Left in the dark

2010-02-19 00:00

IRATE city centre residents spent their third day without electricity yesterday, as a result of a power melt-down that saw explosions at at least three different sub-stations.

Ward councillor Peter Green believes the cause of the blackout is an ageing, unmaintained electricity infrastructure being overstressed by too many illegal connections.

Fuses were short and tempers were running high after three days without power. Residents were angry at the municipality’s empty promises. “If they don’t know what time the electricity is going to come on they must say they don’t know or shut up, instead of giving us false hope,” said an irate resident.

Another said he phoned early on Wednesday morning and was told the power would be on at 10 am. “At 11.30 I phoned again and was told that it would be on at 1 pm, It did come on briefly at around 12 pm but by 12.30 it had broken down again and has remained off ever since.”

The affected area is from Boshoff Street down to Masukwana (East) Street including Bulwer, Prince Alfred and Burger streets. Residents in this part of town all have their stories to tell about their personal suffering over the past three days.

However, none more than the 100 frail and vulnerable people living at the SAVF Old Age Home at 400 Prince Alfred Street.

Manager of the home Henry Spencer said the elderly residents have had no hot water to bath or shower for the past three days. Food in the freezer room and fridges has all gone bad.

A number of wheelchair-bound residents who were on the ground floor when the problem occurred have not been able to get back to their rooms on the upper floors, and they have had to sleep on mattresses on the floor.

To make matters worse expensive medications will have to be thrown away because there are no fridges where they can be stored at low temperatures.

Spencer said that unlike the more affluent old age homes, SAVF cannot afford standby generators, emergency lighting or solar heating. “There are no lights at the home, we make do with a few torches owned by the nurses. This darkness has imposed silent sombre prison-like conditions on elderly people who deserve much better,” he added.

Spencer said he was told that the power breakdown was because of illegal connections. “This is an inane excuse. Everyone has known about the problem for years and [has] done nothing about it.”

Speculation is rife as to the cause of the blackout. Fed-up residents are convinced that they are suffering because of alleged incompetent municipal staff who lack the experience to carry out the repairs.

“Why is it blowing up each time it is being repaired, do they know what they are doing?” asked one.

After seeing municipal staff who were working on a site replaced by an outside contractor, he believed they were replaced because they could not do the job.

But Green dismisses allegations of incompetent staff. He said he was with the technicians late into the night. Many had worked for almost two days in a row, snatching sleep whenever they could. In the end they were exhausted and this was why a contractor was brought in.

The councillor is convinced that the massive outage is because illegal connections disrupt the power balance of the system, causing sparks (flashes) to fly in the central distribution units (CDUs). He said that every time there is a flash, carbon dust is deposited in the CDU. Without regular maintenance this deposit builds up, eventually catching alight.

He said electricity was restored at about 12 pm on Wednesday, but a short while later there was a major burnout at an electricity unit in Retief Street. According to Green, the subsequent delay in restoring the electricity was because the cables were burnt right through the ground and workers had to dig deep and for some length along the cable line to find an unburnt section to be able to reconnect the system.

Msunduzi Municipality’s process manager for electricity, Maxwell Mthembu, disputes Green’s version. He said the initial problem was caused by a fault and has nothing to do with illegal connections.

Mthembu said by yesterday they had restored 95% of the electricity in the city centre. However, the remaining area was left without power because of two faulty cables at one of the sub-stations. “Eventually we decided to run an above ground temporary cable. The only problem is that there are going to be some unhappy people because we are going to have to switch off the electricity for at least half an hour tonight in sections where it has been restored in order to connect the cable,” said Mthembu.

By 10 pm, power had been restored to most consumers.

Green said the only way to avoid such massive outages in future is to:

* Attend to the illegal connections as a matter of urgency * Put in place a very strong monitoring team

* Find the money to start maintaining the ageing electricity infrastructure.

*Put pre-paid meters in all new houses.

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