How Ergon energised Townsville after the flood disaster

Ergon Townsville
The Hermit Park Substation under water

By Emma Oliveri, senior corporate communications advisor, Ergon

When Townsville was swamped by catastrophic floods, even the veterans in Ergon Energy’s ranks had never experienced anything like it.

Area manager Wayne Alderman has been involved in emergency planning and disaster response since the mid-1980s, including severe Tropical Cyclones Larry, Yasi and Debbie.

The Ergon crew on Anderson Street

A long-term resident of Townsville, this time he was at the heart of Ergon’s response.

“To help people in need is always gratifying, but to do that in your home town is something to cherish,” Wayne said.

“I was really proud of how our team and our community pulled together in a crisis, the likes of which we’d never seen.”

When flash flooding caught Bluewater residents by surprise on Wednesday, January 30, the Ergon team swung into action, quickly de-energising the network to allow swift water rescue crews to operate safely around overhead powerlines.

While houses went under and vehicles floated away at Bluewater, it was still business as usual in the North’s biggest city; but a sign of things to come as record-breaking rainfall relentlessly continued in the Ross River Dam catchment.

Within a couple of days Townsville was declared a disaster zone and Ergon dusted off rarely used flood plans for a city that had been in the grip of drought.

Ergon Townsville
Railway Estate flooding

“We prepared switching sheets in advance so that we could de-energise parts of the network in low-lying areas at short notice if it became necessary for the community’s safety. We pride ourselves on having a plan for every scenario, but this was unprecedented and unpredictable and we had to be prepared to turn on a dime,” Wayne said.

With one eye on the weather and another on assets at risk of inundation, Ergon worked closely with emergency services and the Local Disaster Management Group to keep everyone safe around the electricity network – customers, first responders and field crews.

“It was a case of monitor and act, sometimes without warning,” Wayne said.

“While we often had to de-energise at short notice in these exceptional circumstances, we did our best to keep the community informed every step of the way through the media and social media.

“We kept repeating the message that electricity and water don’t mix, so people should be prepared for power interruptions. We explained that not only would turning off electrical assets in the flood zone keep the community safe, it would reduce the risk of damage to the network that supplies them, which would in turn make restoration quicker when the water receded.”

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As floodwaters continued to rise at Hermit Park and there were reports of children playing in the area, Ergon took no chances, and didn’t hesitate.

“We switched off the zone substation,” Wayne said.

“Every decision we make, every action we take is with safety in mind.”

Ergon Townsville
Padmount damage

It was a nail-biting time for everyone as the dam reached 244.8 per cent and the Ross River peaked at 42.99 metres.

At the peak of the flooding, 17,000 customers were without power, most of them de-energised for public safety reasons.

In newer riverside suburbs like Idalia, large sections of the underground network had been inundated with muddy water and clogged with silt.

As soon as floodwaters receded, Ergon crews were out in force assessing, draining, drying, cleaning and repairing assets, including 1700 pillar boxes, 180 padmount transformers, 50 high-voltage switching units and substation equipment. 

Built for a 100-year flood event, the Oonoonba substation was spared despite the rest of the suburb being swamped. But Hermit Park sub wasn’t so lucky.

In the worst affected areas, crews did door-to-door inspections, pulling fuses on properties where the water level was high enough to have damaged switchboards and other electrical installations.

Ergon Townsville

“Our priority was to restore power to critical infrastructure, health services, shops and schools to help restore a sense of normality for a community in crisis,” Wayne said.

“While customers were keen to get the power back on to aircons, fans and cleaning appliances, we explained that we could only re-energise the network when it was safe to do so and that flood-damaged properties would have to be inspected by a licenced electrical contractor.”

While field crews did some painstaking work in muddy, hot and humid conditions around the clock, the Customer Operations Team went into overdrive taking faults and emergency calls, keeping life support customers informed and processing Electrical Work Request forms so that power could be reconnected to every single property as soon as possible. 

Teams from every corner of the company supported the all-in response, including Ergon crews from more than 800km away, and reinforcements from sister company Energex, who drove 1100km from South East Queensland to assist.

Ergon Townsville
Townsville suburb Oonoonba

The community response was overwhelming.

“Customers’ patience, understanding and support was truly amazing,” Wayne said.

“People who’d been impacted big time were coming out with food and drinks for our crews that were out there helping them.”

The above-and-beyond efforts from the public were reflected in the efforts of restoration teams.

“One of our crews went to the aid of an elderly gentleman who’d collapsed, and another team member returned to the street he’d been working in that day to deliver a hot meal to an elderly couple,” Wayne recalled.

“Then we had the selfless employees who were out there helping the community get back on its feet when their own homes were a mess.”

Ergon had already set an ambitious restoration target when the area manager took it up a notch.

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“My wife works at Bunnings and one afternoon I noticed the badge on her shirt that said ‘We’ll beat it by 10%’. I wore it to work the next day as inspiration for the restoration effort and pretty soon everyone was on board. 

“Little things like that drive people to achieve, not that the team needed any more than knowing they were helping people get their lives back together,” Wayne said.

24 hours ahead of the target and just seven days after the devastating flood peak, power had been restored to all impacted customers where it was safe to reconnect.

The community showed its appreciation on Facebook:

  • We know you guys have had a huge week & appreciate all your efforts. You got our power back on 2 days earlier than expected and made a lot of dirty, hot people very happy. Love ya work.
  • I nearly kissed the Ergon guy today – you have done such a great job!
  • Mammoth effort, Ergon! Thanks to those working tirelessly and away from their families to get us back up and running.
  • You all restore our faith in humanity. Thank you so very much x

The feedback meant everything for a company whose vision is to ‘energise Queensland communities’, and it’s a vote of confidence that will carry through into refining future approaches for the benefit of the community.

“We have learned so much from this event and will adjust our plans accordingly, but overall we’re proud of what we achieved with the support of the community during a disaster that will go down in the history books,” Wayne said.