FOR all the tens of thousands of trees brought down across South Gippsland and Bass Coast during last Wednesday’s storm, it’s been the loss of power to 40,000 homes, businesses and farms in Gippsland alone that’s had the biggest impact.
Towns without power were shut down and business operators lost upwards of another day’s trade they couldn’t afford to lose.
Thousands of litres of milk went down the drain and cows couldn’t be milked.
People drove around in their cars just to charge their phones.
There was no ‘Triple Zero” call access and hospitals were left in the dark when generators failed.
And homeowners in many parts of South Gippsland and Bass Coast were reduced to camping in their own homes, without power for the fridge, the freezer, heating and lights.
By Monday this week, there were still 4000 homes and properties without power including 113 properties at Buffalo, 39 at Dollar near Foster, 14 at Tarwin Lower, 48 at Inverloch, 45 at Foster North, 10 at Foster, 10 at Woolamai, and 40 at Leongatha; just to name a few.
Many of those without power in the Dumbalk-Stony Creek area have brought in small generators to keep fridges and freezers going while using camping equipment to cook a meal and make a cup of tea.
“The power’s still off here but we’ve had a lot of help. We’ve been able to borrow a generator from friends and we’ve had a lot of people up here to give us a hand with the fallen trees,” said Chris Stone at Dumbalk East.
The driveway entry to their farming property was completely blocked by several large trees and it took almost three hours for one of their sons to make the drive out from Leongatha, with 100s of trees and flood water across Nerrena Road and Farmers Road, via Meeniyan, just to offer help.
Works crews from AusNet Services have worked day and night since the storm in an effort to restore power and on Monday morning, they were at Dumbalk repairing the main substation and high-voltage lines into the town.
By lunchtime, the job was done, but there was still a lot more to do.
Manager Government Relations at AusNet Services Steve Brown spoke to ABC Gippsland on Monday morning, apologetic that it might not be until Thursday or Friday until the power is restored in some places.
But he underscored the scale of the task statewide saying there were fewer than 20,000 outages in the East Gippsland fires of 2019-20 whereas more than 200,000 homes, businesses and farming properties had been blacked out by last Wednesday’s horrific storm event.
“At the moment we are in the area outside Leongatha and Foster, making repairs. Our helicopters were up yesterday, and they saw a lot of damage done by that storm in the Boolarra area and so apologies to the people out that way. It’s going to take some time to get the power back on there so we’re out there now, and we will be doing everything we can to get the power back on as quickly and safely as possible.
“Out at Buffalo they’re still off and it’s going to be a couple of days before we get things back on.”
Mr Brown spoke about relief and recovery centres being set up, including by the Bass Coast Shire at Cowes and the Wellington Shire at Yarram.
“So, we are putting things in place for the people that have been off for five days now and maybe off for few more days so there’s still a bit more work to do.
“We apologize, you know, it’s terrible, it’s the fifth morning the people have had to wake up without power, but we will keep at it and with a nervous eye on the weather later in the week.”
Asked how many people were on the ground right now trying to restore power, Mr Brown acknowledged that there were fewer Ausnet works crews rostered on Monday.
“So, we’ve got about 178 people on the ground this morning. We’ve had over 280 on some other days but some of our crews have been working flat chat and we’ve had to rest a couple of crews because you don’t want people who are fatigued working with live wires.
“But we do have additional crews arriving throughout the day from elsewhere in the state and from other companies.”
Mr Brown said he also expected crews from interstate to arrive to support the efforts of the local linesmen.
Asked where the works crews were focusing their efforts on Monday, he said it was principally in the rural areas outside of Leongatha and Foster.
“There are plenty of smaller townships and communities and properties out that way still to have the power restored so we’re going to try to get them back on. It’s these last 4000 that we are working on now, down from the 40,000 properties in Gippsland that we started with five days ago, but it’s these last 4000 sort of stubborn, hard-to-get-to places that require a lot of work to reconnect a couple of houses here and there, and farms so we’re very apologetic. We understand that it’s been a rough couple of days. On top of a rough 18 months but we will be there, we will get to you, so hang in there, and meanwhile the government is setting up some recovery hubs.
“We’re making sure that there’s batteries and torches and places to charge your devices and making sure there’s a supply for food and sanitary stuff there as well.”
Asked how long before the last home or farm in Gippsland was reconnected, Mr Brown said he expected most people to be reconnected by Friday but encouraged people to go to the outage tracker website at https://www.outagetracker.com.au/ where the information on when to expect the return of power is updated.
“There are some towns in some areas where it might be Thursday or Friday, this week. We of course will do everything we can to get them back on sooner if we can, but the scale of the job is immense.
“So, it could be that long, unfortunately.”
Asked how many poles or the length of power lines that had been brought down by the storm and by trees, Mr Brown said he didn’t know but he still managed to underscore the extent of the damage.
“I don’t have that information to hand on I’m afraid I can say that 18 months ago, when we had the bushfires in East Gippsland, we didn’t have more than 20,000 people off, but this event, it took off 200,000 people so it’s 10 times as large in terms of the impact to the homes and businesses where we supply our electricity.”
National Party Leader Peter Walsh was the first leading MPs to visit the South Gippsland area, noting that restoring power to dairy farms needed to be a priority with such events.
“It is important that the government works with AusNet to get the power back on. If there’s dairy farms still with the power off, they’re an absolute priority because if the cows aren’t milked regularly, it can affect your whole year,” Mr Walsh said during a stop at Dumbalk.
He also said there needed to be a reassessment of how regularly the infrastructure was replaced.
“What you find in a lot of areas is that the power infrastructure is getting older and the pole replacement program it’s as fast as it should be.”