The weather could be turning the corner but flood devastation continues. Yesterday severe weather and flood warnings were in place from Queensland to Victoria. Thousands were evacuating their homes, including in western Sydney. Many residents are questioning the disaster response and some politicians are calling for the federal government’s cyclone reinsurance scheme to be expanded to cover flooding.
“I’m 50, been around a while - this is the worst that I've ever seen by a long way,” said Chris Dougherty (pictured), insurance general manager at Westlawn Insurance Brokers’ head office in Grafton.
Dougherty said the impact around Lismore is unprecedented.
“Lismore’s been nuked,” he said. “The water's gone into places where it's never ever gone,” he added.
The brokerage has nine branches across northern NSW. Dougherty said their Lismore, Casino and Murwillumbah offices were all underwater.
“So the Grafton levee didn’t overtop. It went to about 7.6 meters when the levee overtops at about 8.2 metres. But further downstream in smaller communities it went over the levees in those locations,” he said.
Dougherty said the water rose about three metres higher than during the last major flood in 2017.
“The basin, which is where the CBD is, south and north Lismore – it all went underwater. We're talking over rooftops,” he said.
Much of the town, he said, was completely underwater. He said they’re very busy dealing with flood impacted customers.
“It's a lot because our offices spread through the whole region. We're just fielding [flood related] calls all day every day,” said Dougherty.
He said most of the businesses in his coverage area don’t have flood insurance.
“Out of the businesses, the majority won’t [have flood insurance], for a number of reasons. Either they can't get it, or it's too expensive,” he said.
However, Dougherty said “a lot” of domestic properties will have flood cover.
“But there'll be pockets where it was too expensive, where they opted out,” he said.
One of those areas, he said, is south Lismore.
However, he said in his experience, the standard flood cover available in places like Lismore does cover damage resulting from levees overflowing or failing.
“If you've got it, yes, it will,” he said. “I’m talking houses again. It's included or not included and if it is included, you’re good,” said Dougherty.
The Westlawn general manager said there are a couple of insurers who give the option to opt out of flood cover.
“I've seen quotes where, say it's three grand to cover your house without flood cover, it could be 15 grand to include it,” he said.
“The problem,” he added, “Is that for the communities or the areas that really need it, it’s going to be expensive or unaffordable and often the people who live in those areas struggle to pay it,” he said.
Dougherty said the problem is not just unaffordable flood insurance.
“Look it is a problem but I think the wider problem is more the government response. It’s five years since the last big one and what's happened since then? I don’t know,” he said.
He compared the flooding to cyclones in north Queensland.
“It’s a bit like cyclones in north Queensland, it's going to happen and insurance companies probably can't pick up the bill every time unless there's some sort of spending on keeping those communities safer,” said Dougherty.
He said another problem is housing developments in areas that can be flood impacted.
“Especially new developments. Some people have been approved to build above a certain level and then that's become insufficient. So there's a lesson there somewhere!” said Dougherty.
Higher levees, he said, are not a full proof answer. Dougherty pointed to Lismore and its history of flooding at different river levels.
“So I'm not sure if a higher levee will fix that or not,” he said.
Dougherty said the clean-up started in some areas at the end of last week.
“So essentially people have just got to start cleaning up and keep a record and as soon as insurers can get there, then assess the damage,” he said.
“There's a lot of a lot of sad stories there you know. You're trying to give them some idea of when someone [from the insurers] can get in touch,” he added.