During the period from 13 December 2013 to 6 January 2014, Ireland was subjected to a series of severe storms that affected the country approximately every three days. In addition to the strong winds, there were periods of extremely heavy rain and a great deal of thunderstorm activity. These storms coincided with high spring tides and created severe and damaging conditions in a number of coastal areas.
Last Tuesday, I brought to the Cabinet an interim report on the storms that was compiled by my Department in its capacity as lead Department for the response to severe weather. All areas of the country were affected by the storms, with damage to buildings, fallen trees and outages of the electricity and communications networks. In the week from 30 December to 6 January, high tides coincided with the storms and, consequently, the west coast was severely impacted, especially counties Clare, Galway, Mayo and Kerry, with coastal damage and damage to the roads infrastructure.
Met Éireann issued level red severe weather warnings for four days during the 24-day period from 13 December 2013 to 6 January 2014, warning of severe winds and high seas. A further 11 days during that period were covered by orange level warnings. As well as featuring in broadcasts to the public, Met Éireann issued these warnings to all local authorities, transport agencies and other relevant Departments and Government agencies. Met Éireann, which is under the aegis of my Department, provides strong support for the utilities and emergency response community. Its new colour-coded severe weather alert-warning system for the public proved appropriate and effective in raising awareness of the weather conditions for the duration of these weather events.
Responses to emergencies, including severe weather events such as storms, are managed at local level by the principal response agencies, namely, the local authorities, An Garda Síochána and the HSE, and co-ordinated in the case of severe weather by the local authorities. These arrangements operate in accordance with the framework for major emergency management, which was adopted by the Government in 2006 and are well embedded in the relevant organisations. The Government appreciates the co-ordinated response of local authority, utility and emergency services personnel who worked, frequently in difficult circumstances, to maintain the safety of those threatened and to restore services to those affected by the severe forces of nature during the holiday period.
During the storms, disruption was experienced across the full range of transport services, including road, rail, ferries and air transport. The safety of road users was of primary concern and the Road Safety Authority, RSA, was active in issuing advice and warnings to the public through the media. While normal traffic patterns were disrupted, with major routes affected by fallen trees, debris and flooding at different times, the impacts were not as severe as were felt with previous severe weather events.
Rail services were disrupted due to a number of incidents, including the collapse of the roof at Kent Station in Cork. At other times, services were delayed due to fallen trees and debris blown onto the lines. In every case, Irish Rail put alternative travel arrangements in place to minimise the disruption.
In air transport, flights needed to be cancelled or diverted or were delayed across all three State airports due to the strength, direction and gusting of the wind. Ferry services were severely curtailed, particularly the Swift ferry services. All disruptions over the period were managed effectively by the relevant transport authorities. The Coast Guard was active in engaging in the safety information campaigns to both the maritime industry and the general public about the risks associated with the storms. As a result of increased awareness, incident levels within the recreational sector remained approximately normal compared with other years, notwithstanding the severe weather conditions.
Damage was caused to public infrastructure, including roads, bridges, culverts, piers and harbours, coastal tourism infrastructure and coastal protection facilities. Initial estimates of the cost of the clean-up and the repair and restoration of public infrastructure were provided to the Government in the interim report and are of the order of €65 million. The cost of repairing roads infrastructure is estimated at some €20 million, €35 million is estimated under the general heading of coastal works and €10 million is estimated for a range of other costs, such as tourism infrastructure at beaches. Some €41 million, almost two thirds of the total estimate of €65 million, arises from two counties, those being, Clare and Galway, reflecting the severe impact of the storms along the west coast.
Local co-ordination and delivery of clean-up and restoration works will be led by the local authorities.
Clean-up works and immediately necessary repairs are under way in many areas. At the request of the Government, my Department is contacting local authorities to seek more detailed reports by 14 February on the envisaged repair works, including related costs. This will enable the Government, through the specific areas of responsibility of relevant Departments and agencies, to support the local authorities on recovery measures.
In the meantime, the Government is exploring all possible sources of funding to meet the costs which have arisen from the storm damage, including contact with the EU about a possible application under the solidarity funds programme. The EU Solidarity Fund was established by the European Union to respond to major natural disasters and to express European solidarity with disaster-stricken regions within Europe. The fund was created as a reaction to the severe floods in central Europe in the summer of 2002. A major disaster is defined as damage estimated at more than €3 billion or 0.6% of GNI. In Ireland's case, this would amount to €770 million. The fund provides aid for public emergency operations such as the immediate restoration of infrastructure and plant, the provision of temporary accommodation, the funding of rescue services, the immediate securing of preventative infrastructure and the immediate clean-up of disaster-stricken areas.
In exceptional circumstances, however, when the damage is below this threshold, an application may be made, but only where a region has suffered an extraordinary natural disaster affecting the major part of its population and with serious and lasting repercussions on the living conditions and the economic viability of the region. Assistance in such exceptional cases is at the rate of 2.5%. Moreover, while two thirds of applications are made on the basis of exceptional circumstances, most fail. An additional factor is that, for the budgetary period 2014 to 2020, the annual budget for the fund has been halved from €1 billion to €500 million and the European Commission has indicated that future grants are likely to be 50% lower than previously. In 2009, Ireland made an application to the fund. On that occasion, however, total damage was estimated at around €520 million. This resulted in a grant of €13 million from the fund. Any Government decision on an application to the fund will be made once the full cost of damage has been assessed.
Private property was affected by these storms also. We await information from the insurance industry on the scale of damage to homes and businesses affected. Department of Social Protection officials, through their exceptional and urgent needs payments systems, provide immediate support to households affected by emergencies. These payments cover immediate needs such as clothing, food, bedding and emergency accommodation. The Department of Social Protection also has a humanitarian assistance scheme to assist people whose homes are damaged by flooding. This is means tested and is intended to assist those who are not in a position to meet costs for essential needs, household items and, in some instances, structural repair as a result of the flooding damage.
Once again, these storms illustrate the power of nature and the impact it can have on society. Our co-ordinated response arrangements have developed significantly in recent years and worked well again on this occasion. As we are now in the recovery phase, we await more detailed information which will underpin the plans for the funding, co-ordination and delivery of the necessary work programmes with a view to the timely and effective delivery of a programme to assist the communities worst affected by the storms.