Mogo Nursery owners praise community spirit but South Coast faces difficult recovery

Mogo Nursey owners Gayle Smith and Phil Mayberry, who say while the recovery after the fires has been tough, the community spirit has been a real positive. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos
Mogo Nursey owners Gayle Smith and Phil Mayberry, who say while the recovery after the fires has been tough, the community spirit has been a real positive. Picture: Dion Georgopoulos

"For all the dark clouds, there has definitely been silver linings."

That's how Mogo Nursery owner Gayle Smith sums up the past year.

On the last day of 2019 Mogo, and nearby coastal areas, were hit by the Clyde Mountain fire as it moved south east.

Media reports told those who were yet to return and investigate the damage themselves that Mogo had been completely destroyed.

While multiple properties were destroyed and more still damaged, many survived, primarily in the southern end of town.

Ms Smith and her partner, Phil Mayberry, were two of the lucky ones.

When they made their way back to town after a southerly wind change fanned the fire north, they discovered the nursery they established 38 years ago was still standing.

Homes and businesses in Mogo were destroyed on New Year's Eve 2019. Picture: Karleen Minney

Homes and businesses in Mogo were destroyed on New Year's Eve 2019. Picture: Karleen Minney

Miraculously, their 1870s era timber home had also been spared, as had Ms Smith's second business, the Mogo Bowerbird Garage.

"We knew it was coming for such a long time, so we weren't really surprised [when the fire hit]," Mr Mayberry said.

"But we were surprised by the speed and ferocity of it."

The couple stayed at their property until they could hear gas bottles exploding at properties up the road. They escaped to Broulee where they sheltered with many others on the beach.

Even though the buildings remained, there had been damage and the couple, like much of the South Coast, faced three weeks without communication and power.

"The rest of the world knew what was happening but we were blacked out," Ms Smith recalled.

More uncertainty, for businesses and residents alike, followed the fires when the COVID-19 pandemic locked Australia down.

However, the gardening boom that accompanied the pandemic proved to be a shot in the arm for the Mogo Nursery.

It meant Mr Mayberry and Ms Smith were able to get back on their feet quicker than they perhaps otherwise would have.

But this has also led to feelings of guilt and unease when they know so many in the community are still struggling.

Mogo Pottery was destroyed in the fire but is being rebuilt exactly as it was on the same site. Picture: Karleen Minney

Mogo Pottery was destroyed in the fire but is being rebuilt exactly as it was on the same site. Picture: Karleen Minney

According to Broulee Psychology director Stacy Shepherd, the bushfires and pandemic have left South Coast communities facing a mental health crisis.

Ms Shepherd said that while on the surface the region appears to be recovering, with businesses boosted by increased travel to the coast, there continues to be an unprecedented level of demand for mental health services.

"There is a tsunami of people begging for help," she said.

"We are flooded and we can't help everybody, but we just do the best we can."

She said the anniversary of the fires had been a trigger for some people to experience more acute mental health issues and there were still many in the community struggling in silence.

There were issues with a lack of psychological care on the South Coast, as with many regional areas, prior to the bushfires, Ms Shepherd said. Since the pandemic hit, Broulee Psychology has employed three remote psychologists, two in Melbourne and one on the Sunshine Coast to help with demand via telehealth.

But Ms Shepherd said the crisis could only be solved by more professional mental health services being available in the region. It was going to take considerable time to help ease the community's burden, she said.

Her message was for people to seek treatment if necessary and be flexible with treatment options.

Of the Mogo businesses lost in the fire, about half couldn't face the prospect of rebuilding from scratch and have left town, according to Mr Mayberry and Ms Smith.

Despite the visible pain, Ms Smith said one of the year's silver linings was a shift back to community where people looked out for and supported each other.

Mr Mayberry became emotional recalling the actions of locals and visitors who have supported them during a difficult year.

"Just strangers caring so much they wanted to come up and give you a hug," he said.

Mogo still has a long and difficult rebuild ahead.

But just as it defied the odds to remain standing when most assumed it was wiped out, Mogo appears determined to defy the odds again to come back stronger.

This story Silver linings found among Mogo's dark clouds first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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