Two months after the costliest flood disaster in Australian history, business owners in Lismore, New South Wales say a sluggish response from insurers and the government, coupled with a lack of trade, have effectively stalled the recovery effort.
Torrential downpours in northern NSW and south-east Queensland in late February and early March inundated thousands of properties and caused damages exceeding $3.3 billion.
While the cleanup is all but completed, many small business owners are unsure when they’ll reopen their doors.
Flooding destroyed the ceiling and damaged the mezzanine level of Lismore’s Flock Espresso and Eats, one of many businesses shuttered by the disaster.
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Kym Strow, who co-owns the popular hospitality venue with her wife, Sarah Jones, says her building is still without power.
While electricity is now connected in the Lismore CBD, “the actual power boxes in your building need to be replaced,” she says, along with all the damaged wiring.
That process is yet to take place.
“That’s not the responsibility of the business, that’s the responsibility of the landlord,” she said.
“And then they’re waiting for insurance to come through. It’s not just as simple as ‘I’ll fix it now’.”
Insurance Council of Australia (ICA) CEO Andrew Hall acknowledged concerns over the claims process on Friday.
“We understand that there are sometimes delays and the industry is working through the current challenges,” he said.
As insurance providers mete out support, the ICA plans to hold an online town hall session for flood-affected policy holders this Thursday.
“The infrastructure to support businesses isn’t there”
Strow, whose cafe was severely damaged in the floods of 2017, said this year’s disaster also requires a stronger government response than years prior.
“Whole roads have been washed out, footpaths are missing. It’s not just a ‘clean and let’s go again’ scenario.
“The infrastructure to support businesses isn’t there.”
As flooding subsided, the NSW and federal governments also announced a $742 million support package, including $20 million in $200,000 grants “to assist with clean-up, essential repairs and replacement that are not covered by existing insurance”.
But information about the delivery of that funding to flood-impacted businesses is yet to materialise, Strow added.
“There wasn’t enough support in the cleanup, there wasn’t enough initial reaction or support and, there’s definitely not enough support from the government,” she said.
“It shouldn’t take this long to roll out a grant like that.”
Pushed to the side
With the federal election campaign in full swing, the flood cleanup was a sideline issue in Sunday night’s leadership debate.
The clearest message came from Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, who said the disaster was evidence Australia should take “serious action on climate change”.
Small firms in the Lismore region need to know “what we can do to minimise the destruction of our business, whether that flood mitigation, climate control”, Strow says.
“Small businesses don’t have the kind of capital to just keep going. There’s only so many times that you can lose things and rebuild,” she said.
But Strow was not surprised other issues crowded out the floods in last night’s debate.
“I think we all know politicians don’t like getting their hands dirty.”