RAINFALL deluging across Corner Inlet district during the 24-hour period from Tuesday morning March 22 to Wednesday morning March 23 which totaled 370 millimetres at Tidal River and ranged through 150-175 millimetres around Fish Creek, Waratah Bay and Sandy Point, caused widespread flash flooding, land slides, infrastructure damage and inundation of buildings.
In Victoria’s recorded rainfall history, only one 24-hour period (in the Otways) has ever pipped last week’s falls at the Prom, making it an exceedingly rare event.
Chief Ranger of Wilsons Promontory National Park Craig Stubbings said he had received information from the Bureau of Meteorology that the weather depression located between Tidal River and Darby areas may have possibly resulted in falls as high as 500 millimetres on the mountains.
“At Tuesday lunch time in the Tidal River gauge we had 30mm, by 5.00pm there was 150mm and then a couple of hundred millimetres fell during the night,” Mr. Stubbings recalled.
Bureau Climatologist Blair Trewin advised that rainfall in the range of 125-150 millimetres in the Leongatha/Foster/Prom district would be estimated as a one in 100 year 24-hour rainfall event as a result of a study of rainfall records from 1900-2008.
“We have reports of falls from 125 to 175 millimetres in the general area north of the national park but are still to receive confirmation of the validity of the 370 millimetre recording at Tidal River,” he said last Thursday.
In an illustration of nature’s variety, Wilsons Promontory Lighthouse only recorded 39 millimetres of rain during the same period.
PROM CUT OFF
The downpour caused significant flooding problems and upheaval at Wilsons Promontory National Park.
Darby River Bridge, on the only road route to the main settlement and camping area at Tidal River, partially collapsed in sizeable sections at each end, making vehicle crossing impossible.
During the dark on Tuesday night, water waist and chest deep swirled through accommodation units and camp sites at Tidal River.
It necessitated evacuation of more than 200 visitors, including several school groups, up to higher ground, guided by Parks Victoria staff and State Emergency Service workers from Foster, Inverloch and Yarram units.
The sewerage treatment plant was damaged and inoperable, water flowed through the Parks Victoria office, the visitor information centre, general store and medical room, and power and landline telephone services cut.
With a further 182 campers isolated by multiple significant landslides and flooding at ‘outstation’ locations around the park, helicopter evacuations were run from 4.00pm until 7.45pm on the Wednesday, courtesy of three helicopters with a combined 31-passenger capacity obtained from the Country Fire Authority.
Aerial food drops were made to outstation campers remaining in place overnight, and helicopter evacuations recommenced early on the Thursday morning.
Comprising the balance of the Tidal River visitors, volunteers and staff, lighthouse visitors, and campers at Oberon Bay, Sealers Cove and Tidal River, some 203 people were eventually ferried out by mid-afternoon.
To the ironic amusement of Foster State Emergency Service (SES) Unit members, some of the tourists they assisted at Tidal River during the event recognised them from previous help given at the same location in February 2009 when serious bushfires burnt a large section of the Park.
Five residential Parks Victoria staff, necessary supplies, and a large number of stranded vehicles (including State Emergency Service vehicles and Shire vehicles including a grader and tip truck) plus caravans and school buses were left behind at the Prom until access can be restored.
“Now the public is out, we are turning our attention to what’s required to open the Park again and we’re working with VicRoads assessment engineers looking at roads and bridges, as well as major infrastructure repairs and clean up that needs to be done,” Mr. Stubbings reported on Friday, March 25.
“I also thank the organisations that helped with amazing team efforts – Parks Victoria staff, Victoria Police, SES (Foster, Yarram and Inverloch units), Country Fire Authority and the Shire – to coordinate a prompt and swift response.
He praised the campers for their “patience and cooperation” during a situation in difficult conditions.
“It was a major logistical exercise in which everyone was got out safely and there were no injuries,” Mr Stubbings concluded.
FISH CREEK & DISTRICT
In Fish Creek, Waratah Bay and Sandy Point, rainfall of around 150-155 millimetres led to significant flash flooding.
Several houses and the RSL building just west of Fish Creek’s main crossroad were inundated by forceful water flows to a depth of around 1.5 metres, necessitating a family of five to be promptly re-housed in the Fish Creek Hotel and others to move out to shelter in higher ground.
