This week Ex-Hurricane Ophelia directly struck Ireland causing widespread damage and chaos. This is regarded as an exceptional event, the worst storm in recorded Irish history. The National Emergency Coordination Group (NECG) were reported in the Irish Examiner as saying, “Trees falling and taking down powerlines is the main cause of power outages and road blockages. At the peak 385,000 homes and businesses were without power.” The chaos and disruption has been extensive, and the ESB (Electricity Supply Board) advise it will take up to 10 days to reconnect all customers.
So, is this an act of God, or should we have been better prepared? Of course there were tragic outcomes and much damage that was clearly unavoidable. But we need to examine whether the widespread disruption to peoples’ lives was actually an acceptable outcome.
I live in West Cork – directly facing the Atlantic and aptly named Roaring Water Bay; one of the areas hardest hit by Ophelia. Back in the early noughties I had a visit from an ESB maintenance crew. They arrived without notice and, while being very polite made it perfectly clear they had the right to enter my property and lop the top off a tree that in their opinion was overhanging the electricity supply. I had no issue with this and the problem was quickly sorted and they went on their way.
Later on I learnt that the ESB employ linesmen, engineers that literally walk the overhead supply network checking the integrity of the system, identifying potential problem tree growth or loose poles. Remember the song, The Witchita Linesman? You get the idea.
Now fast forward to today. After Hurricane Ophelia had passed over I examined that same tree that the ESB crew trimmed some 15 years ago. Sure enough it appeared to me that once again it would represent a real threat to the supply line if it came down. So I ask myself, “where are the ESB linesmen?”. Given the uncontroversial statement that “trees falling and taking down the powerlines” is the main cause leading to days or weeks inconvenience or worse, why were these trees not subject to normal ESB linesman checks and maintenance action?
We need to ask the ESB whether the spend on linesmen and maintenance crews has remained static or increased or decreased over the past couple of decades. Or whether they made explicit policy decisions to reduce planned maintenance to improve the ESB accounts on the basis that one time exceptional cost might be treated differently, perhaps by government intervention or insurance.
Hurricane Ophelia is clearly a natural phenomenon. But the impact and amount of disruption are not. I heard the responsible government minister speaking on radio blaming both cause and effect on Climate Change, suggesting we need a huge infrastructure budget over the next decade or so to ensure this doesn’t happen again. I suggest he is entirely incorrect. While we can never avoid tragic accidents and incidents of major damage, we can mitigate the worst effects of the storm by proper maintenance. The question is, have the ESB actually made matters worse by reducing linesmen and maintenance crews to reduce costs and resources. If so they should be held to account.