tree tops and we knew we were in for a wild night. The destruction that followed though, no one could really have foreseen. By daylight on Thursday, the numbers of trees downed would be estimated to have been in their thousands. 119 homes were rendered uninhabitable, with another 140 or so badly damaged. Thankfully, in some form of miracle, there were no deaths.
On Wednesday night as darkness fell and the wind increased to speeds of up to 120kph, Vanessa and I made the decision to sleep in the lounge room, with a couch and a dog each. Around 7:00 pm we heard the first boom and the whole house shook. We thought at first that we must have been directly in the path of a huge thunderstorm. It wasn’t until the third or fourth boom that we realised there was no accompanying lightning. What we were hearing was the first of many giant Mountain Ash trees in Singleton Reserve, most over 50 metres tall and aged well over a hundred years, being topped like skittles in the intense winds.
The power first went out at around 7:30 pm and came back on again almost immediately. Throughout the evening the lights would frequently flicker and we knew it was only a matter of time before they would finally stay off. That happened at around 9:00 pm. We tried our best to get some sleep, but neither of us could really nod off, especially as more booms rang out at regular intervals. At 10:45 we heard on the emergency services scanner, that one of the local CFA crews was attempting to clear a path through fallen trees on the corner of our street, in order to rescue an ambulance and SES vehicle that were trapped just down the road. Apparently they had been responding to a call out for a woman trapped in her house and a tree had fallen across the SES vehicle, crushing it like an aluminium can. As we watched from the relative safety of our window, several more trees came down where the CFA crew were working. They hurriedly backed the truck away, just as another tree came down on the spot where the truck had been. Over the scanner we heard them (wisely) abandon their efforts and head back to the depot – at that moment we realised that should the worse happen, we were now totally isolated from any help.
By 2:00am we were both feeling the effects of trying to sleep on a couch with a frightened dog alongside us and we decided to head into the bedroom, however less than half an hour later we heard an almighty crash behind us. I ventured outside with my torch and saw the unmistakable outline of a large branch resting only metres away from the wall where our heads had just been. We headed back to the lounge room with all thoughts of sleep abandoned. The booms continued throughout the night, and we listened in disbelief as crew after crew of CFA and FRV firefighters attempted to gain access to the mountain, only to be thwarted at each turn by fallen trees.
When dawn finally came, a pale sun rose across a scene out of a horror film. With the winds still howling around us, we wandered down our driveway where a 30 m high Messmate Stringybark had crashed down during the night, completely blocking any vehicle access to our property. We realised then that the ‘branch’ that had narrowly missed our bedroom the night before was in fact another, even larger Messmate Stringybark, which had fallen right across our neighbour’s yard. With despair I realised that underneath its crown lay the smashed remains of a 45 year old Magnolia that had been one of the most beautiful trees on our property.
Down on Ridge Road we saw huge stands of Mountain Ash and Mountain Grey Gum laying across the road in all directions. The tree that had fallen where the CFA truck had been in the middle of the night had just brushed the side of our neighbour’s home, smashing the fibro-cement cladding and destroying a stained glass window, but thankfully not doing any serious damage. Right up and down our street, the story was repeated, but miraculously there were no reports of damage to houses.
One thing was becoming abundantly clear as we walked around – a large portion of our fences had been demolished by fallen trees on both the north and south sides of the property. I desperately wanted to survey the rest of the property for damage, but as we watched more trees fall over in the reserve, we decided to head back into the house until the winds eased.
As it turns out, the decision to head inside and start calling our insurance agency probably saved our lives. At around 10:00 am we felt the house shake again and looked out of the window to see a large branch that had fallen across the garden outside, smashing huge concrete planters and bird baths as it fell. As we rushed to the front veranda to take a closer look, we realised that it was in fact another huge Messmate Stringybark that had just fallen across the driveway.
By around 2:00 pm that afternoon the wind finally abated and we managed to venture out again to start checking on our neighbours. Right up and down the street we heard of massive damage to gardens and outbuildings, but not to houses. Sadly, just before nightfall we heard that there were a couple of houses at the end of the street that hadn’t fared so well. Thankfully though, there were still no reports of fatalities.
For most of the day on Friday we spoke on and off with our insurance company, as well as checking in with some of our neighbours. An electrician managed to make it all the way to our place from Beaconsfield to perform a make-safe on the damaged garden shed that housed the power to our water pump and the pond. Luckily he arrived just as the SES managed to cut a path through the trees that were still down across the main road, although he was forced to backtrack several times and had a few hairy moments where his van just scraped underneath some mammoth fallen trees.
On Friday morning I spoke to a neighbour who had been off the mountain for surgery throughout the week. She had been unable to get in touch with her husband and daughter who were in their home during the storm, although she had been told that they were OK. I wandered up the road to check on them, and once I found them safe and well I put them on to my phone to speak to her. A large tree had fallen from Singleton Reserve directly onto the roof of their carport, with the car buried beneath. We walked together along their fence line to check in on another neighbour whose property backed on to Singleton Reserve – miraculously the house had escaped major damage, despite the appearance that a multi-lane freeway had been bulldozed through the trees.