In the worst-affected home, which has only recently been renovated internally, a 47-year-old man was chilled by floodwater soaking his bed as he slept.
He was taken to hospital in Foster but was released again later in the morning.
Electricity and telephone was cut in the flooded homes, and one house that has only just been internally renovated may be too badly damaged for recovery to be worthwhile.
The force of the water through Fish Creek RSL building swirled contents around rooms and from the front to the back of the building, filled drawers and carried heavy objects from out front down to the back fence where they caught in the strands.
The town’s bowling green was flooded with the relatively new synthetic turf being lifted and impacted by silt deposits, and nearby, the netball court fence was flattened.
Although the water receded fairly quickly, flattened grass and vegetation and strewn debris clearly illustrated the extent and speed of the surging water.
Newly installed 1.8-metre diameter concrete culverts under a dairy track on a Fish Creek tributary were tumbled downstream from their placements.
Many roads were affected and temporarily closed by flowing floodwaters including the Buffalo-Tarwin Road, Sandy Point Road, Gale Street and Waratah Avenue at Waratah Bay, as well as roads into and around Fish Creek such as Harding-Lawson Road and Lowry’s Road.
Lesters Road at Yanakie was significantly damaged as part of the road washed away downhill into a neighbouring dam.
Farm paddocks throughout the district were extensively flooded and a number of homes suffered from leakage over floors as drains proved inadequate for the deluge.
The water had still not drained away sufficiently by the time school buses were running, and student collections were unable to be completed on the Fish Creek and Buffalo routes.
Around midnight on the Tuesday, Leongatha SES Unit rescued four people and a dog precariously trapped in a four-wheel drive on the Fish Creek-Waratah Road near Vuillermins Road after their vehicle was caught and pushed by floating logs as they attempted to drive through floodwaters flowing over the road.
According to some of the many Fish Creek residents sightseeing around town as the sun came out on Wednesday morning, one of the many stories being recounted was of a man who waded through chest-deep water to save his goats and an emu marooned in their paddock off Ryan Street behind Fish Creek Kindergarten.
Dairy farmers and other stock owners were also out early moving animals to higher ground and have been left with fences and culverts to replace and farm tracks to repair after the waters drained away.
Despite the damage, most people were relatively cheerful, perhaps because their own suffering was not so bad compared to recent flood disasters in Australia and overseas.
“What can you do except start repairs?” commented dairy farmer Chris Foote as he conducted a round of checks on stock and infrastructure on the farm his family leases at Fish Creek.
Another Fish Creek farmer Neville Buckland, who has kept rainfall records for decades, declared that the area had not had such a burst of equivalent rainfall for 40 years, when floods in March 1970 swept through Fish Creek and surrounds.
COORDINATION & RELIEF
The Shire’s Municipal Emergency Coordination Centre was activated in the Council Chambers at Leongatha at 11.15pm on the Tuesday night with the coordination of operations led by Victoria Police.
Again ironically, the Council’s main emergency coordinating staff were absent on an emergency management course!
Besides assisting with landslide removal on the Wilsons Promontory Road in the vicinity of Whisky Bay, Council outdoor crews were busy during the night clearing landslides over roads throughout an area ranging from Toora (Silcocks Hill Road) through to Allambee South and Mirboo North.
Foster Football Club’s rooms were opened as an emergency relief and accommodation centre although in the end no accommodation had to be provided as alternatives were found or evacuees were bussed to Melbourne and school groups back to their schools.
At Foster, Football Club members, Red Cross (members from Foster, Tarwin Lower, Yarram and Meeniyan units), Foster Rotary and Council staff were assisted by the Exchange Hotel in feeding and looking after more than 250 people.
The volunteers worked from mid-afternoon Wednesday through to approximately 11.00pm that night.
Most of those they helped were evacuees from the Prom bussed in from Yanakie airstrip, but others were people who had arrived to collect them.
Russell Forte Assistant Principal at South Gippsland Secondary College, liaised with the school groups and their onwards transport as they arrived at Foster.
The Clubrooms re-opened at 9.00am on the Thursday morning and volunteers (including some secondary teachers) again catered throughout the day with morning teas, lunch and afternoon teas for about 200 people until the centre closed around 4.30pm.
