Geraldton resilient in post-cyclone rebuild, zero fatality assuages bishop

22 Apr 2021

By Matthew Lau

Bishop of Geraldton Michael Morrissey observes the aftermath of the severe Cyclone Seroja. Photo: Supplied.
Bishop of Geraldton Michael Morrissey observes the aftermath of the severe Cyclone Seroja. Photo: Supplied.

Geraldton residents have rallied in the wake of the ferocious Cyclone Seroja that crossed the coast near Kalbarri on the night of 11 April 2021.

Bishop of Geraldton Michael Morrissey told The eRecord he was most thankful that the natural disaster caused no deaths or serious injuries, adding that the prayers and support from its fellow dioceses have been immense.

The ex-tropical cyclone carved a path of destruction across a 1000km stretch of WA’s Mid-West with 170km/h gusty winds.

“Seroja certainly did its job,” Bishop Morrissey lamented. “I think it was a real shock to everybody that it was so severe; it is just extraordinary that no one lost their life.”

Buildings of many communities located in the southern portion of the diocese have been damaged, including Mulewa, Perenjori, Nanson, Northampton, Kalbarri, Morawa, Three Springs, and Mingenew, as depicted in this video:

Residents of certain local government areas have until October 2021 to claim the Australian Government Disaster Recovery Payment relief; Prime Minister Scott Morrison visited Kalbarri on 20 April as the community strives to rebuild the area. On 19 April, the McGowan Government announced electricity and water financial relief packages to support those affected.

St Francis Xavier Cathedral, designed and built by architect Monsignor John Hawes, survived the cyclone unscathed. Sadly, many other diocesan buildings were not as fortunate, including several Hawes heritage buildings.

Homes, businesses, schools, and farms were among the victims of Seroja, the first Category three cyclone to have hit the region.

Bishop Morrissey said the cyclone travelled so fast that it did not cause major flooding in Geraldton.

“The Bureau of Meteorology did predict it accurately; we are on the quieter side, but there is still a lot of the diocesan area that has no power.

“We can say Mass, the priests are fine, we can still offer the sacraments and pastoral care, but the experience has been a great trauma for our people,” he continued.

“The key now is that a lot of people of all walks of life are helping each other out; people can still have the basics by lending or donating generators and extension cords.”

Bishop Morrissey paid special mention to Catholic Education WA and the diocese’s schools that were all able to open on the first day of term on 19 April, although St Mary’s School Northampton is still relying on a generator.

“People reached out immediately to provide support. Centrecare has offered mental support counsel to those who need it, Nagle Catholic College offered its gymnasium, and St John of God Hospital offered refuge to those affected from Northampton.”

Geraldton Diocese is exploring how it can provide practical support to its community through its Communio appeal, which people can donate to here.

The diocese’s oldest presbytery in Northampton has been extensively ravaged as Parish Priest Father Larry Rodillas was forced to seek refuge beneath his office table as the roof, ceiling, and brick chimney collapsed around him in what he described as a “terrifying experience”.

“Heavy rain and powerful winds struck on the Sunday night, and I suddenly realised that the building no longer had a roof. I hid under the table; there was a lot of scary noises,” he recalled.

“Next thing I remember is something falling over, which was the old chimney. I was surrounded by dust as I moved to hide under the table of my lounge room. The cyclone worsened as Bishop Michael called to check on me.”

St Mary’s School Principal Ben Will rang Fr Rodillas, offering him refuge in his office at the school.

Northampton Parish Priest Fr Larry Rodillas cleans up his cyclone-stricken residence. Photo: Supplied.

Fr Rodillas braved the storm with only the clothes on his back and a torch to guide him towards St Mary’s in the turbulent conditions.

“I prayed to find my keys, which thankfully I found. I stayed in the school overnight till morning, just my torch and myself. I couldn’t sleep because I heard a lot of noise from outside.

“The next morning was red alert, I went to find food at the grocery store, but the shelves were empty. I went back to school for my protection; the bishop asked me to return to Geraldton to stay at his residence once the red alert lifted.”

Now that the recovery is underway, Fr Rodillas hopes to celebrate Mass in a parishioner’s house.

“The Holy Spirit is here as we help one another,” he affirmed.