Later that afternoon, as it became clear that we would be spending another night without power or access to our driveway, I walked down to the end of the street to chat with the father of the neighbour whose house I had been looking at that morning. He noticed the trees down across the driveway and asked if we were stuck. When I replied that we hadn’t been able to get the cars out of the drive since Wednesday, he headed off to his sons house, where the sounds of chainsaws and heavy haulage equipment could still be heard. Half an hour later, he returned driving an old Massey Ferguson tractor, with his son and a mate hanging off the back, wielding two giant chainsaws. Within a few minutes they had cleared a path through for us, pushing the massive trunks to the side to allow us just enough room for a car to get through.
By Saturday morning we started to get a little concerned about the lack of urgency of any coordinated response to what was clearly a disaster. It seemed that there were dozens of separate tree crews, SES, CFA, Parks Vic and FRV officers on the mountain, but few of them seemed to be talking to each other. We had three separate welfare checks in the space of a couple of hours – we were happy that they were indeed doing them, but there seemed to be a hell of a lot of doubling up. I heard from a neighbour that the road to Montrose was temporarily opened so I headed down that way – if I’d thought it was bad up here, there was nothing that could have prepared me for the utter devastation further along the ridge. In places there were entire hillsides flattened, in others trees as wide as buses hung precariously just metres above the road. I saw several houses that had been completely destroyed by fallen trees, and many others with trees across driveways or through fences. I wasn’t in the right headspace to take any photographs (I’m still not), but here is a link to a video that follows pretty much the same route I took.
I headed down to the Stihl store in Bayswater to buy a larger chainsaw, as well as a new chain for my smaller one – unfortunately when I arrived I discovered that every single chainsaw in the place was gone, as well as all the spare chains! I quickly looked up the next closest store and made my way to Ringwood, where they still had a bunch left, although as each person in the queue before me was there to pick up a chainsaw I did start to panic. Luckily most people were after smaller ones – I on the other hand walked out with a very heavy, very large 25″ bladed monster, spending a considerably large chunk of our increasingly unlikely holiday savings in the process. I also stopped to pick up some jerrycans and fuel as our insurance company had promised us that they would be able to source a generator so that we could finally have some lights.
By the time I returned home the SES had closed off all access to the mountain from the Montrose end, so I had to divert through to Basin–Olinda Road. After 270mm of rain, it had started to wash out in places, but thankfully I made it through unscathed. A message from AusNet, our power supplier, gave us an estimate that the power would be restored by Sunday night. This was rather strange we felt, as we’d only just been looking at the smashed transformers, wires entangled in branches and poles leaning over at acute angles. Not to mention the fact that in all of the service vehicles we’d seen in the area, not one of them was from AusNet.
From the limited news we could access on Saturday it seemed that most journalists were either oblivious to the situation up here, or had decided to move on to other news. There had been flooding in Gippsland and tragically, a couple of deaths, so with the media for the most part being kept out of the the ranges there seemed very little interest in reporting the true depth of the situation. There was a slight peak in interest when parts of Kallista and The Patch were told that their water was unsafe to drink, however this soon gave way to reports on the death of Geoffrey Edelston, the upcoming lifting of COVID restrictions and the possibility of getting crowds back to the footy. Sadly this continued throughout the weekend – in one of the few reports that even mentioned it I heard one commentator ask a representative from AusNet why the power hadn’t been restored by now, stating that “it’s just a storm—we get them all the time”.
It wasn’t really until the following Wednesday, a full week after the storms, when the penny finally dropped that this was serious. AusNet announced that their initial assessments had in fact been wrong and that up to 3000 homes around Kalorama, Mount Dandenong, Olinda and Sassafrass would be without power until July 10 2021—a full month after the power first went out. Suddenly the mountain was swarming with news crews and commentators were screaming at politicians to do more, or to bring in the army.
For us it has been an exercise in coping. It’s also reinforced to us that although it can be quite scary living up on he mountains at times, the way our community has banded together has reinforced why we love living here so much. Neighbours who aren’t too busy to take the time to check on each other, to call and chat to people who are doing it tough. Random acts of kindness like the local CFA volunteers organising care packages for vulnerable people or a rotating roster of people willing to go around refuelling and restarting generators regularly throughout the day for those elderly residents who are unable to do so themselves.
Gardens and sheds can be replaced—houses can be repaired or rebuilt too, although I dare say some may never be. It’s going to take many months and possibly even years to completely clean up the damage and many decades to replace the thousands of trees that were lost, but at the end of the day, residents here have dealt with tragedy before and have continued to prosper in spite of it. I’m sure we will continue to do so this time around.
Let’s just hope that if only one thing good comes out of this event, it’s that something is finally done to fix the shambles that is Emergency Management Victoria, although I won’t hold my breath. The decision 9 days after the initial storms to finally call in 120 ADF staff to assist with the clean up and distribution of care packages shows how incredibly out of touch this useless bureaucracy is. This interview with one of our legendary CFA volunteers by Virginia Trioli on Melbourne radio a full week after the storms sums up the general feeling in the community here – it’s hard to imagine how the management of this disaster could have been handled any worse.