Today, my first thoughts and words must be with those who have suffered so much because of the storms of the last month: the men and women whose farms and homes have been flooded, isolated or evacuated, whose livelihoods have been threatened, and who have spent long, anxious days and nights afraid of and mesmerised by the weather forecast of rain, rain, rain, and the heartbreak it brought. As a country and as a Government, our hearts went out to them in every community so affected.
On my visits to those people - in Athlone, Foxford, Gort, Labane, Craughwell and south Galway - I saw for myself the devastation, both of their peace of mind and their property. From young mothers to older people, many were upset at what happened. I made it clear then, as I do now, together with the Tánaiste, that the Government stands with them and that we will give them every support and assistance possible as they rebuild their lives. From the outset, the Government's priority has been to protect life and then infrastructure, property and businesses. The national co-ordination group, which is composed of really good people, has met 30 times since 3 of December. Our response has involved almost every arm of the State.
Today, as well as recognising the magnificent resilience of the people directly affected, I want to acknowledge the outstanding work and dedication of the staff of the local authorities, the Office of Public Works, the Defence Forces, the Civil Defence, the Coast Guard and the Red Cross, who worked endlessly and tirelessly throughout Christmas in the most difficult and atrocious circumstances. I want to mention especially the local volunteers, who gave up their own comfort, families and Christmas to give practical, emotional and psychological support to their neighbours and their communities. It meant giving up houses, transferring animals and making, day after day and night after night, sacrifices they would not normally have to make. Often it takes the worst of circumstances to bring out the best in people. They filled and transported sandbags and they gave out warm, dry clothes, hot drinks, meals, and beds not just for the night, but for the duration. In many cases they coped in battling with nature itself, their efforts sparing businesses and homes from being flooded. Those Members who were involved will have seen at first hand the enormous power of the swollen rivers. These volunteers were the difference and made the difference, and in doing so, made their country proud. The community response was and is magnificent. The Government is responding and will continue to respond.
This crisis came from most unusual and unprecedented levels of rainfall over the past month. November saw average rainfall levels of between 130% and 190% across Met Éireann's network of weather stations. In December, we had an entire winter's rain in just one month, making it the wettest December on record. The rainfall was also exceptional in its persistence and its force. In addition to flooding, the storms had a major impact on essential services, including supplies of power and clean drinking water. Since the start of December, ESB Networks has reconnected over 350,000 customers, frequently in atrocious weather conditions. Great credit is due to those people. When people were being warned to stay put, the ESB crews were putting on the weather-proofs and heading out to do essential work. Irish Water responded to over 200 incidents where there was a risk to the delivery of drinking water and wastewater services. The storms resulted in 15,000 calls for assistance to local authority helplines. As the waters rose, almost 600 households were evacuated. Almost half of these houses have now been reoccupied, but that is cold comfort to those who are still waiting to come home.
From the start of these storms, the Government has been crystal clear that we will provide all necessary help and support to the communities affected not alone in terms of the practical and physical immediate help, but, for example, in the Department of Social Protection being on the ground to advise on vital financial help available through the humanitarian assistance scheme. To date and already, the scheme has paid €235,000 in emergency payments to over 270 households for white goods, clothes, beds, essential furniture and so on. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine has introduced several critical measures to address the impact of the storms and flooding on farms. These include relaxing the rules around the movement of livestock, guidance on flooded slurry tanks, the deferral of inspections and the provision of emergency feed, by airlift if necessary. In view of the likely long-term damage to fodder supplies, a fodder aid scheme for flooded areas has also been introduced, with compensation at market level for losses. As we know, small businesses have been badly hit. That is why a simple but effective scheme has been introduced and is operated by the Red Cross and local authorities. This fund, which has access to €5 million, has received over 130 applications to date. Undoubtedly, the greatest burden and responsibility for the clean-up will fall on local authorities.
In addition to the €18 million already allocated, we have asked local authorities to estimate the damage caused to public infrastructure. Many roads, bridges and culverts were washed away or damaged to a great degree. Once the information and accurate costs are presented to the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, the Government will respond to the need so that local authorities can carry out these works, be that raising roads, fixing roads, fixing potholes, or restoring bridges or road structures where they are damaged.
To date, there have been 2,686 deployments by the Defence Forces to assist local authorities. In addition, local authorities are working together to share resources, staff, plant and equipment, including pumps and sandbags. Lessons are learned in all of these events. Clearly, every flood brings its own consequence. The co-ordination group and emergency groups have now got a really effective plan together and that became apparent during the course of the recent floods.
Since 1995, the Office of Public Works, OPW, in co-operation with local authorities, has constructed 36 major flood defence schemes at a cost of €500 million. Five further schemes are currently under construction, with 26 more at the stage of planning and design. Of the 7,000 properties protected by the OPW's completed major urban schemes, fewer than 20 were affected by flooding, which shows the impact of constructing a flood defence to the highest standard. For example, across the water in Carlisle, where nearly £40 million was spent on flood defences that just did not work, thousands of homes were flooded. In fact, despite record river levels, towns that were previously vulnerable, such as Clonmel, Mallow and Fermoy, avoided any significant flooding. That was due to defences that were well built. In Fermoy, these defences were put in place on seven occasions during the recent floods.