Gippsland community faces six more days without power, phones after killer storm no-one expected

Gippsland community faces six more days without power, phones after killer storm no-one expected

Summer in Victoria’s east usually means bracing for bushfires and long, dry days. 

WARNING: This story contains an image that readers may find distressing.

No-one expected the storm that ripped through the South Gippsland region this week. 

The power of the winds felled gum forests, tore through steel sheds, and crippled power and telecoms infrastructure, leaving weeks of repairs in their wake. 

One farmer was killed as he moved his cows to safety, while others were forced to dump milk after power outages.   

Residents gather in Mirboo North Hall to hear plans to restore services.(ABC News: Georgia Lenton-Williams)

Power out until next week

More than 100 people packed into Mirboo North Hall on Friday afternoon to hear the latest information from emergency services.

AusNet Services chief executive David Smales told the audience power would not be completely restored until Thursday.

He said 150-to 200 properties had been connected to generators by today, mostly close to Mirboo North’s main street.

“Tomorrow, we’ve got people (working) on making lights safe and clearing some of some electrical cables from people’s properties and driveways,” Mr Smales said.

He said that would allow AusNet crews to begin restringing power lines and putting poles back in place.

“We’re putting resources in the optimal place to get the fastest recovery process in the safest way possible,” Mr Smales said.

The meeting also heard from police and South Gippsland Shire Mayor Clare Williams who said she was proud to see the community “work together, help your neighbours, help your friends and help your family”.

It was standing room only as residents in Mirboo North met with emergency services.(ABC News: Georgia Lenton-Williams)

Power outages force farmers to dump milk

Just outside of Mirboo North, dairy farmer Colin Wientjens described a trail of destruction running from his farm to town.

“From our place into Mirboo North, it’s like a bomb went off,” he said.

“There’s rubbish everywhere, trees down, snapped off 20 foot in the air and it’s just a mess.”

The loss of power has caused an avalanche of challenges, including escaped livestock.

“We’ve got cattle out everywhere across the farm because electric fences don’t work with no power,” he said.

Mirboo North dairy farmer Colin Wientjens with his twin boys Alex (left) and Will.(ABC News: Fiona Broom)

There are many dairy farmers in the South Gippsland region, and they need to milk cows twice a day, which requires power. 

Mr Wientjens has been able to milk his cows with a portable vacuum pump delivered by a local dairy supplies store, but he can’t keep the stored milk chilled without power.

He has already had to dump more than 7,000 litres because tankers cannot reach his property to collect the milk. 

Mr Wientjens is also dealing with the loss of a much loved and respected dairy farming mate, who died after being struck by a shed roof that detached in the storms.

“Everyone knows who he is, a great fella, one of the best farmers I know and he’s been good to a lot of us younger guys coming up,” he said.

Boy avoids falling tree, but cows killed

Up the road at Coalville, dairy farmer Leisa Hillbrick feared her son could be killed when the top of a cypress tree was ripped off and went flying in the storms.

“We weren’t very far from the cowshed when an almighty gust of wind twisted the top of a cypress tree off and it landed on our [cows] in the laneway,” she told ABC Rural.

“It was very scary, considering my 11-year-old likes to run up behind the cows to push them up to the yard for me and to think he could have been seriously injured or killed under that tree was terrifying.”

While her son was safe, their cows bore the brunt of the falling tree.

“We had several cows stuck under the tree, and unfortunately, one died straight away,” Ms Hillbrick said.

“We’ve got one down and she doesn’t look like she’s going to get up and we have several with fairly serious cuts on their faces and legs.

“My 11-year-old and my older son are like little troopers, though. They helped free some cows from under the tree after it had fallen.”

The storms smashed trees and fences and killed cattle at Coalville.(Supplied: Leisa Hillbrick)

Ms Hillbrick has also dumped milk because of the power outage and, like many people, has been dealing with frustrating telecommunications outages.

She said the power and telecommunications were restored two days after the storm, but before that they were completely cut off.

“We can’t ring out and we can’t find out emergency alerts, ” Ms Hillbrick said.

“So I had to drive into our nearest town last night and sit out the front of the post office to get wi-fi and see when power might be coming back on.”

Farmer helps keep local hospital going

Meanwhile, further east at Yarram, dairy farmer Greg Peddle said it looked like a hurricane had ripped through his farm, leaving “twisted up metal all through the cow yard”.

The storm damaged his grain silo auger and walkway connecting the silos, but he said it was lucky it happened after his afternoon milking. Otherwise, the cows would have been killed.

Dairy farmer Greg Peddle says it looks like a hurricane tore through the property.(Supplied)

“So it’s all come down and it’s all destroyed. It was a fairly wild-looking thing when all the auger system come down in the yard,” he said.

“But unfortunately, we’ve got no way of getting grain out of the damn things now.”

Mr Peddle farms right next to the Yarram Airport, which, during Tuesday’s storm, recorded gusts of 126 kilometres an hour.

Power outages in the area are expected to continue until at least Saturday, but energy supplier AusNet says isolated areas are yet to be assessed and could still be cut off next week. 

Mr Peddle has a generator to power the dairy and his milk cooling systems, which he bought after the last major disaster in the region in June 2021.

He also helped the local hospital out with fuel for its generator. 

“We’ve got a reasonable size fuel storage here,” he said.

“And so we take fuel in for the Yarram hospital because they can’t get anybody to deliver fuel there when there’s no power anywhere to run pumps.”

Stories from farms and country towns across Australia, delivered each Friday.

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