Electricians working in disaster recovery
When disaster hits, local communities need electrical contractors. Here are some real-life accounts of contractors who helped their communities in their time of need.
“I love a sunburnt country, of droughts and flooding rains,” writes Dorothea Mackellar in her famous poem, My Country. The trouble is that flood, fires and storms can, and often do, cause huge amounts of damage to our country.
Rebuilding efforts during disaster recovery can be complicated and costly, and electricians are often on the frontline of cleanup efforts. With weather-related disasters forecast to grow more frequent and intense, it pays to know how to navigate a flood, storm or fire zone – and what you can do to aid the disaster recovery effort.
Ground zero: Getting the power back on
When flood-prone Lismore in northern NSW was inundated by its worst flood on record in 2022, Aaron Hunt, who runs Hunt Electrical Co, watched the waters rise from a vantage point in his house on top of a hill. “It was a matter of waiting until the water went down,” says Hunt, who is a customer at CNW in Ballina.
Then came the biggie – the most important thing electricians can do in any weather-related disaster situation: getting the power back on safely.
“Once the water went down, the local supply authority, Essential Energy, went around to houses and if the switchboard had been under water, they disconnected power at the pole top. If the switchboard didn’t go under, they just disconnected power inside the switchboard,” Hunt says.
In the meantime, a group of local contractors had set up a meeting place in the car park of a local bowls club to help the recovery from disaster. Residents who’d had their power cut off were connected with volunteer electricians.
“We were doing what we could to get power restored to homes as a priority,” Hunt says.
“Usually, the quickest way of doing that was to disconnect the entire house, replace what we could in the board, bypass the meter because the meters had been underwater, and just put two power points in the switchboard.
“Then we’d lodge a certificate of compliance and send it to Essential Energy. They would come around for free and start reconnecting houses one by one.”
It was a similar situation after the 2019 Townsville flood, one of the Queensland city’s most serious natural disasters, and powerful Cyclone Yasi, which ripped through in 2011.
“When something like this happens, no one really knows where to go or what to do,” explains John Horan, Managing Director of Townsville-based Horan & Bird, and President of Master Electricians Australia.
“After the flood, once the water was gone, we had to get in there and disconnect everything that had been affected, and get power back on to the houses if we could – just temporary power for them to get through until the builders could get in there and fix everything.”
Hunt says communicating with the local supply authority is crucial during disaster recovery. “In our area it’s Essential Energy, so the biggest thing was to touch base with them initially and ask what they wanted us to do. We’re out here in the trenches – what do you need for us to do to get power back on safely?”
And it goes without saying, but let’s say it anyway: electricity is dangerous when there are floodwaters around. “Reach out for help, especially if you’re in an isolated area. Find out as much information as you can, rather than rushing in like a bull at a gate,” Hunt says.
Helping with the recovery effort
Once the initial shock subsides, communities affected by weather-related disasters are often faced with a long and expensive cleanup. Horan says it’s important for contractors to remain empathetic.
“It’s a very emotional state for everybody, especially for the people who have just lost their home. You need to be able to have some compassion and emotional intelligence to work with them, keep them calm and get the job done,” he says.
Many contractors volunteer their time if finances and logistics permit, especially in the first few weeks, and it’s not uncommon for reinforcements to travel from further afield.
“We have had a lot of our members from different areas fly in and help out local electricians, lending them vans and tools to try and help as many people as possible,” Horan says.
Help can also extend beyond electrical work. Horan says that after the Townsville flood, contractors were pitching in to assist the community with jobs like removing ruined furniture from houses.
“We spent days doing this kind of thing,” he says.
Eventually, there comes a time when contractors need to resume charging customers, Hunt says.
“Some people were charging right from the start as they had families to feed – you can't judge them. I did one or two weeks of volunteering work.”
As recovery efforts begin in earnest, there can also be opportunities to partner with community organisations. Hunt has teamed up with Resilient Lismore, a grassroots charity supporting the town’s recovery effort.
“I’ve been doing what’s required and then sending them the invoice,” he says. “Sometimes the owners are paying half, and Resilient Lismore is using their funding to pay the other half, and sometimes they’re paying for all of it.”