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Grapple with this. One day you’re a linesman working for an energy provider covering a large part of regional NSW, everything’s pretty much cranking along and your customers are connected to the grid.

The next day you’re a lineman working for an energy provider that has 225,000 customers offline, power poles down, trees across lines, cross-arms destroyed and live wires laying on the ground from one end of the network to the other.

Welcome to last week’s east coast low and the huge impact it’s had on electricity infrastructure across NSW.

Welcome, too, to the crews who’ve been out there working 12-hour days in soaking rain and mud trying to fix the damage wrought by the ferocious wind and rain.

Meet Jon Olteanu; a field supervisor at Ausgrid’s Muswellbrook Depot.

For the past 10 days he’s been supervising three emergency line crews sent from Muswellbrook to Cessnock, Mulbring, Freeman’s Waterhole, Beresfield, Kurri Kurri, Greta and Maitland to restore power in the aftermath of the storm.

His Ausgrid colleague, Daniel Galvin, supervised another three crews despatched from the Muswellbrook Depot to various parts of the Lower Hunter.

It’s fair to say none of us can imagine what these men have been through to fix the power.

Jon said he’s been a lineman for 12 years and he hasn’t seen anything quite like the damage caused by the weather system that simultaneously hit the Hunter, Central Coast, Sydney and Illawarra regions.

“I’ve worked on power lines after the 2007 Pasha Bulker storm and, as far as the resources involved and the amount of damage caused, last week’s storm well exceeded the Pasha Bulker,” he said.

“The tree damage was enormous, you know, there were quiet cul de sacs with every tree knocked down.

“We had to cut trees to get access, we had to cut trees off the lines, and we had to cut trees across roads.”

An average day started with the linesmen leaving their Muswellbrook Depot around 7am and not returning until after 7pm.

They took with them a 23-tonne Elevated Work Platform, known as a “cherry picker”; a 24-tonne crane borer that digs the holes and stands the power poles; and a couple of crew trucks and a ute carrying tools, equipment and ladders.

Jon said a daily jobs list was issued out of Cessnock and the Muswellbrook crews were simply despatched to locations where they were needed.

“There was one day where we fixed half-a-kilometre of fallen wires, then we replaced a destroyed transformer, then we cleared fallen trees on the same line, then we patrolled that line and finally we repaired cross arms that allowed us to switch on a feeder,” he said.

“The priority was to get every customer restored and the high-voltage feeder lines servicing big blocks of customers were the starting point.

“The ground was so wet and soggy.

“It only took a puff of wind and the trees literally just fell out of the ground.”

One location where this happened was the Cyprus Lakes Golf Course at Pokolbin.

“A tall gum tree just toppled and fell against the wires and the only way we could get access was to set up our cherry picker on the 13th tee,” Jon told The Chronicle.

“But the management was great and said, ‘Look, we don’t care what you have to do, just do it, so we can get the power back on and get going.”

Before the crews got to most locations power had already been isolated and circuit breakers turned off by a district operator in Muswellbrook who was liaising with Ausgrid’s system control in Wallsend.

“The district operator was literally driving between power poles and substations and physically turning off switches.

“When our crews got to the damaged section we’d drive a stake into the ground and take a lead up to the main lines, most of which were 11,000 volts, put a short circuit across three cables and that would allow us to work safely in pretty average weather,” Jon said.

How average?

“These crews worked in some horrid conditions in the rain, wind, mud, traffic and dark and there was one day we were working near some chook sheds and they stunk, but that’s how chook sheds smell when they get wet, isn’t it,” he said.

“We got a Landcruiser bogged in someone’s front yard and a number of our heavy vehicles got bogged around Pokolbin, Cessnock and Mulbring, but given the circumstances we were pretty lucky.”

Jon said it was also heart-breaking driving between jobs seeing people trying to dry their furniture out in the front yard, trees through their fences, and their cars full of mud in places they shouldn’t have been.

“There was one poor bloke where a fallen tree had blocked his storm water pipes, so his house flooded and he had no running water,” he said.

“Then we came along and had to cut the power to his sub-pole so we could do extra work to get a feeder back on line and that meant he was going to be an extra day or two without electricity so that was hard.”

But Jon said people affected by the flood crisis were good to his crews.

“I never came across one person who was angry with us because they had no power,” he added.

“They were actually stopping their cars in the street and yelling out the window, ‘You’re doing a great job,’ or they’d give us the thumbs up.”

Above all, Jon said he was proud of his teams of linesmen.

“I couldn’t be more stoked about how well our blokes worked; they were fantastic.

“To see a bunch of guys turn up every day in those conditions and show such commitment to help total strangers in trouble and follow OH&S and not get injured was amazing,” he said.

So, if you’re out and about and you happen to bump into the staff at the Muswellbrook Depot you might want to tell them they’re okay.

The work they’ve done with a thousand other linesmen from NSW and Queensland has been nothing short of incredible and, while there’s a huge mess still to clean up inside houses, in backyards and along roads, all but several thousand of the 225,000 customers whose power was initially cut have had it restored.

That’s not a bad effort in anyone’s language.


By Catherine Clifford for the Mullswellbrook Chronicle