Six months on from floods, 60% of affected businesses are still waiting for a disaster relief grant

floods insurance

Thousands of business owners in northern NSW faced a brutal clean up in the aftermath of the floods. Source: AAP Image/Jason O'Brien

The NSW opposition has slammed the Perrottet government’s sluggish flood relief rollout as two-thirds of flood-affected businesses in the state wait on disaster payments.

In the wake of the February flood disaster that devastated northern NSW and southeast Queensland, the state and federal governments announced a jointly-funded $434.7 million disaster relief package.

Flood-affected business owners and not-for-profits were able to apply for up to $50,000 to help recover, rebuild and reopen, while primary producers could get up to $75,000 under the scheme.

It was welcome news to victims as the flood disaster quickly became the most expensive Australian flooding event of all time, with claims across both states totalling up to $3.35 billion.

But yesterday a parliamentary inquiry into the flood disaster heard less than 30% of small business grant applications have been paid out, while more than half were deemed ineligible.

Opposition Emergency Services, Energy and Climate Change spokesperson Jihad Dib was dismayed by the figure, calling it “completely unacceptable” that businesses were still waiting for help nearly six months on.

“Every time I have visited the region and met with local community members and small business owners, it’s the same thing that gets raised; desperately needed grants are frustratingly difficult to access because of processes that are so impractical to navigate,” he told SmartCompany.

Plus, Dib says, ruling out sole traders from the disaster recovery grants was “tone deaf” to the business makeup of the northern NSW region, which has many creative pockets in areas like Byron Bay and Lismore.

“People got left behind because the government didn’t appreciate the business environment on the ground or the fact that key documentation got washed away,” he said.

Opposition Environment spokesperson Penny Sharpe told the inquiry she had spoken to many flood victims who were distressed that key documentation required for the grant applications had been ruined in the disaster.

“The level of frustration and distress as a result of being asked for paperwork that they no longer had was extraordinary.

“I just cannot overstate the level of trauma within the community,” Sharpe said during the inquiry on Wednesday.

Dib continued that the lack of on-the-ground knowledge and the inconsistent advice from the government compounded the disaster for many victims trying to keep businesses afloat while they picked up the pieces.

“We’ve heard during the flood inquiry that the same mistakes were made during the bushfires and COVID-19,” he said.

“Small businesses can’t afford a government which won’t learn from its mistakes.”

Resilience NSW commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons was in the hot seat yesterday when probed about the rescue and relief work the new disaster agency undertook in the aftermath of the flooding.

There were several instances of ordinary citizens assisting in rescues using their own boats, helicopters and even surfboards — but Fitzsimmons responded that it was a resourcing issue for his team.

“We’re not a 24-hour organisation. We don’t have thousands of personnel, we’ve been doing extraordinary hours, we’ve been running after-hours arrangements,” he told the inquiry.

“With only a couple of hundred people we just don’t have the scale of resourcing or the role to sustain 24-hour operations during the response phase, particularly of those events.”

But Dib says it falls woefully short of what one would expect from a disaster-focused agency in the event of a disaster and called for a closer look.

“Given the response to the flooding disaster has fallen well short of community expectations, we need detailed scrutiny of the role and grant-delivery model of Resilience NSW,” Dib said.

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