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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 12 Feb 2014

Recent Flooding: Statements

Thank you, Acting Chairman, for the opportunity to come to the Upper House to brief colleagues on a very important issue that has affected so many people in this country since the first week of January. As we speak, it is affecting people in the south west in particular. There is no doubt that we are going through an unprecedentedly difficult weather period which has affected many homes and businesses across the country. With that in mind, and given the scale of the storms we have had since the first week in January, the Government yesterday made a substantial announcement on the provision of an additional €70 million for remediation measures.

On behalf of the Government I join with many Members of this House and the other House in genuinely thanking the emergency services for the work they have done in the past seven weeks or so. I recently visited Limerick and saw at first hand the extraordinary volunteerism and effort of community groups and emergency services – the HSE, the Department of Social Protection, the Garda Síochána and the Civil Defence. We owe those people a great debt of gratitude because they are the ones on the front line who have been helping communities affected by the dreadful storms.

The Government made an announcement ten days ago concerning the initial additional amount required for humanitarian aid, which is now under the remit of the Department of Social Protection. A total of €25 million has been made available to help people in the most immediate way and also in a long-term way in terms of structural damage to homes where there is no insurance.

My area of responsibility relates to the Office of Public Works and to repairing the damage to flood defences and coastal protection measures. From reports received from local authorities we reckon that somewhere south of €20 million of additional moneys will be required to repair flood barriers and the capital schemes that might well have been breached during the recent storms. The package of money announced yesterday was €70 million across a number of Departments. Approximately €20 million of the €70 million relates to breaches in flood defences, which are the first port of call and the first emergency. Given the fact that high tides will emerge again in the first half of March, it is important that we get going to repair those damaged embankments and flood defences. I especially thank the Office of Public Works. We have more than 300 staff out in the field, as it were, men and women working hard to make sure that we repair that which is our responsibility and helping the local authorities in terms of capacity they need on small schemes around the country.

The first port of call of many local authorities is by way of application to the Office of Public Works by means of the minor works and coastal protection scheme. The scheme was established by the previous Government in 2009. Applications for funding can be made up to the value of €500,000. Since 2009 a total of €29 million has been spent on the scheme. A total of 430 small schemes have been advanced around the country by the Office of Public Works. It is the key scheme for local authorities which now need to repair damaged flood defences. My appeal to local authorities that have been affected by the storms is to get their applications in to us as soon as possible. We have given more flexibility in the scheme this year. I have given a firm commitment that we will prioritise those applications that come from the counties worst affected and we will turn them around within a matter of a week and no more than a ten-day period. The funding is given to the local authority, which then procures contractors locally or uses its own staff to do the work. The task of the OPW is to act as a funding agent on behalf of the State to use the minor works scheme as a means by which we can repair damaged flood defences. I appeal to local authorities today to get in their applications. I appreciate the fact that local authorities are under much stress at the moment, given that they are dealing with the emergency, but the way in which the schemes will be administered is by application to the Office of Public Works under the minor works scheme. We will turn it around and give local authorities the money, and they will get on with the task that is required.

In my recent visit to County Clare I saw in some cases that Clare County Council had started the works. That is fine because I gave a commitment that we would recoup the money to local authorities once the works have been completed. There should be no bickering or lack of clarity about the scheme. Local authorities should procure the work, get on with it and get it completed as soon as possible and we will pay for it even if there is a difficulty with the local authority. I wish to make that absolutely clear.

When people say there is no strategic policy approach I counter that by saying that we are in a very good position when it comes to flood maps in this country. The previous Government and this Government have signed up to the European-wide directive on flood relief. That means that by this year, for each of the six catchment river basins in this country, we will have a detailed map setting out the predictability of flood events for a one-in-50-year event, a one-in-100-year event and a one-in-200-year event. The maps will be published over the summer period, following which we will have a period of consultation on them.

