A year after Cyclone Seroja destroyed Kalbarri, residents are still facing a nightmare they can’t wake up from.
It’s 7pm, April 11, 2021. Wind is screaming through the houses and taking anything it can find – cars, roofs, doors. The town isn’t built for cyclones. This is obvious the next morning.
Bridie Teakle sits with her eight-month-old daughter. She’s in Horrocks, a town 20 minutes away from her home, Northampton. The cyclone tore the roof off and the lack of tradesmen means she must take refuge somewhere else. Her family was told it would take four to six weeks to complete the repairs. It has now been six months since the builders began, and they’re not even close to finishing.
It’s late March, 2022, as we speak: “Yesterday, the builders decided to take our roof off,” she says.
“With another cyclone looming this week, we aren’t covered on insurance if our roof is off. I went to visit this morning, and there’s dust everywhere. The builders were meant to move the furniture, but it’s all still there and my pantry is covered in big thick dust.”
Her daughter hasn’t lived in the same house for more than three months yet.
Meanwhile, Rebecca Bond stands opposite a house with no roof. She’s a single mum and is currently struggling to make ends meet. She and her two children lived in a tent with a generator for 74 days. Now, they’re in a private rental, but no work has been done on their old home yet.
“We still have tarp as a roof, there are building materials everywhere. There are no supplies. No one has contacted me for the keys.”
She feels tired, still experiencing the emotional toll: “I’m really devastated. I just want to get back to my house.”
Twelve hours after Cyclone Seroja hit town, residents go out and have a look at the damage. Parts of roofs lie on the road like rubbish. Shattered window glass on the ground reflects the grey skies above, recovering from the night before. Some people stand in despair, trying to recognise homes they lived in for decades. Others, still running on adrenaline, are starting to clear the debris away.
When Cyclone Seroja ripped over the coastline of Western Australia, Kalbarri and Northampton took the biggest hit, with over 70 per cent of properties destroyed. Category 3 winds travelling up to 170km/h flew through the towns and left thousands without power and electricity for weeks. The small town of Kalbarri was suddenly the centre of news headlines around the country.
One year later, residents are still experiencing all kinds of impacts, with insurance difficulties being a main concern. Teakle’s family and farming business, like so many others, have been left without insurance and the funds to adequately fix their properties.
“I received a call this morning, telling me we’re no longer insured for our company,” she says. “They don’t want to renew our policy. They deemed us too risky.
“A lot of us were underinsured because we’re not a place that gets cyclones. The businesses didn’t think they’d lose as much as they did.”
Teakle says six of her eight shearing sheds were destroyed.
Bond is in the same boat.
“My car insurance has gone up by $30 a month after the cyclone damage. The windows got smashed. All insurance companies are saying they’ll talk to us next week, they’ll call us next fortnight. We aren’t getting answers at all.”
She says the cyclone killed her financially.
Twenty-four hours later, aid arrives. The State Emergency Services send out rescue teams to go around to houses and assess the damage. Local SES manager Steve Cable says the town looks “horrendous.” They start placing tarps on top of houses, where the roofs once were. They take down power lines. Talk to residents. Do anything they can.
The toll this disaster has had on mental health hangs in the background. Mr Cable still sees the effects today.
“Psychologically, the impact is huge,” he says. “People are subject to a lot of fear and anxiety. It’s ongoing. It’s going to take a long time to fix.”
Teakle says her children still get anxious.
“Kids are affected if any strong winds come through,” she says. “They ask where they’re going to live, if their bikes will be okay. They’re very traumatised by it.”
Bond says the town feels “eerie” as Cyclone Charlotte approaches.
“The current developing Cyclone Charlotte rattled us all. We’re traumatised, we have post-traumatic stress.
“If a cyclone came here now, I’d just leave town. I wouldn’t be able to cope.”Rebecca Bond.
Forty-eight hours after Cyclone Seroja, more support comes. Centrecare, Red Cross and The Salvation Army give retail vouchers to residents. Counselling services are set up. The Red Cross station themselves at the town hall and conduct welfare checks. The Salvation Army donates $1 million in emergency cash support assistance. They are in the process of handing out 12,000 meals. Meanwhile, residents line up for hours in the town’s centre for government vouchers. Essential businesses are running on backup power. Traffic lights are still down.
Warren Palmer works for the Salvation Army. He sees the vulnerability and mental scars written across the town. He sees the importance of standing by the town.
“It isn’t in the news anymore, people have moved on. That’s why it’s so important for agencies to stay here for as long as possible.
“We are continuing this journey with them. We will continue to be there when they need us, for as long as it takes.”
However, the organisation is one of the only support systems still there. They can only do so much on their own.
Two months later, the Lord Mayor’s Distress Relief Fund is at $7,619,080. The town is slowly reopening to tourists. Some people have left town, abandoning their homes and businesses. The tree damage means the community will eventually have to plant new ones. It took six weeks to clear the main damage up, but there is still so much to go.
“I think it’s going to take more than three years to get back to where we were,” Bond says.
One year later, Centrecare comes to the town once a week. There is a second round of financial assistance coming, but residents haven’t heard anything. There are still homes sitting in the same conditions as they were the day after the Seroja hit. The town is emptier, sadder. The SES says they can’t do anything more.
“We’re past the response stage,” Cable says.
“We’re now in the recovery stage.”
This means residents are on their own. Many are still waiting on tradesmen and builders to arrive in town, but there’s no communication of when that might be. People are slowly putting the pieces back together, but they feel isolated.
Bond laughs when asked if she feels supported.
“Not at all. There’s still so much that needs doing.
“It still looks like a bomb’s gone off.”
“We have been well and truly forgotten about. Especially with the floods – all the resources are being sent over east.
“It’s been nothing short of a nightmare.”