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'The most traumatic night': Residents still reeling a year after horror storm

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A year after a "freak" storm tore through Victoria's Dandenong Ranges, residents still feel distressed thinking about what many say was the most terrifying night of their lives.

Those who experienced it say it's an "absolute miracle" no one was killed.

All of the 76 homes destroyed in the storm are still yet to be rebuilt and many of the other 92 homes damaged in the wild weather are yet to be repaired.

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But the emotional toll from what is believed to the best worst storm in the area's history has had a much wider impact than the physical damage.

A number of people are believed to have been left with post traumatic stress disorder – even those who did not suffer any physical loss.

The night of

On the night of June 9, 2021, families hunkered down in their living rooms as ferocious winds roared and the crash of trees breaking and falling thundered around them.

Even houses that weren't hit by the humongous gumtrees falling shook with the impact.

Power was cut to more than 6500 homes, while phone and internet services also went down across the Dandenong Ranges and surrounding towns.

Monbulk's Belinda Grooby said no one in her five-person family could sleep as they feared for their lives.

"We just kept thinking, 'Please don't let a tree fall on us. Please don't let this be our last night.'

"It's hard to put into words the fear we felt.

"The power was out and it was pitch black and, every couple of minutes, you would just hear a crack, and then a boom of a tree falling.

"Then the whole house would shake. And it just continued for what felt like forever.

"You couldn't see where the trees were falling. You could just hear them."

Sam Paynter, also from Monbulk, sheltered in his living room with his wife and three children aged under eight.

"It was the scariest night of our lives, that's for sure," he said.

"The sound of those gum trees we will just never, ever forget."

Twelve trees fell on their property, taking our their sheds and coming within two metres of the house.

Bri Tairi, her husband and parents-in-law were not so lucky to escape being hit.

They were finishing dinner in her Kalorama home about 8.30pm when a tree fell on their roof, crushing them.

"We had the most traumatic night of our lives," she said.

Tairi said they heard an indescribable loud noise and all looked at each other right before the roof came in.

"Then it was just the hugest bang on our head," she said.

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They were trapped under beams, and when she couldn't hear her nine-month-old son crying from the other side of the house, Tairi instantly thought he was dead.

"I couldn't move and I was screaming out his name," she said.

Luckily, her son had somehow slept through the chaos, and her husband brought him to her.

"And then I see my baby, and he was smiling at me," Tairi said.

"It was the best moment of my life just knowing he was OK."

Tairi said the baby was the reason the adults had not been sitting on the couch – where the main beams of her house fell – because he had taken extra long to feed that night, delaying their dinner.

They would have been sitting on the couch if they had eaten at a normal time.

"We would have been dead," Tairi said.

After freeing themselves from the wreckage, the family jumped in two cars to get away from the area but quickly found themselves stuck.

"Every road we went down was covered in trees. We were stranded," Tairi said.

They couldn't even get back home because trees had fallen over the roads since they'd driven over them.

"In the end, we just sat in our car all night," she said.

"And the car was just shaking in the wind. I can't explain the terror.

"We really felt like we were like the only people in the world. It felt like an 'end of the world' movie."

In the town of Emerald, Sherri Weinberg said the roaring winds "sounded like a train coming up the main street" as she sheltered alone.

"I can just recall the absolute horrible noise," she said.

"It was relentless. I just went on and on and on."

Her windows shook so hard she feared they could blow out, while the outside of her flat was damaged, causing her bedroom to flood.

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Out on the frontline, rescuers were forced to retreat inside because falling trees were threatening their lives and stopping them from reaching those who needed help.

Emerald SES controller Ben Owen said his crew arrived to an overturned car, only to be told by a Country Fire Authority crew the driver had already been rescued and that everyone needed to leave the area as soon as possible because of the trees falling around them.

"I don't think I've reversed a truck down a road quicker to get away from an incident," he said.

The seasoned rescuer said he was "absolutely" scared that night, especially when an SES vehicle was crushed by a tree.

SES volunteers had to sleep on the station room floor because they couldn't get home.

"We couldn't even tell our loved ones what we're doing or that because the phone systems are all crushed, and the internet was down."

Owen is one of many who is amazed no one was killed in the area.

"It's actually a miracle that either a first responder or member of the public wasn't killed that night," he said.

"Absolute miracle."

It was by far the worst storm he has experienced in his almost 40 years in area.

"That was a freak event," he said.

"A one-in-a-hundred-year sort of storm."

Homes were flattened, roofs were blown off and power lines were unable to be restored for weeks.

Winds were recorded as being at 127km/h before a gauge broke, however it is believed wind gusts reached 200km/h.

Trees that fell in the storm ripped up the concrete steps and barriers that make up the popular walking track the 1000 Steps, putting it out of action to this day.

The aftermath

Many people who endured the storm are still haunted by it.

"It was super traumatic," Tairi said.

"Even now, even though I know I'm safe where I am, I still forget and I'm waiting for that loud bang."

Grooby said: "A year later, I feel scared in situations where the wind picks up. I know that I still get jumpy every time we get a news report that we're expecting higher level of winds."

Grooby runs a youth organisation in Monbulk and believes that many of the teenagers who attend are emotionally affected by the night.

"Our teenagers still talk about that night and how scary it was for them," she said.

Paynter believes his oldest two children, aged eight and six, could have PTSD from that night.

"My kids refuse to sleep especially when there's a bit of wind," he said.

"My son has nightmares about that night to this day.

"Seeing that I was actually genuinely scared for my life and it probably has affected them.

"I think they're going to suffer for a while."

Paynter said he and his wife also struggle to sleep when it's windy, "frightened that something could happen".

Some people even moved out of the area because of that night.

"A lot of people up and left because of the storm," Weinberg said.

"I know two families that sold immediately."

For those who lost their homes, the process of dealing with insurance companies and preparing to rebuild has been glacial, with most having not even started construction work.

"Your family home once was this beautiful place and now it just feels like like an awful reminder of that night," Tairi said.

"And we just feel like when there's no end in sight at the moment."

Her home has had nothing done to it except be covered by a tarp in the last year.

"It's been a nightmare. We've had to fight every step of the way."

She has just complied a report on the damage that remains a year on from the storm, wanting to raise awareness that people are still really struggling and that there needs to be a better type of system in place to help recover from disasters.

While the long-term recovery is tracking slowly, residents say the immediate clean-up after the storm was incredible, with everyone putting the work in to help each other out.

"Everyone helped everyone with generators, moving trees out of driveways, clothing and food and things like that," Paynter said.

The community spirit around the Dandenong Ranges is one of the reasons his family won't move away from the area.

Many others feel the same way.

SES controller Owen has reassured that the storm was a rarity.

However, he advised people to have a plan to enact during bad storms going forward.

"Charge up the batteries, if they've got a generator make sure it's well-serviced, even make a decision in advance whether you even want to be in the Hills."

He said people should consider evacuating ahead of dangerous storms as they commonly did when there was high bushfire threat.



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