These maps cover over 6,500 km of river channels and 90 coastal communities. Once there is agreement we will submit, by December 2015, a list to the European Commission of areas that require further consideration. We are talking about approximately 300 areas in the country which are at risk of or prone to significant flood damage. When I first took up my post with the OPW and met our engineers in Trim, I asked them how many areas we were talking about and they said there were somewhere between 250 and 300 hot spots. When we lodge our catchment by catchment plans with the European Commission next year, our task will be to set out not only where these 300 areas are but also the prioritisation within them. There is very clear methodology, in terms of a multi-criteria approach, to cost-benefit analyses. These 300 areas will be prioritised from one to 300 and the cost of the schemes attached to each of these areas will be worked out.

We are spending €250 million over a five year period on flood protection measures. Despite reductions in the capital budget generally, this is the one area in which we have seen no reduction. If anything, there has been an increase in capital spending in this area in recent years. In fairness to the previous Government, it ramped up expenditure on flood defences because there was a recognition that we had not spent, over a generation, the kind of money other EU countries had spent in this area. Our envelope is €250 million over five years. If we were able to start work on the 300 areas to which I referred tomorrow, we would be looking at a bill of somewhere between €1.6 billion and €2 billion. At the current rate of expenditure, it will take us just over of 35 years to have all of the necessary work done.

We face a big problem because of poor flood defences and the fact that planning and development took place in such a sporadic way for many years has added to the problem. We are now paying the price for the bad planning decisions made in the past. However, we are in a good position in that once we have the CFRAM maps, the catchment plans and the prioritisation of the 300 areas, we can set about, on a case by case basis, rolling out the necessary schemes, as we have done in other parts of the country.

The news is not all bad. Since 1995 the OPW, on behalf of the taxpayer, has spent almost €370 million. It has developed schemes, both big and small, all over the country. The problem in Clonmel, for example, which flooded regularly, has now been solved by work completed by the OPW. Problems in Ennis, Fermoy, Mallow and Dublin have also been addressed. In 2002 the cost of the damage done in Dublin as a result of the major flooding event was €65 million. As a result of works undertaken on the River Tolka and the River Dodder, the most recent high tide which was higher than in 2002 in Dublin caused damage along the seafront in Clontarf of approximately €100,000. We have gone from having a €65 million bill for flood damage in 2002 to one for approximately €100,000 in 2014. Why has that happened? It has happened because we invested in flood defences in Dublin. For every €1 we spend on flood defences, we get €3 back. I note that Senator Sean D. Barrett is in the Chamber and I expect him to talk about the economics of flood defences. There is a good economic rationale behind such spending. For every €1 we spend, the benefit in terms of dealing with potential damage is €3. Such investment also creates jobs, with 700 people working in the flood defences industry this year, both in the private and the public sector. Even though we have to wait for the CFRAM process to be completed, we have done a lot of work around the country already. By our reckoning, approximately 11,000 homes have been protected by way of the ongoing work being done on behalf of the OPW.

Coastal protection, it must be said, is more complicated. Our coastline is a natural phenomenon; the tide comes in and out, sands move and so forth. Some of what I have seen on my travels around the country in recent weeks and in the past three years has been alarming. Homes have been built right beside sand spits and along very dangerous parts of the coastline, which is absolutely criminal. Such developments are an invitation to problems. We must take a much more holistic view of coastal protection. We can certainly build up coastal defences by growing marram grass and other plants which help in certain tidal conditions. However, nothing we do will help in a situation like the one we saw in the Shannon Estuary two weeks ago. At 6.30 a.m. on a Saturday the poor people of St. Mary's Park and elsewhere were woken by a tidal surge which was 7 ins higher than the highest on record, dating back to 1961. No one could have predicted such a surge, with a combination of high winds, high tides, storms and prolonged precipitation. We need to take a holistic approach to coastal protection and decide on our priorities. The first priority must be to spend money to protect lives. We have seen examples in the past where lives were lost as a result of a significant flooding event. The next priority is obviously homes. We must protect as many as possible in the expending of this money. Third, we must protect commercial business and, finally, farmland. I know this is a difficult message for the agricultural community, but where there are limited resources, we must do what we can to protect the maximum number of homes. That is how we have laid out our priorities in term of the cost-benefit model.