Prior to being brought to Foster, all evacuees were registered by teams of Red Cross volunteers at Yanakie airstrip after their helicopters landed.
On the Wednesday morning, a two-person ‘rapid assessment team’ from the Council worked its way through flood-impacted homes in Fish Creek.
They were investigating who needed immediate help and in what ways so that people could be re-housed and provided with basic clothing and other daily needs until Department of Human Services assistance came through.
“Some of these people have lost all of their clothes and furniture in the flash flood,” Risk Management Coordinator Bret McLean said.
In the 24 hours to Wednesday morning, the wind was blowing so hard from east and south that some rainfall recorders reported that much of the rain seemed to have been “blown past” their rain gauges!
While the rainfall at Wilsons Promontory far exceeded falls elsewhere, there was still significant amounts received around the area as follows:
Fish Creek – 150mm – Neville Buckland
Foster – 101mm – Foster Post Office
Hoddle – 102mm – Andrew Nicoll
Meeniyan – 90mm – Meeniyan Post Office
Port Franklin – at least 95mm but Wilma Peeters’ rain gauge overflowed so total unknown.
Sandy Point – 152mm – Phyllis Cozens
Waratah Bay – 155mm – Jeff Buckland
Wilsons Promontory Tidal River – 370mm – Parks Victoria
Wilsons Promontory Lighthouse – 39mm – Bureau of Meteorology
Turtons Creek – 110mm – Tom Schoeffler
Yanakie – 123 – Ross Marriott/130mm – Henny Hather
On Monday, Parks Victoria Chief Executive Dr. Bill Jackson announced that the organisation was “working towards having limited camping available at Tidal River for the Easter long weekend” however this goal “depends on our ability to get the main road reopened and other essential services in Tidal River up and running again. “
He added, “No roofed accommodation will be available [at Tidal River], but we will work to get some camping in the park for Easter.
“In the meantime we are looking to get the northern section of the Prom reopened in the next week or so, so day visitors can continue to experience and enjoy the beauty of the park.”
A Parks Victoria spokesperson, Melanie McVey, explained that until VicRoads has completed assessment of what vehicle weight limits could safely use a repaired bridge across the Darby River, Parks Victoria could not advise whether caravans and camper trailers would be able to access Tidal River in the early stages of recovery works in the Prom.
At this stage, she advised that it was also too early to know what ‘outstation’ areas might be made safely accessible by Easter and when southern areas of the park might be open to visitors.
“We might even have to look at setting up some sort of temporary camping facility in the northern part of the Park.”
People with accommodation booked for Easter at the Prom will be contacted directly and full refunds offered if they are not able to stay as planned.
Regardless of what access within the Prom was enabled by Easter, Ms McVey said that Parks Victoria would work closely with Prom Country Regional Tourism, the Shire’s Visitor Information Centres and tourism businesses “to promote all of the other attractions that visitors can enjoy in South Gippsland.”
Would-be visitors are being encouraged to call 1800 630 704 or www.visitpromcountry.com.au to find alternative accommodation and sites of interest in the region.
Although not all roofed accommodation was flooded, damage to water supply, power and sewerage treatment infrastructure is such that no roofed accommodation will be open in time for the Easter holidays.
“VicRoads has completed initial assessments and advises that even limited access will be at least a couple of weeks away,” said Dr Jackson.
“We will continue to keep the public informed as the situation changes over the coming weeks. In the meantime we ask visitors to be patient and respect the closures for their own safety.”
He emphasised “The Prom is a much-loved park, with this summer proving the most popular on record. “We are doing everything possible to give visitors access to Tidal River as soon as it is safe to do so.”
Wilsons Promontory National Park received one-third of its annual average rainfall in a 24-hour period last week, making it one of eight severe storm and flood events in the State since September 2010 that has had a significant impact on 150 campgrounds and visitor sites and resulting in 70 parks and reserves being totally or partially closed.
Tourism business operators and stakeholders were invited to a lengthy information and question/answer session with Parks Victoria held in Foster yesterday.
The Deputy premier Peter Ryan, who is also member for Gippsland South, Minister for Emergency Services and Minister for Regional and Rural Development, visited the Prom last Friday morning for a briefing and helicopter tour of the damage of the iconic national park.