Page updated June 21, 2023

ABC News: Dandenong Ranges residents struggle with insurance and building costs two years on from massive storm

June 21, 2023

Posted updated 

Sarah Millman and Ben Cotton at their Sassafras block nestled in the Dandenong Ranges.(ABC News: Margaret Paul)

Two years on from the storm that destroyed their “forever home”, Sarah Millman and Ben Cotton have some advice.

“Look at your insurance, and make sure you are over-insured,” Mr Cotton said, standing on the block of land where their house once stood.

“Because everything costs more.”

The couple and their two daughters had only just moved into their home in Sassafras six weeks before the storm hit the Dandenong Ranges, east of Melbourne, in June 2021.

Winds of up to 100 kilometres per hour tore down a massive mountain ash about 2am, which sliced through their house as they slept just metres away.

“There was the most enormous crash, bang, smash, because a tree had landed through the house and my car, and that was it,” Ms Millman said.

A large tree sliced through the family’s “forever home”.(Supplied: Sarah Millman)

The house was one of 76 on the mountain deemed uninhabitable as a result of the storm.

The couple got a full insurance payout of $500,000 in October 2021, which they thought would be enough to rebuild.

But a year later, when their plans were finalised, they were told the cost of building had gone up an extra 20 per cent.

“We can’t afford to rebuild at the current cost,” Mr Cotton said.

They decided to put the empty block on the market and hope they can attract a buyer.

Delays with insurance a common problem

In total, the June 2021 storm damaged 173 buildings in the Dandenong Ranges, including 112 homes.

The dangerous winds also ripped down trees and destroyed homes in parts of Central Victoria, and led to flooding in parts of Gippsland.

The Yarra Ranges Shire council said of the 12 homes that had to be demolished in the Dandenongs, only two had permits to rebuild.

None have rebuilt.

Yarra Ranges Mayor Jim Child said problems with insurance were the biggest ongoing concern for residents whose homes were damaged.

“There’s still people on that tough journey with insurance companies, and that’s the very disappointing thing about this whole recovery process,” he said.

“It’s taking so long.”

The council has been caught up in delays with its own insurer, over the Mt Dandenong Kindergarten.

The kindergarten is still fenced off, with children’s toys visible through the torn-off wall.

In May, the council voted to move the kindergarten program into the primary school campus down the road.

Councillor Child said that was a great result, but “normal client and insurance company negotiations” meant there had been a long delay.

More than 100 complaints to financial regulator

Data from the Insurance Council of Australia shows the storm led to 34,385 claims, and so far more than $278 million has been paid out.

The Australian Financial Complaints Authority has received 116 complaints in relation to the storm, and has ordered a total of $1,000,690 be paid out.

It said the top three issues had been claims being denied because of a policy condition, delays, and disputes over the amount.

The Eastern Community Legal Centre (ECLC) has worked with more than 100 clients with legal problems to do with insurance after the storm.

Donna Askew says a “long tail” of legal issues persists years on from the storm.(ABC News: Darryl Torpy)

Director of partnerships and community engagement, Donna Askew, said there had been “a consistent flow of issues related to insurance”.

She said initially the main problem was dealing with tree damage, but then once people started lodging insurance claims, some reported those claims were being denied.

“More recently we’ve seen the long tail of legal issues that can flow down the track,” she said.

“There can be issues around people moving out into temporary accommodation and in that time further damage may happen, there’s potential issues around settlement and the cost of rebuild increasing.”

Ms Askew said the rising cost of insurance itself was also a big problem.

“Our main concern is for communities already experiencing marginalisation or complex life challenges, the ability to be able to afford insurance is a huge one,” she said.

survey by the Yarra Ranges Shire found about half of respondents said their insurance premiums had increased since the storm.

Large trees that fell during the storm blocked roads and damaged power infrastrucutre.(ABC News: Billy Draper)

Psychological problems also an issue

Down the hill, in Belgrave, Paige and Phil Caves are still dealing with ongoing repairs to their home, after a tree flattened the back half of their house during the storm.

A couch where their son had been sitting just 15 minutes earlier was crushed.

Ms Caves said they were initially told the repairs would be completed by Christmas 2021, but the deck is still a mess of scaffolding, and they have to move out while the floor is repaired.

“We’re hoping this Christmas, but we’re not holding our breath,” she said.

She said she really wanted people to know about the psychological damage the storm caused in her community.

“I never really had anxiety before, but now every single day I feel anxious — it made my world feel very unsafe,” she said.

Council urges locals to be prepared

Councillor Child said the community in the Dandenong Ranges was very resilient, and there was plenty of support available.

But he said it was an environment where more disasters were likely in the future.

“Just think about where you live,” he said.

“Have you done that fuel reduction work, have you done the maintenance to your road or drain so water can escape freely?”

He also urged residents to contact their insurance company, to understand how much they are covered for.

“I think that’s a very important thing to do.”

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