I wish to comment on the insurance industry and I am going to be very blunt in my remarks. I have been sitting down with Insurance Ireland, previously the Irish Insurance Federation, since January 2013 trying to agree a memorandum of understanding, whereby when the OPW or a local authority builds a flood defence, the insurance industry will recognise that work, the capital investment on behalf of the taxpayer and reinsure properties for which it had withdrawn cover. That is a challenge, but I am confident that in the coming weeks we will get that memorandum over the line. That will not give protection to people who cannot get insurance right now, but it will certainly give some measure of comfort to those communities where flood defence investments have been made. There is no reason the insurance industry cannot begin reinsuring again in these communities. If the State puts in the money by way of capital investment, there is an obligation on the insurance industry to recognise that fact and start reinsuring again.

We have committed additional money in the first six weeks of the year. We recognise the damage done and want to use the resources of the Departments of Transport, Tourism and Sport and the Environment, Community and Local Government, as well as the OPW, to disburse these funds as soon as possible. We want to help the affected communities to get back on their feet again, especially in parts of the west where tourism is such an essential industry, as I noted in my visits to counties Clare, Limerick, Kerry and Cork. We need to make sure that by the summer season, a lot of the damaged infrastructure has been put back in place. I assure the House of the seriousness with which the Government intends to address this issue. There are short-term measures to be taken, but we must also consider the longer term view. We will have to live with this issue. When one looks at the appalling circumstances in the south of England, as well as on the west coast of France, Portugal and Spain, one realises this is a very serious issue with which we are going to have to live, deal and respond to in a comprehensive and sustainable way.

We should all be conscious of the extreme difficulties being faced by people in Munster. The weather in Cork and Limerick is unbelievably extreme. Trees are down everywhere; students are being told not to leave buildings, lectures are being cancelled and so forth. While the damage is storm rather than flood related, it is likely to be extremely severe. People are really suffering.

At least two lorries have overturned on roads, so it is extremely dangerous in the south. I hope everyone there will be safe and take precautions.

The flooding of the past several weeks has been very difficult. Massive damage has been inflicted on homes, commercial property and infrastructure with significant costs. There is the initial cost of businesses having to close, followed by the subsequent cost of preparing to open again, as well as insurance and the cost to the State in rectifying infrastructure and flood relief projects. The Minister of State was right to list the projects already completed. I am glad he referred to the scheme for the River Dodder in Dublin because I heard someone on the radio claim it never have been done and that it was just a stroke by Bertie Ahern. It has gone that bad.

Who or what has gone bad? Bertie or the floods?

Politics in Ireland has gone so bad that people comment politically on essential flood relief work on the River Dodder which impacts Dublin and even Dunboyne and Mornington, County Meath. There were problems along this river but schemes put in place by the Office of Public Works, OPW, have ensured they have been tackled.

The Government needs to take climate change seriously and stand up to some of the vested interests which have stopped action being taken on it. Those vested interests, I will admit in fairness, were relatively influential in the previous Government too when a fairly good climate change Bill was to be put forward. It is not that we can hold back the tide but that we prevent matters getting worse.

My only criticism of how this has been handled is that when a storm or flood occurs, there is not enough of an immediate response from central government and local authorities in directing assistance. Over the Christmas, people were left swinging in the wind. I know the approach has changed and the Minister has been very active on this. I accept he cannot be everywhere either. A more centralised approach, however, a one-stop shop at national level that councils could feed into is required. If my home were flooded, I am not sure who I would ring. Would I ring the Meath County Council emergency line? More work needs to be done at that level to give people that bit of help.

Emergency information on where to go and not to go is also required. We are relying on tweets from AA Roadwatch, bystanders and politicians. For example, one night I tweeted that there trees down in my neighbourhood which found its way on to the website There should be a central information authority in emergency situations giving out this information. For example, two lorries have been blown on to their sides on a motorway and a national road this afternoon in Limerick. That information should not just be given out by AA Roadwatch or private individuals. There needs to be a centralised structure that determines the important information to give to citizens.

