Eight months ago, a savage storm ripped through the Western Victorian town of Creswick, causing damage to 180 primary residences.
As of this weekend, 24 residents are still displaced.
Many of those who have been able to return home, are doing so in challenging, uncomfortable conditions, as the wait continues for insurance claims to be settled and repairs to get underway.
Cheryle and John Lenaghan’s townhouse was gutted by the January 5 storm, just months after they bought the property.
“The ceilings disappeared. Everything in the house was saturated,” Mr Lenaghan said.
“When I walked in, it was like a bomb had hit it,” Mrs Lenaghan added.
The day after the storm, the couple contacted their insurers, who they have asked the ABC not to name, with their claim.
Initially “everything went smoothly”, Mr Lenaghan said, with assessors sent out and the couple put up in temporary accommodation.
But once the property was deemed “safe”, Mrs Lenaghan said, “everything stopped”.
“We couldn’t make contact [with the insurers]. Day after day after day, I’d sit on hold for three to four hours.
“I’d get through to someone, then nothing. They wouldn’t call back.”
Through the assistance of the Cafs Storm Recovery program, which is funded by the state government, the scope and study for the repairs have been completed and approved.
But the Lenaghans are still waiting to get confirmation from their insurer as to when the repairs will actually begin, leaving them “in limbo”.
“We’re hoping the build starts before Christmas, but we can’t see it happening.”
Only one room of the townhouse has power and heating, and is closed off from the rest of the property with a blue tarp.
Within the small room, the grandparents sleep, cook, watch television, and get ready for work.
Showers are taken with the aid of torchlight, and their ‘wardrobe’ consists of clothing neatly folded into piles on trestle tables. and hung on racks in what used to be the living room.
“We couldn’t stay here all day, we’d go crazy. We’re really lucky we’ve got work to go to, it’s a blessing,” Mrs Lenaghan said.
Anxious wait for mother and daughter
Charlie Evans lives in Creswick with her 79-year-old mother, Margaret Trommestad.
Like the Lenaghans, their property suffered significant damage in the storm.
“Hailstones about 10-centimetres [in diameter] were banked up against the door. The place was covered in organic matter,” Ms Evans recalled.
“The water seeped in, flooded in through the doors.”
After spending months trying to get answers from their insurer, Hollard, about their claim, Ms Evans and Ms Trommestad said they’re still living with exposed concrete flooring in all rooms of their home, mould in one bedroom, and a weakened roof.
They lodged an official complaint with the Australian Financial Complaints Authority (AFCA) in May, and were assigned a case manager last week.
“I spent 2.5 hours with them on the phone, and they were great. I felt relief that this finally getting somewhere,” Ms Evans said.
“We’ll go to mediation with the insurance company.”
In a statement, a Hollard spokesperson said:
“Hollard is committed to supporting customers with open claims in Creswick help them get back to their normal lives as soon as possible.
“Hollard will be contacting any Creswick customers affected by the January storms with an open claim to update them on what is happening and to resolve their claim as quickly as possible.”
At this stage, it’s unclear when Ms Evans and Ms Trommestad’s matter will be resolved, and whether the roof will be able to withstand another storm.
Both mother and daughter said, in the event of another weather event matching the severity of January’s, they want council to take more immediate, “practical” action, including making an exception to assist clearing debris on private properties.
“In natural disasters, gosh I hate red tape,” Ms Trommestad said.
Community-led recovery continues
Hepburn Shire Mayor Tim Drylie said the council would “love to help wherever it can”, but when private property and land is involved, it becomes “complicated in relation to liability.”
“We have to abide by particular rules and legislation that are set out for us,” Cr Drylie said.
The mayor said a Community Recovery Committee, representing those affected by the January storm event, will meet for the first time on September 12.
While the mayor said there is still available for residents, at this stage the council’s Storm Recovery program will end in December.
The council is also working to develop a flood study which would assess the need for clearing the Creswick creek.
This study will require at least $200,000 of funding, and the council will be seeking state government support, the mayor confirmed.