“I was surprised at how vulnerable I actually felt. I was surprised at the level of anxiety I felt. What did I learn? That I need to be better prepared for next summer.” Ewan (44) – a small business owner and East Gippsland resident.
When catastrophic bushfires swept through parts of East Gippsland in late 2019, entire communities were suddenly forced to realise how critical energy and energy supply were to their immediate safety, their ability to live their lives and their confidence in the ability of their communities to withstand future disaster events.
The Connections That Matter is our attempt to capture how individuals and communities are truly impacted during and after a destructive event – and with that information begin and advance a national conversation about the resilience of the energy system and the resilience of communities.
Part of that is probing how to better plan for the ‘before’ – making sure both communities and those who maintain and operate the system are better connected and prepared for a future when catastrophic events will be more frequent and more likely due to the impact of climate change.
This longitudinal study, compiled by experienced social researcher Nicola Heppenstall from The Insight Centre, tells this story through the experiences of 20 residents of these communities. Each was interviewed in the immediate aftermath of the fires and then twice more over the following year. Their stories are told in their own words and using their own photographs to illustrate the experiences they describe. The insights generated form a rich text that can be used by decision makers in the energy system to work towards better planning, better communication and better connection with local communities in areas that are vulnerable to this kind of event.
They are also a powerful testament to the courage, the openness and the dogged persistence of people and communities who – through incredibly difficult circumstances – have fought to preserve their homes and lives and those of their neighbours. Mostly, they share a rightful expectation that these events should deliver learning and improvement that leave them better prepared for the next.
Our focus as an organisation is around how the future energy system we are working towards might better support and engage with similar communities around Australia, adapting to the changing environment to better withstand and rebound from future crisis events. But this must also be a wider discussion that involves other actors and industries (including telecom, water, fuel), government and related organisations. It is time for a new kind of constructive conversation about resilience. One that extends beyond the boundaries of the energy system to the many other systems that overlap with it and affect the lives of everyday people.
This report is part of the ongoing ‘community listening’ activity that Energy Consumers Australia carries out each year. The reason we do this is simple: We cannot advocate on behalf of household and small business energy consumers if we do not understand their needs, values and expectations.
We are pleased to share this important report with you and to begin the conversation about how to respond to some of the opportunities it identifies. We are also incredibly grateful to the people of East Gippsland who shared their stories with us.