The weather warnings have been very useful. Having slept through an orange alert cold weather warning in a tent last summer in France, I am not too worried about them too much personally. However, today, we had a red warning which has proved to be the case. Is this just a meteorological matter or should it invoke response from central government? Someone asked why schools were not closed today. Lectures at University College Cork were cancelled today and students told to stay indoors. This is happening after the event when it could have been announced with the warning.

Fianna Fáil will assist the Government in dealing with the insurance issue. This is just not an issue when floods occur but one that is ongoing even in areas where relief programmes were introduced. I have corresponded with the Minister on this matter. Will the Minister of State also address the issue of the prospect for European funds to alleviate the recent flooding?

I apologise to the Minister of State that, unfortunately, I will not be in the Chamber for his responses later as I have to go down to the west to the wind and the rain. I acknowledge the fact he was the only one from the Government at the beginning who realised the seriousness of this problem. He was the only Minister who went on the public airwaves after the disaster inflicted on the west, particular west Clare, on 3 January 2014. I was disappointed the Government did not call the emergency co-ordinating committee meeting until the Monday, 6 January, when it should have taken place on the Friday or Saturday to pull the various streams together. It took 24 to 48 hours for some of the damage in isolated rural parts of the west to come to public attention. There were certain parts of Clare where the seriousness of the damage caused only became known on Sunday morning.

That said, we are where we are. It has been a unique set of circumstances and unprecedented change in weather. We are fortunate that the previous Government and this Government have invested in flood defences. Where they have been installed, they have worked. The classic example is Ennis, County Clare. In Christmas 2009, Ennis was under water. Thankfully, significant work has been carried out on the town’s flood defences in several phases under the auspices of the OPW. This has resulted in Ennis being protected from flooding now.

There will have to be a partnership with Europe on flood alleviation. The Minister of State outlined the long-term strategy and I welcome the engagement is already under way. Hopefully, within the next several years we will have adequate defence barriers in place. The Minister rightly pointed out the nature of the western coastline is unique, requiring a certain approach. We need to retain the best possible advice on how we deal with this. There is no point in throwing good money after bad. We must ensure it is spent wisely and properly, having the desired result.

I welcome yesterday’s announcement of €70 million to go towards the repair work in various counties. Clare could do with 50% of that, as the damage caused there is estimated to be approximately €34 million. I accept there are many other counties with substantial bills as well.

As a temporary measure, I would like to see one Minister in charge of pulling the response of various Departments and agencies together. Unfortunately, there is a multidepartmental approach with the Departments of Transport, Tourism And Sport, the Environment, Community and Local Government, the OPW and Social Protection. At this stage, it would be appropriate to have one Minister with overall responsibility for one lead Ministry to liaise with local authorities. In some cases, there is confusion as to whether the OPW or the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine is in charge of coastal protection. Roads come under the Department of Transport, Tourism And Sport. Given the unique nature of what has happened, it would be appropriate for the Government to appoint a lead Minister, even a junior Minister with access to the various Departments to pull their responses together.

That would mean that when a council or public representative talked to a Minister, he or she would know that Minister was the person who was in a position to pull it all together and make recommendations to the various other Ministers.

The concept of red and orange alerts is a new phenomenon. Perhaps there were red alerts during the years, but I have not heard of them. Thankfully, we were probably in a situation where we did not need to hear them. I agree with Senator Thomas Byrne - protocols must be introduced. If there is a red alert in a particular area, certain services will have to be put on stand by. Where necessary, schools, universities and other public operations would have to be advised to close in advance. That is very reasonable. It is unacceptable that students in University College Cork, UCC, are being told to stay indoors. The red alert has been in place for 24 hours. I do not know what the lead agency to deal with it is, but it needs to be factored in in our emergency planning.

We are in a new reality which requires leadership. The Government has stepped up to the plate in this regard and some €70 million has been made available. I am looking forward to seeing the breakdown, particularly what will be given to the counties that have been worst affected. I have not yet been advised of how much will be allocated to County Clare. I presume it will be at the discretion of the local authority to prioritise where it affects lives and homes, in particular. I thank the Minister for coming to County Clare a couple of weeks ago and visiting some of the families whose houses have been flooded and who are still out of their homes. There is a big job of work to be done. We can talk here ad nauseam. Everyone has a contribution to make and all contributions need to feed into the process. We need to learn from the experience. I would like protocols and a lead ministry to be established.

