After hurricane force winds battered Auckland on Tuesday night, lines company Vector awoke to the task of rebuilding its severely damaged network. Minoru Frederiksens talks Don Rowe through the aftermath.
On Tuesday night a severe storm tore through Auckland, cutting power to more than 100,000 houses across the region. Whole suburbs went dark as trees were blown over, crushing cars, splitting fences and taking the powerlines down with them. Tonight thousands of homes remain without light or heating, with overloaded communication systems feeding incorrect or incomplete information to a populace taken unawares by the hurricane-force winds.
As the city prepares for another night of strong winds and power outages, Vector energy head of Network Programme Delivery Minoru Frederiksens explains how things got so bad, and what Vector are doing to get Auckland back on the grid.
Can you describe from Vector’s end what specifically happened to the network and what that looks like on the ground in terms of damage?
Obviously this is a pretty major storm, the winds getting up to 200kmh, which is hurricane force. Contextually if you look at some of the stuff that’s happened overseas a lot of countries are out for weeks, so there’s a bit of context in the size of it.
It’s the biggest storm we’ve had since 2007 – you have to go back then to get something which is as major as this, so it’s been a while. Most of the damage was done in the space of about 10 minutes, around 9.30ish on Tuesday night. There was some really big gusts came through and that’s just what took everything out. Basically all the trees fell over, if you want to describe it simply.
When we’re sending the guys out to start doing repairs there are trees down across roads, trees across powerlines, trees ripping the lines and poles down, so we’ve been working as quickly and as safely as possible to remove those trees and get the lines back up again and people back to power.
The easy stuff we’ve got to; this morning we started to get into more complicated stuff, which takes longer to restore. Obviously from the customer perspective that starts to get frustrating because it’s been over 36 hours now, but we have mobilised a lot of crews from outside of Auckland to assist. So we haven’t spared any effort – it was just a very big storm.
Do you believe the city was adequately warned?
It’s a difficult one because when we’re looking a day or two ahead and we get the final numbers, the predictions we were looking at were around 120, 130kmh, so we knew we were going to have something going on. We did go through our storm preparation procedures in the morning on Tuesday, but we were caught out a little bit by just the sheer scale of it. The huge gusts are what got people.
Could it have been predicted better? I don’t know. It’s a forecast at the end of the day, and you just make your best preparations in terms of the information you have at hand.
Do you think media hype around other weather events, which never really arrived, led to complacency this time around?
We don’t look at it that way, because it is a forecast and we take each of those seriously. I can’t speak for others, but certainly from a Vector perspective we get this information and we act upon it. At the end of the day we had to rearrange a few things to make sure crews are available at the right time, but we just don’t want to get caught out. It might look to outsiders like we’ve been totally caught out, but it’s just the sheer number of outages and impacted circuits.
To give you a bit of context we did a calculation this morning in terms of overhead lines impacted, it’s about 2,500 kilometres – that’s the sort of length that the guys are having to inspect to make sure they’re ok, and repair before they’re energised.
What does that recovery effort look like on the ground? Being a linesman is obviously a dangerous job. What are these guys going through?
The first thing for them is to figure out if lines are still live. They’ve got to test it to find out, and that’s why we keep telling the public if you see a line on the ground not to approach them, to keep away until we can get ourselves or an emergency service there to cordon the area off. You see the stuff in films where things are sparking, but oftentimes they don’t. The first thing is to make sure those areas are safe.
Once they can establish that it’s electrically safe you have to figure out whether trees are going to fall over, run a risk analysis. The process at every restoration is the same, but every situation is different. The guys can do a little bit of work in terms of cutting small trees away, but some of these trees are huge, 30-40 metre trees weighing tonnes. Then we have to get professional tree crews in to shift them.
What they need to do then is to assess things like whether a pole is going to tip over, as the wires have been pulled down to the ground. They need to make an assessment as to the integrity of it. All of these things unfortunately take time, but the idea is to get in there, do it once and make sure it’s safe for both themselves and the public. Wind is a real big factor. During the initial storm our guys just couldn’t be working. With 120km winds you can’t put a ladder up, or an elevated work platform, as there’s a huge risk those things can topple over – and obviously our guys would get injured if not outright killed. We have to think about those things.
There are reports today of people with health conditions receiving incorrect advice regarding whether or not they’d have power at home. What’s Vector’s response to that?
In terms of medically dependent people we appreciate it’s especially difficult. But typically those people will have a response plan that they work out and they should act on that. If we can’t get the power back and it’s an issue in terms of the application not giving updates, the prudent thing is to call emergency services and get assistance. When we get phone calls we do what we can to take into account that these people need power as quickly as possible but we have priorities to get through, and trying to get to individual stuff is very difficult when there are that many outages.
How do you believe Vector has handled the situation overall?
There are always learnings, and I think the key one is that our app didn’t scale as much as we’d expected it to cope with. Having said that, when you look at the size of the outages, we haven’t seen anything like it in 11 years and the app has only been around for a couple years. That would be the key learning – we thought it would be able to cope, clearly it hasn’t, and while we can’t fix it today or tomorrow, certainly once we get past this particular storm that will be one of the key items on the list to address.
And I think communication is something we’re always looking to improve. We’re always looking for better ways to communicate and sometimes the primary method is not available, as we found out. So it’s about having more channels available to give people options in terms of how we communicate with them.
Are there pockets of outages that are worse than others? I imagine there are areas of lower priority, can they expect longer delays?
The extremities in the north and south and areas which are more rural and harder to get to because of the lengths of the lines. Those are the ones that will take longer to restore. When you’re in the city it’s much easier to get around, the other thing is we’ve got more options in the city from a technical perspective to rearrange the network so we can back-feed, whereas in rural areas it’s what we call a radial network, so the line goes out a line way and that’s the end of the line – so there’s no parallel line that we could potentially rearrange the network to. That puts a constraint on it, and it’s also just a physical, geographical thing and the nature of electrical distribution around the world.
For people who are sitting around thinking what the hell are Vector doing, people who are justifiably frustrated having been without power for some time, what would your message be?
The key thing is that we’re trying to get it back as quickly as we can but some people will be out potentially for a couple of days. So if you’ve got friends or family with power, try and stay with them if you’re able. If you can, get more supplies in terms of gas for your BBQ, torches, lights. Minimise opening your fridge and freezer to try and avoid all of your food going off. Those are the main things that I could suggest.
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People need to appreciate just how much damage has been done. We’ve tried to put up photographs of some of the damages to show that our guys are working under really trying conditions. It looks like the weather is going to pack it in again tonight, but the guys will be working up till the point it’s no longer safe. They’ll be working in pretty adverse conditions. Put it this way, I wouldn’t want to be out there.
The weather tonight isn’t looking great. What’s the outlook within the teams about the next 24-48 hours?
It doesn’t look like it’ll be as severe as Tuesday night, but again there will be short, sharp blasts which will mean we have to stand the crews down for periods. So unfortunately another hard, bad day, and there may be people who experience new outages because trees that have been weakened and damaged on Tuesday may come down tonight.
This interview is partner content funded by Vector