Operation Energise cleans up after Cyclone Debbie

Etu National

In cyclone-ravaged Airlie Beach, there are some new faces in town. Seven crews of sparkies and apprentices have hit the ground as part of Operation Energise, helping get people back on the grid who would otherwise be stranded without power.


In cyclone-ravaged Airlie Beach, there are some new faces in town. Seven crews of sparkies and apprentices have hit the ground as part of Operation Energise, helping get people back on the grid who would otherwise be stranded without power.

ETU volunteers are going door-to-door to community groups, pensioners, the uninsured and the unemployed conducting free safety testing so that people can be safely reconnected to the grid.

ETU Australia spoke to Brett Hanan - an ETU Queensland member and Operation Energise volunteer - about life in the aftermath of a natural disaster.

Brett and the Operation Energise crew

As they arrived in Airlie Beach, Brett and the Operation Energise got to work. Over the next two weeks, the crews would complete 200-odd jobs.

“The ad doesn’t go out in the local paper until tomorrow, but we’ve scoped out a few jobs this afternoon,” he said.

“We dropped in on some local sports clubs and tested and tagged a few things with water damage. In the sports grounds and clubhouse next door we went through and saw that two of the installations were okay to be energised. We went through and tested and tagged all their kitchens and cafe stuff so they’re right to do this weekend’s rounds. There’s an AFL game there tomorrow.”

“We’ll try to knock over some of the those big community organisations that will help a lot of people before moving on to help families and individuals who wouldn’t have any other option.”

Since Cyclone Larry in 2006, the Operation Energise volunteers have provided a vital function bridging the gap between distributor Ergon, who are doing street and town-level reconnections, and those people and groups in the community who don’t have the resources to pay for reconnection on their own side.

“Usually every two years or so we get a good cyclone come through,” Brett said. He has been taking part in Operation Energise as a volunteer since the Brisbane floods in 2011, alongside fellow ETU members Bruce, Cameron and Andrew Humphreys. 

“2015 was Cyclone Marcia in Rockhamption, and 2013 was Oswald in Bundaberg. In 2011 we have floods in Brissie and Yavi up north.”

“We are really trying to target the unemployed, uninsured, pensioners - people who are really stuck now. They’ve got a distribution entity that can’t connect them, but they also can’t cross the line to help them. They haven’t got two bob to rub together and they don’t know where to turn.”Airlie Beach sustained heavy damage during Debbie

One of the first jobs that Brett attended in Airlie was a young couple whose rental house - basically a fibro shack - had been totally destroyed. Their landlord’s insurance hadn’t written the house off, so it was a repair job rather than a rebuild. They were living in limbo, sleeping in a rented caravan next to their ruined house.

“Obviously we can’t do much about the house, but we can at least get a builder’s pole set up with a metered connection so they’re ready to rebuild. But they can’t afford to move anywhere.”

“If we weren’t there I don’t think they’d have got power back for a long time. It’s going to take months for approvals to come through and get builders onto the site, so at least we’ve been able to get them off the generator.”

The reaction that Brett and his crew-mates encounter from people they’re helping is naturally one of gratitude, often mixed with confusion that there is someone who wants to help locals out without getting anything in return.

“A lot of the reactions are disbelief. People don’t understand why you want to work for free. We explain that we are volunteering and sponsored and that lets us work without payment.”

Operation Energise crews ensure that their assistance is rendered to people who need it the most - those who would otherwise be stuck without a way to get back on the grid. They’re careful not to tread on the toes of the local electrical contracting community, who have a job to do at a busy time and don’t want work being taken away from them.

They buy all their supplies locally in order to support businesses in the community who have been affected by the cyclone, but they make sure to get a good price, explaining that they’re buying materials to effectively give away, and that they’re working for free.Operation Energise helps community clubs get back online after Debbie

For Brett and the other Energise volunteers, the entire experience can be a bit of an emotional rollercoaster.

“We’re on a high right now because we just got here. But as I explained to the young apprentices on the way up, it’s a wild ride,” he said.

“You get here with your chest out ready to help people. But after the first few days it wears off and you can get a bit sad. You’re here helping people, but [the cyclone] hasn’t happened to you. You’re there because you want to be, but it dawns on your what a massive thing people are going through up here and that can really get to you.”

“But then you cheer up again and get on with it.”

The initiative is supported by businesses who donate their workers, vehicles and apprentices to work on the operation. Powerlink Queensland, Stowe, Perigon and Electrogroup have all kicked in to get cyclone-affected groups back on their feet.

The experience is invaluable for young apprentices who get exposure to a kind of work that they often don’t encounter day-to-day working in a heavy industrial setting.

“We’ve got one young apprentice up here who’s late fourth year, about to do his capstone. Getting exposure to the kind of testing, repetitively, that we are doing up here is just awesome. We are running them all through the verification testing, AS3000 and AS3017 and they really appreciate it

One of the most inspiring things Brett has seen is the resilience of the communities that they’re working in.Operation Energise helps people put their lives back together

“We’re up here away from our families, but that’s really insignificant in the face of what’s happened here.”

“It’s humbling to be part of this. Proud is another word that comes to mind. I’m honoured to be asked to be part of something that helps a community like this get back on its feet.”

ETU Queensland assistant secretary Keith McKenzie told ETU Australia that Operation Energise was a program that the ETU was immensely proud of.

“Being part of a union means looking after people, and that’s what Operation Energise is about. When tragedy strikes Queensland, the ETU for those who don’t have anywhere else to turn to get the power back on.” 

“The Operations Energise volunteers on the ground are owed a huge debt of thanks. They work free in harsh conditions out of a desire to help and they’re heroes.”

"I'd like to give a special thanks to the main response crew of Brett, Bruce, Cameron and Andrew." 

"At the completion of the operation a barbecue to thank volunteers will be held at Queensland Parliament house and everyone who supported Operation Energise is welcome." 

He also thanked all of the organisational supporters of Operation Energise - Ergon Energex, Energy Qld, Energy Super, Perigon, Powerlink, Stowe and the Queensland Government.

“This isn’t something we do on our own. It’s an effort that we lead on behalf of a community of people and organisations who want to take care of people, and we’re extremely proud of it.”When disaster strikes, the ETU will be there


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