I welcome the Minister of State. We have learned much in this crisis which has been handled very well by everybody. Perhaps the economic problems since 2008 have stiffened our national resolve in these matters.

The Minister of State referred to the works done in the past and theoretical work. A man called Colonel Rydell came to Ireland after the River Shannon floods in the 1950s. He came from the US army corps of engineers and his solutions were very much the pragmatic ones about which the Minister told us today such as moving houses to higher ground. The River Shannon will flood agricultural land which during the winter does not cost very much. We must consider this. As Mr. Colm McCarthy, the well known economist, said, one could spend a lot of money changing wet rocks into dry rocks, with no impact on national output or production; therefore, there are some dangers in this regard. That is what we did. It is no harm that the Minister of State has thrown in all of the suggestions to see what comes out, but Colonel Rydell rejected the suggestion of building a canal from the upper Shannon to drain it into Sligo Bay. The cost of going through the Ox Mountains would have been huge. He also rejected the suggestion of diverting the River Suck, which floods, into the River Hind. Senator Rónán Mullen was here earlier. Somebody from Roscommon said the River Hind was a much smaller river than the River Suck and that it would not be possible to do it. Let us have all of these ideas. People have ideas about what causes these events and how we should deal with them.

The planning laws were referred to. The Minister of State is right to resolve that if we know there is a record of flood plains in an area, it is not open for building, even though planning permissions would traditionally have resulted in very large capital gains for the people who bought that land. I agree with him on the insurance industry. We need all financial services, banks, insurance and pension companies which we discussed earlier to step up to the mark and deliver a far better service than they have been doing. That also applies to health insurance. The insurance industry should reward consumers for the very substantial improvements in road safety. Let us see this manifest in what people pay. As the Minister of State said, if we drain a place, sometimes at substantial cost, in Kilkenny, Fermoy, Mallow or Ennis, it should be insured and there should be a substantial reduction to reflect the capital investment made by the State to reduce the risk. Many financial services organisations have taken the view that they need not worry as they will always land into the Exchequer. With a debt-to-GDP ratio of 120%, we cannot do this; we need a more efficient performance from the insurance industry all around.

I agree with the Minister of State's priority on the situation in Cork. As an outsider, it is incredible to me that in 2009 organisations failed and the city of Cork was flooded, mostly owing to the ESB not talking to Cork City Council or the council not talking to citizens. Many people are not satisfied with what has been resolved since. It almost seems to be a case of covering up who was responsible rather than doing something, as the Minister of State said. There would be a substantial return on measures to stop a major commercial centre such as the city of Cork from flooding. The Minister of State said that as early as July there would be plans to stop the city of Cork from flooding.

There will be a solution.

What happened in Limerick was an exceptional event, but there was recent flooding in Waterford which caused rail services to be withdrawn. Perhaps the Minister of State might take a look at that issue. He mentioned successes in Clonmel, Kilkenny, Fermoy, Mallow and Ennis.

The Minister of State has made an important point, that coasts change. It would take an immense investment to change the Irish coastline to something like the Dutch coastline. It is a smaller country, with a much larger population and higher GDP per head. On the east coast of Ireland, Wexford Harbour, Annagassan Harbour in County Louth and Lough Shinny in County Dublin have silted up. Kilbarrack sailing club in County Dublin shut down owing to a lack of water. The coastline is changing all the time. We cannot stop the sea coming in in one place. The great Mr. William Dargan, one of the greatest railway engineers of his day, had to change the railway line around Bray Head. One can see the remains of where it ran previously. There was even talk at one stage of moving it inland. The danger is that we could spend a lot of money in accomplishing remarkably little in Cork.

