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Moora Floods March 1999 – Stories from the Past

A story from the past of  SES Volunteer experiences involved with the Moora floods March 1999. Stories like these are part of the Western Australia State Emergency Service History.

Moora Flood

Friday night, March 19th – Moora carried on its business as usual, despite 2 days of relentless rain. It was relentless, but not heavy, and most people were able to carry on their normal Friday-like activities. Going out that night was a bit of a trial, as the town is split in two halves – most of us going from one side to the other were totally drenched in the intensifying rain. Everything was by now very, very wet.

Saturday night, March 20th – Water started to come up into the town at about 4.00pm, but there’s still no worry – this has never been anything to be concerned about before. My husband and I live 15km South of the town just off the banks of the Moore River, and had someone’s daughter from the North side of town visiting us. We spoke to the parents at about 8.00pm, and there were the usual jokes about boats, ducks and field capacity, as it was still raining, and the river had reached its banks. About 10.00pm, the SES came to town to monitor what was going on, but by 11.30pm, the rain stopped and everyone went to bed, convinced it’s just another SES Red Alert. The SES went off to bed at the same time, convinced that the town people knew best.

Saturday night, 1.30am – Some of the town people awoke to the sound of their dogs barking, and were alarmed to find the water quietly rising into their back yards. Several people stepped out of their beds into knee-deep water already in their houses. Panic set in, and people began trying to contact others. The phones went out, and communications cut. The Hospital evacuated, as it was among the first to go under. A 6-foot tall policeman helping in the evacuation was knocked under water at 3.00am by a car floating past the back of the hospital. He survived, later to be sucked down into a collapsed drain. Only his size and strength save him both times, as the power of the water was immense.

Saturday night, 3.30 – 5.00am – People began to move out into the streets, trying to find relatives, pets and high ground. One family awoke at 3.15am by the dogs in their neighbours’ house, and found the water 30cm deep in their backyard. They immediately got the car out, and drove over to a sister due that day to have her baby. By the time they roused the family, and started on the search to high ground, the water had reached the other side of town, and was already 15cm deep. There are reports of the water rising a foot (30cm) every 7 minutes in those panicked early morning hours. People set out on foot, calling across the water to others, the lights eerily shafting off the silvery, harmless looking water. The Newsagency was reported to have the lights on inside the shop, so the Proprietor set off to check for looting. Once inside, he automatically put his hand out to turn off the lights – but at that moment looked down – he was up to his waist in water. Perhaps not, he thought, and made a hasty exit thinking unnerving thoughts of being in the company of all the power points under water. It is a miracle nobody was electrocuted.

Sunday morning, Onwards – The town was frantic without communication. Nobody knew where their children having sleepovers were, people away for the night came “home” to a closed town 5 feet deep in water, and there were trucks, front end loaders and super spreaders carrying people everywhere and importantly sloshing water into those houses not yet inundated. Some of the unsung heroes sat by their two-way radios and relayed messages, names and what information was available for 2 solid days, with barely a break. The two high spots in the town are the Recreation Centre, and the Central Midlands High School. Both of these places were immediately turned into crises centres, with the front-end loaders sent to the supermarkets (conveniently set one on each side of town) to break the windows and get food for all the people huddled in these two areas. Buses arrived from Perth to take people away to Care in Perth, and families were split up in the chaos.

Confusion about where all this water had come from was rife, as Moora “only” had about 7 inches
(180mm) – not enough for this catastrophe. Late Sunday morning, a farmer from a town to the East of Moora succeeded in getting through on his Mobile to someone on another Mobile – Did we know Bindi Bindi had 12 inches (300mm)? Well, said the person, we thought you might have… The farmer responsible for the call later came to Moora, and apologised for sending all his water down to us; but he said, he didn’t have enough room for it there. We were so unsurprised.

Monday, 22nd March – The full extent of the mess became all too horrifyingly apparent. Windows and walls were broken, not a North/South fence was left standing, and the mud… Ooooh, the mud…. It was in, on, under, through, and in place of EVERYTHING! One mustn’t ever forget that this was the end of summer, and the straw, sheep manure and dust was as thick as it ever gets, and the water brought every little bit it could find into the town. The water receded slowly, and the long, slow cleanup began.

The town was closed except to people who were housing those close by, so we had the dubious honour of going in about a dozen times a day, carting furniture, horses, everything out. There was another threat looming – Cyclone Vance was advancing, and a ripper it proved to be. What the flood didn’t destroy from underneath, Vance threatened to destroy from the top with fierce winds, and the pelting rain it contained. All Monday and most of Tuesday was a frightening, tense race against time to save what was there should Vance occur – at the last moment, it swept away a mere 100 miles to the North of Moora. A huge collective sigh was heard across the muddied flats of the Moore River catchment.

Teams of wonderfully heroic and unbelievably generous people began to arrive – front end loaders, trucks, mops, high pressure cleaners, soap by the barrow load, furniture, food, fodder and an impossibly wondrous feeling wafted into the town. A miracle happened in Moora amongst the sludge, and this indescribable community spirit grew and grew through the days, making the insufferable able to be borne almost with insouciance. Countless small miracles happened – people’s kindness and generosity come to the fore, and a new and very special respect was cultivated amongst the townspeople and those helping.

The town was sectioned off, with teams organised into big, strong groups to rip carpets, beds and melting furniture outside, fire teams with hire pressure cleaners and brooms to spray the houses from one end to the other, and finally, those wonderful teams of men, women, and children who came behind and cleaned. It sounds easy now, but! – was it a hard slog! Every item in every business that wasn’t discarded had to be washed; people took ute loads of clothes home to wash and bring back to sell as ‘Flood Victims’, supermarkets had to be emptied of their by-now fetid and stinking food, and the stock agents and hardware stores begin to sift through the indescribable mess that consisted of countless thousands of sodden articles. Most of these people had both homes and businesses flooded. Ants took refuge in piles of baling twine, chemical drums were stacked by guesswork, and firewood, logs and drums full of fuel were picked up throughout the streets. Moora lost many of its great, towering Salmon Gums from within the town.

The town tip grew to mammoth proportions.

Local people were spread pretty thinly on the ground at this stage, and many of the teams were left to make their own decisions about what was thrown, and what wasn’t. There was a lot of panic, and loads of equipment was thrown out, even if it hadn’t actually been wet, or could be recovered. Any items here that weren’t personally handled by the Telecentre Committee, (who all had their own problems), disappeared, never to be seen again – records, computers, office equipment, and software – all gone. Nearly all the disks and backups were soaked and lost in the safe (which wasn’t), the furniture was destroyed, and the photocopier drowned – we started again from scratch.

Now, it is almost another year and two floods later. The Newsagents have moved back in, the Telecentre has re-opened and many other businesses are operating normally. The Lotteries Commission and the Telecentre Support Unit have both been wonderful and consistent in their support and encouragement. Due to both these organisations and their people, we closely resemble a lively and dynamic Telecentre in the making. Many people are only now getting their houses back to normal and moving in. The town has held on to that amazing feeling we found back then in March 1999, and have turned the trauma into a blessing. Groups in Perth banded together and donated one hundred decorated Christmas Trees, countless mountains of food and clothes were sent, and jobs have been created to look at saving the town economically. It is estimated that the town alone lost $14 million, but we are moving forward. Don’t be at all surprised to hear of some really big things happening in Moora over the next Millennium, as in 1999 we were forced to dig deep – literally – and Moora found that anything is possible!

Written by Julie Walsh

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