Romsey Neighbourhood House coordinator Michelle Balthazar, third from left, and storm-affected residents who attended the Romsey community emergency plan meeting on Friday to discuss what could be done differently to better manage an emergency event.

By Aleksandra Bliszczyk

A lack of access to communication was identified as the greatest challenge during a major storm that hit the Macedon Ranges earlier this month.

The Romsey and Lancefield neighbourhood houses asked residents in community meetings last week what they needed most during the June 9 and 10 storm, which left thousands without power or phone service for days.

Overwhelmingly the biggest challenge reported by both volunteers and residents was the lack of communications.

“We were really concerned that we couldn’t communicate with those who really needed it,” Romsey Neighbourhood House coordinator Michelle Balthazar said.

“Generally, and with the fires, we can make sure people are really well informed, but having the phones [down] and no service in the area really presented a major challenge.”

Lancefield Neighbourhood House coordinator Vivien Philpotts echoed Ms Balthazar’s concerns.

“Being without power is one thing, even though we didn’t think it would be so long, but you couldn’t ring up and check in on anybody,” Ms Philpotts said.

At the Romsey community meeting, where residents were asked to write their challenges on posters before the responses were collated and delivered to council, residents articulated several challenges.

Benloch resident Maurice was without power, running water and landline for six days, and experienced property damage due to fallen trees. He was able to cook meals and boil water on his fire, but said a generator or a battery for his solar panels would have helped.

Romsey resident Pete who did have a generator and access to wifi, said the stream of updates from Powercor about when power would be restored was mentally challenging.

He said for those struggling to cope with the outage, the dozens of updates with new information would’ve ‘tipped them over the edge’.

Romsey resident Chris said while her landline had been reconnected, it was still unreliable as of Friday.

“It’s still really staticky and not good at the moment, I think there’s water in the system, I don’t know,” she said.

At the Romsey community emergency plan meeting on Friday, residents were asked to respond to a series of questions about their challenges during the storm. The responses will be collated and delivered to council.

Other residents said they were scared of being unable to ring triple zero if they needed to, and one resident living alone with osteoarthritis said she struggled physically without pain relief from a hot bath or hot water bottle.

“Nearly everybody I’ve spoken to was pretty scared on Wednesday night,” Ms Philpotts said.  

“Some people had a really scary night and that trauma might not hit people for another week or two either.”

Without the ability to take calls for assistance, Romsey Neighbourhood House volunteers made home visits, delivering meals, blankets and hot water bottles to addresses on their list of 150 vulnerable residents.

“In response to COVID, we set up this Lancefield-Romsey community support and we developed a vulnerable peoples list of 150 people … and [for them] we’ve produced close to 4000 meals [since March 2020],” Ms Balthazar said.

“Luckily we do know who some of our most vulnerable are in the community and straight away we checked in with them, particularly the elderly, we were really concerned about those sitting in the freezing cold.”

While both neighbourhood houses were grateful for support from Macedon Ranges Shire Council and the community, including providing facilities for showers, cooking meals and access to power, they are looking at what they now need to manage the next emergency.

“One of the things that we’re doing that’s different in Lancefield is looking to convert the neighbourhood house as a place where people can come if this happens again,” Ms Philpotts said.

“We’ll look at purchasing a generator so people can come and charge their phones.”

Ms Balthazar said Romsey also hoped to acquire a generator so people could go to the hub on Main Street to warm up, or cool down, depending on the season.

She also encouraged residents to access the Mind Health Hub Romsey in the wake of the events, particularly the elderly residents who reported feeling isolated and ‘terrified’.

“We’ve been offering that service to people who are still shaking as a result, and back to back with COVID restrictions and storm damage, quite a few of the elderly have said in all their years living here they’ve never experienced a storm like it,” she said.

Telehealth appointments are available at the hub, and the neighbourhood house continues to take calls and offer assistance on 5429 6724.

But Ms Balthazar said it was still important to reach out and connect with friends and neighbours.

“Still check in with people and see if people are alright,” she said.