Senator Martin Conway has headed off to County Clare, but I am glad to see that Mr. Donald Trump has given a vote of confidence to the Loop Head Peninsula by making a large investment. That is a gesture for the future. In the turlough areas of south Galway we built houses which had to be abandoned because water came up from the ground and flooded areas. Let us put all of these mistakes into the book and avoid repeating them. We need a realistic investment. If we are not growing much on land in the winter, should the investment be in preventing floods in urban areas where economic activities are taking place? The Minister of State has given priority to Cork where there have been far too many floods in recent times. We expect it to be a major centre in the revival of the economy.

The OPW is doing good work. I thank the Minister of State for being here and, as other speakers said, always obliging the House by coming to discuss major issues with us. We are moving in the right direction. It has been a shock to the system that we have had such a winter. I second what Senator Thomas Byrne said, that the emergency services have worked remarkably well. The Minister of State was present on the ground. Careful planning involves Parliament being concerned. Let us publish all of this and let people come and see if these are good investments for the future. Let us require a better performance from the insurance industry because an insurance industry that opts out as soon as there is a flood is not serving the country. I support the Minister of State on that point.

May I share two minutes of my time with Senator John Kelly?

I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for all the work he has put into this issue in recent weeks.

I am sure the Minister of State has many other things on his mind at present and he would have preferred not to have had to leave Dublin as much as he has, but he did so and we appreciate it. In crises it is always good to see a response from the Government, and the Government has responded to this crisis. There are also good news stories. I am from Tipperary and the flood walls in Clonmel were very successful. Last weekend the mountable pieces that go on top of the walls had to be used and they held the flood. Last Monday night week the river was within 6 in. of coming over the 5 ft. high walls in my home town of Carrick-on-Suir but it did not do so. If it had done so, we would have been back to the drawing board. It was the worst recorded flood in the town, yet the defences held. It was fantastic and I commend those who stuck out their necks.

In 1996 the late Minister, Hugh Coveney, visited Carrick-on-Suir in the midst of a similar crisis and committed to sorting out the matter. Good work has been done, but much more has to be done. I have been in contact with many local authority members in affected areas. The Minister of State visited Limerick, and I have spoken to councillor Tom Shortt, who is very active on this issue. He asked me whether it was a freak situation and whether we would see it again. On 1 February the amount of water that came in created a saucer effect in the St. Mary's Park area of Limerick and the water could not get out. The tide did not bring it back out. How will this be addressed? Much of the money, amounting to millions of euro, spent on getting the area ready for regeneration has been wasted. This is a specific issue and I ask the Minister of State to comment on it.

A particular issue that has arisen in Galway has been brought to my attention. The Silverstrand area is awaiting rock support armoury, which is in the system, but if it is not done soon the new park will be destroyed and all of the money spent on it will be wasted. Councillors in Galway raised this issue with me and have also written to the Minister of State. Local authorities are being offered 90% of the cost, but they do not have the other 10% and are being told the works will not go ahead because of this. Will the Minister of State address this issue?

Senator Gilroy, who is from Cork, will speak about what has happened there. The Minister of State attended a very successful meeting in Cork with the Chamber of Commerce, business people and political groups. They saw the Minister of State had mapped out a future for relief in Cork city.

The Minister of State mentioned that the situation along the coast is different. Anyone who saw the photograph, which has gone viral, of the seafront and road in Tramore would have been frightened. It took 14 trucks of cement to fill the gap. The particular problems there are ongoing and have also been experienced in Dunmore East and Passage East. The Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy Hogan, visited the area at the weekend.

I welcome the effort made by the Minister of State with the insurance companies. Senator Barrett spoke very well on this issue. It seems one is insured until one experiences the first flood and then one is out of the system. My grandparents lived in a house in Mill Street in Carrick-on-Suir in 1912 and were consistently flooded for three or four years before insurance companies existed. They moved house because of it. Since then thousands of houses have been allowed to be built on flood plains, but they were accepted by insurance companies in the knowledge of where they were. However, after a flooding problem first arose the insurance companies no longer insured them. Insurance companies in the health sector are not allowed cherry-pick in the market and must take what comes in the door. We had much debate on this when new companies entered the market. We should tell insurance companies that they cannot cherry-pick in the house insurance market or run away from a problem when it occurs. Otherwise, there is little point in having insurance companies. Will the Minister of State address this issue in his response?

