As the Minister responsible for the co-ordination of the emergency response to the severe weather, I welcome the opportunity to make this opening statement. As we all know, we have experienced an unusually long sequence of severe weather and flooding events since mid-December 2013, through the early weeks of the new year and up to the present. Here, in the second week of February 2014, we are being hit by storms, and due to the unstable weather patterns which we are encountering, Met Éireann has forecast more stormy conditions to come, including a level orange storm alert for Dublin and surrounding counties this evening.
Our response systems have worked very well and I recognise and thank all involved, including the local authorities, the Garda Síochána, the Civil Defence, the Irish Coast Guard and all our emergency services. I also acknowledge the Trojan work done by volunteers and others who have assisted their communities.
The severe weather we are experiencing is unusually prolonged. Given the strong winds and high seas today, Met Éireann has issued a red level warning for Cork and Kerry, and an orange level warning for the other coastal counties in the west, south west and south east. Red means people should take action to protect themselves and-or their property, and obey all safety instructions which may issue from the local and other public authorities. Orange means to be prepared for the conditions, exercise caution and monitor safety announcements. On foot of the conditions today, my Department convened a meeting of the National Co-ordination Group on Severe Weather at noon. This group will ensure that a whole-of-Government approach is in place to support and assist the principal response agencies at local level and speedily bring to bear any national resources which are needed. As always, our principal objective is to keep people safe.
The Government recognises the enormous impact of these events on people's lives, on infrastructure and on the coast. The storms that have rolled across Ireland have occurred over two time periods and have had distinctive features. We first had the damage caused by the Atlantic storms that occurred in the period 13 December 2013 to 6 January 2014, and then the storms in the period from 27 January to 5 February 2014, which coincided with high tides.
High winds and heavy rainfall in the lead-up to Christmas were followed in the first week of January by a series of deep Atlantic weather systems, which, in combination with seasonal high tides, caused significant damage, particularly along the western seaboard counties of Mayo, Galway, Clare, Kerry and Cork, which received strong tidal surges powered by the strong winds and low pressure. Major damage was caused to existing coastal protection and flood defences, roads, local amenities, tourism and community infrastructure. Counties Mayo, Galway, Clare, Kerry and Cork were the worst affected and coastal communities were hit hard. All of these counties suffered severe damage to their roads, harbours, piers, beaches, coastal protection works and tourism and community infrastructure. We all recall the images on television and in the newspapers in regard to the damage to roads, piers and beaches in particular.
From 27 January to 5 February 2014 we experienced a combination of astronomical high tides, high winds, heavy rainfall and low pressure, which created very strong tidal surges. This resulted in serious flooding in the south west, south and south east and, in particular, parts of the cities of Cork and Limerick were badly affected. In Limerick, the River Shannon burst its banks, causing extensive damage to houses in St. Mary's Park, where some 40 families have had to leave their homes. While many people from these households are being accommodated by their extended families, Limerick City Council has an emergency housing team in place and emergency accommodation has been sourced for any households who want it. The city centre business district in Cork city was flooded by two high tides. Cork City Council had taken the precaution of distributing 1,800 gel bags and over 650 sandbags but, despite these efforts and the efforts made by businesses, several premises were flooded. A number of other towns and villages along the south east coast were also affected. On Saturday last, 8 February, I had the opportunity to see at first hand some of the difficulties faced by communities in New Ross, Passage East, Dunmore East and Portlaw. However, in all of those areas, in the face of the many difficulties being encountered, I saw communities who were focused on positive and proactive solutions. I also witnessed first class interaction between the local and public authorities and local residents.
While the threat of tidal flooding has abated since last weekend, the risk of flooding in our long slow-moving rivers moved to the fore. Traditional settlement patterns have seen the growth of urban centres around our rivers, which leaves our towns and cities at risk of flooding. Farmlands, many of which are already inundated with water, are equally vulnerable. The rivers Shannon, Nore, Suir, Slaney, Barrow, Boyne and Blackwater, already swollen from previous high rainfall volumes, are in danger of breaking their banks if there is a continuation of the current unsettled weather patterns. All river levels are and will continue to be monitored closely.
The Government wants to help people and communities get back on their feet as quickly as possible. We want to assist in all practical ways, including financially. At its meeting yesterday, the Government considered a report on the severe weather. We decided that a sum of up to €70 million will be made available for a programme of repair and remediation works. This will enable local authorities in the areas worst affected by the storms, including the most recent flooding, to help affected communities by restoring roads, coastal protection and other infrastructure and amenities. The €70 million figure derives from estimates provided by local authorities and other agencies and is broadly broken down as follows: €16 million for roads; €20 million for restoring coastal protection infrastructure; €26 million for local authority infrastructure, tourism, amenity and community infrastructure, and piers and harbours; and €8 million for other transport and OPW infrastructure. This is in addition to the €25 million which the Government has already announced for the Department of Social Protection's humanitarian assistance schemes, €1 million of which will now be channelled through the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and the Irish Red Cross.
The Government will ensure that this money will be put to use immediately. My Department will convene a meeting of the other Departments and agencies involved with the local authorities concerned to set out the working arrangements in consultation with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. Local authorities have identified what needs to be done and they will be asked to bring forward timetables for repair and restoration programmes which prioritise works as necessary. This will be done as speedily as possible to enable local authorities to get on with what needs to be done.
The Government also noted an initial estimate that up to 500 domestic properties and more than 250 commercial properties have been damaged by the most recent flooding. Estimates of the damage to private property are not yet available from Insurance Ireland. The Department of Finance has been mandated to continue to liaise with the insurance sector and to report back on a range of issues which arise in regard to insurance and severe weather and flooding.
As regards possible EU solidarity funds, following discussions with the European Commission, the Government has noted that the impact of the storms does not meet the threshold conditions for EU Solidarity Fund assistance. The thresholds for regional and exceptional applications are also very high, and the EU budget has been reduced from €1 billion to €534 million per annum. The Commission has signalled this will mean grants for successful applications being cut from 2.5% to about 1.33% and, accordingly, we have decided not to make an application at this time.
The most important objective for Government is to ensure that the communities and people who were badly affected can recover and get back on their feet as soon as possible. Events like these are a severe test of resilience but I believe we are a resilient people. Government will support communities in the recovery from this severe weather. Resources will be allocated to keeping people safe during our severe weather and practical and substantial resources will go to helping communities recover in their aftermath. The National Co-ordination Group on Severe Weather will continue to monitor the situation and ensure that all necessary resources are deployed.