top of page

Storm Response

Thank you, Madam Speaker, and I thank Mr Milligan for bringing this very important motion before the Assembly. The thunderstorm that hit West Belconnen on Monday, 3 January, was significant, with very strong winds and large quantities of medium-sized hail. The winds toppled trees across several suburbs, and the hail smashed glass and filled rain gutters, leading to leaks and flooding. That night, 7,518 customers were without power, and thousands of households remained without electricity for three or more days. Full restoration of service did not occur till Sunday afternoon.

I heard from dozens of affected residents in the immediate aftermath of the storm, and I have continued to hear from them in the weeks since. Most have been disappointed – many deeply so – by the government’s response to this emergency. Concerns raised with me fall into three broad categories.

First, poor communications. I have been repeatedly told that information from both the ACT Government and EvoEnergy (which is majority owned by the government) was inadequate. Whilst updates were placed on social media and broadcast on the radio, residents without power had difficulty accessing such information, especially as the power outage dragged on and on and mobile batteries ran out.

Online updates from EvoEnergy were often wildly inaccurate, promising that power would be restored to certain suburbs later in the day, but then this didn’t happen. This misinformation left residents confused and unsure how to act when it came to executing their own emergency plans. People who signed up for SMS updates from EvoEnergy report never receiving them or, worse, being notified that their power had been restored even when it hadn’t.

The government finally opened an information hub in Higgins 48 hours after the storm, but the existence of this hub was not well known, with many West Belconnen residents telling me that they never would have known if I hadn’t told them. On the third day of a widespread power outage, relying on Facebook and Twitter to get the word out is a low-effort and inadequate approach. When the hub was opened, 2,400 households remained without power. The location of these houses was known, making something like a letterbox drop feasible, but nothing like this ever happened.

Second, and related to the first concern, residents have raised serious issues about the lack of a coordinated response designed to prevent the most vulnerable falling through the cracks. To reiterate, by 5 January, government-controlled EvoEnergy knew the location of the 2,400 households that were still without power, but this government took the decision not to have its Community Recovery team knock on a single door or visit a single street. I wish to emphasise that the very real risks inherent in this decision were well known. On the third day after the storm hit, the government posted the following on social media, quote:

Please look out for your neighbours at this time, especially whilst many are without power. Let them know where to get help … Not everyone will have access to this message, as they may not have power or a social media account. Please pass on this information.

Great advice, Madam Speaker, but simply not good enough.

One Canberran related to me that, on the fourth day after the storm, a terrified elderly woman ran out of her house seeking his assistance. Her husband was dependent on a lifesaving device that was about to fail, and she had no idea where to turn for help. We have no idea how many other people, like this couple, felt completely abandoned by this government.

The third concern relates to the slowness of the emergency response. Residents had been without power for two full days before the government finally opened its information hub. In the beginning, the services provided there were minimal, though eventually showers and laundry facilities were added. As already noted, restoration of power took a very long time for a significant number of households. Residents have asked me whether the ACT Government or EvoEnergy sought help with this task from across the border. Others let me know that they had personally experienced quicker emergency responses after far more serious tropical cyclones.

At the end of last week – fully one month after the storm hit Belconnen – we were told that 23 workers from the government’s Parks and Conservation team had been assigned to help with storm clean-up. This week in Question Time Minister Steel clarified that this step had doubled the number of workers assigned to the clean-up. He also noted that, quote, a ‘dedicated storm response coordinator has also been appointed to strategically manage resources’.

The obvious question is why it took this government nearly five weeks to appoint someone to coordinate its response to a storm that is still causing difficulties for West Belconnen residents. And why did it take nearly five weeks to shift some workers around? One ACT public servant shared with me his surprise that he wasn’t immediately assigned to help with clean-up the day after the storm. That’s a very good question, one that suggests a serious lack of government coordination … or commitment. At this point, Madam Speaker, it appears that Tonga, with a population roughly the same as Belconnen’s, will have finished cleaning up from the largest volcanic eruption of the 21st century before Labor and the Greens have managed to finish cleaning up from a single thunderstorm.

In conclusion, I share two other bits of common feedback that I have received. First, people who live in dual-fuel households have expressed their gratitude for the reliability of the gas network. Having natural gas appliances during a week without electricity allowed at least for cooking and water heating.

Second, residents overwhelmed with damage to trees and gardens have made it very clear how grateful they are that the Canberra Liberals halted and then reversed Minister Steel’s stubborn determination to close down green waste recycling in Belconnen.

Madam Speaker, we clearly need a committee inquiry to look carefully into these and other related issues. As residents have said to me, the response to January’s storm has left them deeply worried what might happen if a bigger or more widespread event were to happen in Canberra.

I commend this motion to the Assembly.


Recent Posts
bottom of page