I welcome the Minister of State to the House and wish him well in his European campaign.

He has always been very amenable to attending debates in the House and it is good to see him on the television getting down and dirty with his Wellingtons where all of the problems have occurred throughout the country. My county of Roscommon has been subject to much flooding, particularly near the River Shannon, and the Minister of State is well aware of it. A company in the area, Global Flood Solutions, specialises in flood protection. It was founded in 2010 and is headed by Shane Curran, the famous Roscommon goalkeeper. It sells its product nationally and internationally. This Irish-made product is a quantum leap forward in leading-edge technology and is versatile and affordable. It is a proven defence barrier. As the Minister of State is aware, Foynes in County Limerick flooded in early January. The port authority employed Global Flood Solutions and it protected Foynes against a higher tide more recently and has been endorsed by Jacobs Engineering Group. Will the Minister of State meet the company in the very near future? Every little helps to protect homes. As Senator Landy stated, we have a problem with insurance companies and the Government must find solutions for these people.

The Minister of State is welcome. We discussed elements of this issue several weeks ago before the recent bout of storms and I know the Minister of State visited Portrane with regard to coastal erosion. My invitation must have got lost in the post, as Minister of State was with the Minister, Deputy Reilly. I understand how it works.

I am sorry. It should not have happened.

It is quite all right. I know the Minister of State does not operate in that way.

Everyone has rightly spoken about houses that are deemed uninsurable. We have a mechanism to deal with this issue in the motor industry through the Motor Insurers' Bureau of Ireland and the Government levies general insurance policies and products. The idea that people can only be insured once and if they are flooded they are not insured again and the taxpayer picks up the tab is wrong. I understand why it must be done at present. We should consider introducing a general insurance bureau for housing whereby insurance companies are levied and a part of the premium paid goes to a separate fund into which the State can reach when dealing with events such as these. I am examining equivalent measures in several European countries. We should tell Insurance Ireland this is being done. Obviously it should be consulted to some degree, but I would not let it lead the Minister of State by the nose.

The Minister of State has been very active regarding the flooding that has occurred throughout the country. It is very difficult for the local authorities to get a handle on it. Some events in specific areas had been forewarned for a number of years and some flood defences have been put in place to deal with coastal erosion. My colleagues eloquently spoke about their areas and I will speak specifically about Portrane and other coastal communities in which work is hindered because they are EU-designated special areas of conservation. Perhaps the Minister of State will be fortunate enough to have a new role after 23 May.

As I look around, I see many former, future and potential MEPs. Perhaps the Members who are throwing theirs hat into the ring will, when they go to the European Parliament, look to the European Union-----

The Senator might be left here on his own.

Senator Darragh O'Brien to continue, without interruption.

I will miss Senator John Gilroy, but I have a feeling I might be seeing him after 23 May.

The Senator realises that is a matter for the electorate to decide.

It is not one for this House.

Yes, but I noted that Senator John Gilroy had been in Limerick also. He has been around the country. However, that is irrelevant in this regard.

On special areas of conservation, there will be nothing left to conserve. We have seen one example where approximately 60 dwellings are at risk. New coastal erosion defences cannot be installed because the European Union has designated the areas as special areas of conservation, but if we do not do something, there will be nothing left to conserve. This is particularly prevalent on the east coast, where there is a sandy shoreline and people live close to it. That is not due to previous bad planning, but because these are historical communities. In the one visited by the Minister of State people have lived in the borough for hundreds of years and some of the families have been there for hundreds of years.

I asked a question about the original emergency funding. It appears to be only for the repair of the existing flood protections and infrastructure, not to install new ones. I realise the funding has been expanded since, but will the Minister of State clarify the position? I understand we are not applying to the European solidarity fund. As I said a couple of weeks ago, I did not think we would be after hearing the response given by the Minister of State, Deputy Joe Costello, on behalf of the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Hayes, when he came to the House on that occasion. I accept there are parameters in that regard.

