Lake Macquarie Electorate Storm Damage

5th May 2015


Mr GREG PIPER (Lake Macquarie) [7.10 p.m.]: Mr Deputy-Speaker, I take this opportunity to congratulate you on your re-election and reappointment to the position of Deputy-Speaker. Following the member for Holsworthy, I too wish to speak about the storm and tempest in April. I use my first speaking opportunity in this new Parliament to inform the House about the impact of the recent east coast storm in my electorate and region and to pay tribute to the volunteers and emergency services personnel who worked tirelessly to help people recover from the damage and disruption brought by the unexpectedly savage storm.

I was in Sydney preparing for the resumption of Parliament when the storm hit. Although I had been aware of weather forecasts of high wind, as the Premier noted on his visit to affected areas of the Hunter afterwards, the ferocity and duration of this weather event caught us all by surprise. Driving home along the M1 on Tuesday in the still intense winds and driving rain, I was stunned to see the impact of the previous night's tempest. I have since learned that winds reached up to 135 kilometres an hour and that between 300 millimetres and 400 millimetres of rain fell on parts of the Hunter during the critical period. The force of the storm was equal to a category 2 cyclone and it blacked out some 225,000 properties.

Close to my home the extent of local damage became apparent: there were huge trees across roads; powerlines were down, leaving suburb after suburb without power; and parks and green spaces were a mess with uprooted trees and widely strewn branches. It was immediately apparent that this was going to be much more than a 24-hour crisis. Reassuringly, however, amid all the chaos an army of emergency workers in distinctive high-vis vests had already begun to amass. Tarpaulins were being stretched across gaping holes in roofs and people with chainsaws were clearing driveways and cutting toppled trees into manageable pieces. Meanwhile, electricity teams that were hoisted high in cherry pickers busied themselves at the top of power poles, defying the threatening winds and, later that week, electrical storms.

The volunteer army alongside our professional emergency services did an outstanding job to restore order and sanity to our region over the following week. As is typical, many of the volunteers and workers left their families at home in the cold and dark while they tended to the problems of others. Neville and Sandy Koch from Mandalong Rural Fire Service, a couple I know well, were at the height of the storm out clearing the M1 of fallen trees and debris. They spent the rest of the week helping others before finally pausing to assess the considerable damage to their own small acreage that was caused by flooding and the uprooting of 28 large trees.

In terms of resources and requests for assistance, this was an unprecedented storm and flood event. It exceeded all other events on record, including the June 2007 Pasha Bulker storm and the 1999 Sydney hailstorm. The State Emergency Service [SES] received more than 8,000 requests for assistance across the region, including 2,947 in Lake Macquarie. In my electorate the Cooranbong unit alone received 770 requests for help. The SES drew on the services of around 700 volunteers in total, including some from interstate and other emergency services. Lake Macquarie Rural Fire Service volunteers assisted the SES with 1,743 jobs. Crews from Ausgrid, Essential Energy, Hunter Water, local councils and other government agencies also worked tirelessly. In some cases they are still on the job.

But a crisis like this is not just about physical damage. With power out for up to a week or longer in some places, people began to run low on food. For many, the isolation of being stuck in a blacked-out home without the electrically powered devices that keep us in contact with the world began to take its toll particularly on young parents and the sick or elderly. Some local community groups really stepped up to the plate in this regard. I make particular mention of the Southlake Neighbourhood Centre at Morisset, which invited members of the community in for cups of tea, hot soup and sausage sizzles. It also organised food parcel distributions, offered its single shower to anyone in need of a hot soak and allowed people to charge their mobile devices and use its computer facilities. Local gyms and clubs opened their facilities to people without power. The Bonnells Bay Salvos, led by Captain Tim Gittens, held a "pot luck" dinner with donated dishes, and OzHarvest and Lifeboat Community Services distributed food parcels. These small but significant gestures meant a lot to people.

Understandably, the experience exposed some gaps in the response process. I think it is important that community groups and government now regroup after the event to review procedures. That is not to detract from the outstanding efforts of those who contributed to this recovery, but if we can draw from the experience to improve our capacity to cope when next confronted by a similar emergency situation then all the better. Fortunately, there were no fatalities in Lake Macquarie as a result of the storm event; however, there were fatalities in other areas. I speak for the people of Lake Macquarie when I offer my heartfelt condolences to the families of those who lost their lives in Dungog and Maitland. I again express my thanks to those who contributed to the recovery and congratulate them on a job well done. I wish retired Brigadier Darren Naumann, who is heading the Regional Recovery Committee, all the best and I thank the Government and the Premier for instituting this response.

Finally, things have moved quickly since 28 March. It would be remiss of me not to acknowledge the supporters who helped with my election campaign and those electors who saw fit to give me the privilege of continuing to work for the people of Lake Macquarie.

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