“There are no words”: NSW flood victims gutted as just 5% of disaster grants approved

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Thousands of business owners in northern NSW are cleaning up in the aftermath of the floods. Source: AAP Image/Jason O'Brien

Northern Rivers locals are dismayed — yet unsurprised — that just 5% of all flood grants have been approved in the aftermath of the February flood disaster that ravaged homes and businesses in several regions of NSW and in south-east Queensland.

Resilience NSW has so far signed off on 400 disaster relief grants, even though almost 8000 requests for help have been lodged since applications opened earlier this month.

The state government has rejected 657 bids for relief worth $12.15 million, is assessing some 2900 applications worth $46.9 million, and waiting on more information from 3298 applicants with claims amounting to $62.2 million.

Byron Bay local and flood recovery coordinator Odette Barry says “there are no words to describe the disappointment” about the figures.

“To learn that only 5% of the applications have been granted is sadly not a surprise given the dire lack of action that has been demonstrated from day dot with this climate disaster,” she told SmartCompany.

“Our flood-ravaged communities haven’t been quiet, despite the fact that business owners are operating in survival mode, often losing both businesses and their homes. We have been up to our elbows in mud, moving ruined furniture, tools and equipment to the curbside to be tossed in landfill.

“And yet, while enduring some of the toughest days of their lives, our business community has been screaming out for help from the government and yet, Scott Morrison couldn’t even take the time to meet with business owners when he visited the area.”

Up to $50,000 in flood grants were offered to small businesses and not-for-profits that suffered direct damage in the NSW storms during February and March, as long as they were operating in a defined disaster area. Queensland has a similar relief package on offer.

It was divvied up into two lots — an initial grant of $15,000 based on evidence of direct damage and quotes for repair and reopening costs, and an additional $35,000 to reimburse business owners for the costs — like hiring tradespeople or cleaners, removing debris or sodden stock, repairing the premises, purchasing clean up materials or equipment, leasing a temporary place to work from and repairing work vehicles.

The $434.7 million support package was supposed to be a “first phase” of support for affected communities, the federal government said at the time.

NSW shadow spokesperson for Emergency Services Jihad Dib told SmartCompany thousands of flood-affected businesses are stuck in limbo awaiting the grant.

“If you look closer at the details — the $50,000 that is available is actually a reimbursement. Businesses have to spend the money first on repairs and rebuilds before they are reimbursed,” he points out.

“The problem is they don’t have the money in the till to spend up front and so no support is coming through.”

Dib went up to Lismore on Sunday with NSW Opposition Leader Chris Minns and shadow spokesperson for the North Coast Walt Secord to meet with the local member Janelle Saffin and local businesses.

“The stories we heard were heartbreaking,” Dib says.

“Business owners have told me they are on the verge of collapse because access is not simple, practical or timely.”

Yet Barry struggles to comprehend how victims of the disaster could’ve made their pain and anguish more clear to the government.

“The business community has been quite clear that this is a climate disaster and radical, decisive and progressive action is required to support the business community to rebuild. The delay in funding only adds insult to an already traumatic experience,” she says.

Barry, who runs local PR business Odette and Co, says one thing that has become abundantly clear as flood victims pick up the pieces of their sodden lives.

“If there is a lesson that we must take from this experience it is that we urgently need a thorough review of the significant delays in emergency services and then ongoing disaster relief,” Barry says.

It comes as Lismore was ordered to evacuate by 10pm last night amid a life-threatening flash flooding risk, after the Bureau of Meteorology forecast up to 200mm of rain and winds up to 90km/h in the town and surrounding areas Grafton, Coffs Harbour, Port Macquarie, Sawtell, and Dorrigo.

“Our community is barely holding on, particularly in the last 24 hours with the second round of evacuation and flood warnings as the rains continue to fall on the region,” Barry continues.

Amid the evacuation order, NSW Labor Leader Chris Minns expressed solidarity with the ravaged northern NSW communities on Twitter today.

“Lismore has been evacuated again — my heart goes out to this incredible community,” he wrote.

Further north, Queensland Labor Senator Murray Watt shared his disappointment that just 400 disaster relief grants had been greenlit, saying “the announcement is all that matters to Scotty”.

Resilience NSW was approached for comment.

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