Tropical Cyclone Seroja

We want to tell a story about the time that Tropical Cyclone Seroja visited upon Kalbarri, and the time since.  There is information out there, that we will share with you, but none of it really comes from our community.

There was warning that Cyclone Seroja was heading our way and could cross the coast at Kalbarri.  That seemed just unbelievable to most of us.  Cyclones don’t come this far south in Western Australia.  The Cyclone formed in Indonesia, where it was named, caused destruction and loss of life there, and then just kept going.  And going.  Eventually combining with another weather system and intensifying again.

By 9 April we had fair warning that the Cyclone was heading our way, possibly a category 2, and we did our best to prepare.  It was school holidays, the Easter weekend had just passed, Kalbarri was full of people on holidays.  One of our busiest times of the year, and economically important.  So, visitors were told to leave, refunds had to be found, and our community had to prepare the best it could.

The majority of buildings were not built for Cyclone conditions, and there was no safe shelter.  The nearest one was in Dongera!  A few people prepared and left, but most stayed and kept shoring up their homes, gardens, businesses as best they could.  Some had had previous experience with cyclones further north, and shared their knowledge and tips.  A few stayed skeptical that it would even happen.

However, the cyclone tracking map from BOM turned out to be very accurate and we were on red alert by 5pm on 11 April, expecting a category 3 event.  The image below shows the Tracking Map and a satellite photo of the eye of the Cyclone over Kalbarri.

It is fair to say that the howling wind, the noise, the rain was intense as the Cyclone passed.  Winds were recorded at 170km/hr and that is when the wind vane fell over.  We will never forget it, and big storms since have brought those memories and feelings back for quite a few of us.

Photo Credit ABC News: Hugh Sando

Residents were sheltered in their homes, moving quickly to the safest part of the house as the cyclone passed over.  The sound of destruction was everywhere, and it was impossible to determine what was actually happening.  “Is it my roof flying around or someone else’s?”

The Cyclone passed over 7.30-8pm.  It was dark and wet.  And the Red alert stayed until SES and Police could undertake inspections of the town at first light.

The fishing boats had to anchor in the river and manage the storm surge.  Those brave people on board.  Apparently if no one is on board looking after the boat = no insurance.  It must have been harrowing.

The actual eye of the Cyclone passed just south of Kalbarri, and Wagoe Beach Homestead and Chalets were all but destroyed.  The photo below shows some of the devastation around town, and a DFES helicopter inspecting.

It was a miracle that no one was killed, or seriously hurt in Kalbarri.  Amazing!!

And the Cyclone kept going, with damage across the Shire of Northampton, including Northampton Town, and beyond as the tracking map above shows.  It took another 250km for it to turn into a tropical low.

The biggest Natural Disaster experienced in Western Australia.

So many iconic buildings in Kalbarri were destroyed.

This one, the PCYC Hall, built through community fund raising 40 years ago, was completely destroyed and had to be demolished.

Afterwards, there was no power.  A few had power restored within a week, for most it was three or more weeks.  Power lines and power poles down everywhere, broken like twigs across the road.

By 10am there was no power to the Telstra Tower, so no communication in town, or out of town to worried relatives and friends.  And Kalbarri was cut off.  Everyone who was going in had to have authority.  If we wanted to leave town, we needed to have documentation to say we live here to get back in.  It was mostly good, as it did stop people from coming in without good cause, but it almost made it difficult for people to access town and offer help.  There was a lot going on, and people were in shock, tensions high at times.  Police and volunteers were driving the streets, talking to people, giving information and telling them about town meetings.

So many people made a huge effort to help, including SES volunteers who looked after others despite their own dire circumstances.  People turned up in town to help, bringing heavy machinery, chain saws, generators, including our local member Vince Catania, and the Army came as well.  Moving from street to street, clearing trees, branches, debris from fences, rooves, power lines. It was huge.  Progress was hard work and slow.

Meantime, people who lived here, many were in shock and looking for someone to talk to.  The SES office/command post was a comforting starting place for many.  A food van with cheap or free meals was set up.  Places for people to gather, talk and share.  There are many unsung Heroes.

Donations of goods came from many places, a ‘shop’ was set up at the St Johns Ambulance building where people could get anything from toiletries to food, including pet food.  Generosity very much appreciated in those early days.

It might be asked: why were people in need?  Apart from living amongst the debris of their homes, they also didn’t have an income.  Many jobs are casual in Kalbarri, and without tourism there is no work.  That’s just one answer.

Fund raising efforts were going on, and a local Rebuild Fund was established to receive and distribute donations.  Many people were also assisted by the Lord Mayors Fund.

Did we say the word ‘insurance’?  No we didn’t.  You misheard.  Mention it though, and everyone has a story, some good, some unbelievably frustrating and just plain awful and wrong.

The Prime Minister and the Premier came, with all the entourage in tow.  They were shocked by the devastation and promised to “build back better”.  That has a nice ring to it, and turns out that is mostly what it was.  Nice words.  More than $100m was allocated, but it was almost impossible to meet the criteria and apply for, so most of it has never been spent.

A huge effort was made to keep things normal for the school students, after the ‘holidays’.  The school was damaged and also contaminated with asbestos.  So, the primary school children attended at the church building, and the high school students went to the Allen Centre.  Extra teachers and resources were brought in to support our school staff.  These temporary arrangements went on for some weeks.

Gradually power was fully restored, businesses started to open, and visitors came back to support us economically and with a smile.  The July school holidays were very busy, though less people were able to be accommodated.

We are recovering.  Many people said it would take at least two years to rebuild, and they were right.  The majority of places have been rebuilt, repaired, and some demolished (who remembers what was there before?).   Some works have definitely been slow to proceed, and we are reminded of why places look like they do when we drive around.  And it is such a relief when a building or home takes on its former shape.

It has taken two years to feel some semblance of normal in the community as well.  Suddenly we are not just going through the motions, but feel some sense of energy, hope and what we want for the future.  People are getting together to make good things happen for everyone.  That saying:  I didn’t know how bad I felt, now that I feel better.

There has been a lot of reflection and lessons learned about the response within and outside of our community, to an unprecedented event.  DFES looked into this and this article provides a good summary.

For those who were not here, and want to gain some understanding of the impact of this event on Kalbarri at the time, this Channel Seven News Package is a good start.  The BOM weather report is also linked in for information.