Cyclone fury fired 20-year relief mission

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Adam PoulsenGeraldton Guardian
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Aerials of Exmouth after it was hit by Cyclone Vance in March 1999.
Camera IconAerials of Exmouth after it was hit by Cyclone Vance in March 1999. Credit: Steve Ferrier/WA News

When cyclone Vance ravaged Exmouth in 1999, Chris Sorohan and wife Marian were living in Geraldton — but their lives were changed forever.

Though the couple and their five daughters had no personal connection to Exmouth, they felt compelled to help those hardest hit.

With support from the Geraldton community, Mr and Mrs Sorohan organised what they thought would be a one-off relief effort.

Instead, they ended up founding a charity.

On March 16 — two decades to the day after cyclone Vance formed — they celebrated the 20th anniversary of Midwest Disaster Relief.

“When we saw the extent of the cyclone, the first thing we wanted to do was pull a truck-load of stuff together and help that community,” Mr Sorohan said.

“We put an ad in the paper asking for donations, and stuff just started coming in from everywhere.

“There was lots of white goods, clothing — everything.”

Chris Sorohan and his wife Marian reflect on 20 years of Midwest Disaster Relief, the charity they founded after Cyclone Vance devastated Exmouth.
Camera IconChris Sorohan and his wife Marian reflect on 20 years of Midwest Disaster Relief, the charity they founded after Cyclone Vance devastated Exmouth. Credit: Adam Poulsen

The 64-year-old hired a removal truck — paid for by Exmouth man Dave Edwards — and drove to the stricken town with a group of mates.

After that, Mr Sorohan decided to keep collecting items in the event of future emergencies.

“A few months later, a guy who worked at the Department of Child Protection rang me and asked if we could donate some furniture to a family who were in a really drastic situation,” he said.

“That’s how we went from natural disasters to family disasters, and that’s very much the focus now.”

Midwest Disaster Relief offers affordable and, at times free, household necessities to struggling families.

“Kids deserve to have a bed and a fridge in their house, or a lounge to sit on,” Mr Sorohan said.

“Sometimes the parents might not be looking after their family, but why should the kids have to suffer?”

A story about Chris Sorohan's reflections of the fledgling disaster relief service in Geraldton in The West Magazine in January 2001. (The West Australian, 27/1/01)
Camera IconA story about Chris Sorohan's reflections of the fledgling disaster relief service in Geraldton in The West Magazine in January 2001. (The West Australian, 27/1/01) Credit: The West Australian

Mr Sorohan said the charity initially gave everything away for free, but the model had proved unsustainable.

“It was costing $5000 a week to keep it alive. Unfortunately, there was a fair bit of abuse of the system,” he said. “People were getting stuff from us under false pretences and selling it, and we were getting a bit discouraged.

“We got into financial difficulty.”

Though Midwest Disaster Relief has received some assistance from Lotterywest and the City of Greater Geraldton, it has received no State or Federal funding.

It has been community generosity, including that of long-term donors Sandfire Roadhouse and Eighty Mile Beach Caravan Park, that has kept the charity afloat.

Mr Sorohan said the not-for-profit organisation was stronger than ever and he was now able to scratch out a frugal living from his full-time work.

“For the first ... I don’t know how many years, we never got paid at all,” he said. “But I’m on a wage now, and it’s good enough for us to get by on.

“We’re still going strong and we’re still here to be a blessing to people and help in their time of need.”

Mr Sorohan worked as a pastor at Sun City Christian Centre before starting the charity.

His family settled in Geraldton 26 years ago. Previously, he was a pastor in Normanton, Queensland.

VANCE’S FURY

Cyclone Vance ripped through coastal towns along the Gascoyne and Pilbara coast, causing millions of dollars in damage.

  • Vance began as a low in the Timor Sea on March 16, 1999, before reaching the Australian mainland on March 22.
  • The category five cyclone was one of the strongest to ever strike the Australian mainland, according to the Bureau of Meteorology.
  • Exmouth was hit the hardest: more than 100 homes were destroyed and more than 200 heavily damaged.
  • The four hour onslaught brought with it wind gusts up to 267km/h – a record for the Australian mainland.
  • The storm surge at Exmouth reached 3.6 metres, severely eroding the marina and beachfront.
  • Thanks to early warnings, most of the 2500 people then living in the town were prepared when Vance struck.
  • No one was killed.
  • News reports of the day showed the mayhem left in Vance’s wake: houses flattened; holiday homes piled on top of each other; caravans and cars blown away; steel power poles bent.
  • When Vance weakened on March 23, it had left a path of destruction from Exmouth to Kalgoorlie.
  • Onslow also copped a thrashing, recording gusts up to 182km/h.

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