The Minister of State should not forget about the east coast. Obviously, the west coast has been heavily affected and people have been put out of their homes because of flooding. However, will funding be made available for the area the Minister of State visited in north County Dublin in order that coastal protections can be installed? I also urge him - for what it is worth, he will get all the assistance he requires from us - to bring forward legislation to provide for a levy on the insurance industry to set up a general insurance bureau, which would be a fund on which we could build each year to defray some of the cost and expense to the taxpayer. I am not aware of a general insurance company that is broke. These are multinational companies and I believe we could levy a portion of each policy, by way of the premia charged, to be paid towards building up such a fund. I look forward to hearing the Minister of State's response to that suggestion.

I will start where Senator Darragh O'Brien finished, with the insurance companies. They are effectively getting away with it again. Big business and its shareholders come first and, unfortunately, on too many occasions people come second. Aviva Insurance, AXA Insurance and Zurich Insurance are multinational corporations with massive deposits of cash. As they are getting away with it, a mutual fund is required for people who get caught. As bad as a person's personal circumstances are, with his or her house flooded and many of his or her belongings lost, if he or she is not out of pocket, it would at least go some way towards dealing with that awful event.

The softest coastline in the country is in County Wexford. It has the longest and sandiest beaches and there are more sand shifts there than anywhere else in Ireland. Unfortunately, monster winter storms are not required for significant coastal erosion to occur. I have been speaking about this issue for too long, dating back to my time on the local authority in Wexford. The county is and has been in a bad way for almost 50 years. When I was a child, there was a beach at Courtown. It is gone. There is nothing there now, except the rock armouring. The beach moves up and down along the coast. It will cost €1.25 million to bring the pier in Courtown back to a safe standard.

Another very important point should be made. I was speaking to a member of the Irish Coast Guard on the pier in Courtown. The main job he has in these storms is to keep people off the pier. Any person who goes down the pier, particularly with children, should be tested for the existence of a brain. It is insanity. The major message from this debate should be that people must stay away from the coastline at this time. I attended a funeral this morning in Ballygarrett, which is on the coast. Big men were being pushed around by the winds.

I know a little about special areas of conservation. On the land I farm there is a salmonid river which is a tributary of the River Slaney. It is a special area of conservation. The only thing worse than a special area of conservation is a national heritage area, NHA. It is impossible to get anything done in these areas. There is no point in trying to pretend anything will occur there because it will not. It is an amazing scenario. For 50 or 60 years there were grants available to drain bogs to bring them into agricultural production. The bog operated as a large sponge which sucked in water, held it at times of flooding and released it over a period of time. Now, owing to SACs and NHAs, we are not allowed to clean the rivers and take away the debris to let the water run off. The river is now more narrow, has more force and, with the bogs gone, doing more damage.

The same applies to the coastline. When I was a member of the local authority, we were planning a marina in Courtown. The paperwork was enormous owing to the SACs north of where the works were potentially to occur. The project was stopped because of the cost of the environmental impact study and the environmental impact statements. However, there are people whose houses were built along the coastline before these NHAs and SACs were ever envisaged. Kilpatrick is located in north County Wexford. Wexford County Council and a private property owner commissioned a report for the protection of these houses and the cost of the report, not the works to protect the houses, was €250,000. The works would probably have cost less. The report could not have been clearer - the entire SAC would be gone in 20 years. There will be no SAC because it will be washed out to sea and nature will have done its work. Some of the houses and their gardens will also be gone within 20 years. The report concluded that there was no question about this outcome; it was incontrovertible. As the application for planning permission was refused, the entire SAC can go out to sea, as no protection works can occur. This is the Jim Hacker, "Yes, Minister" campaign to save the British sausage from the madness of the European Union.

We cannot continue to ignore the commonsense approaches. I am sure that eventually there will be a case in the European courts in which there will be a competition between somebody's right to protect his or her property, which he or she must be allowed to do, and the protection of an SAC or national heritage area. At some stage we must call a halt to the insanity. The continuance of this situation is insane.

I welcome the Minister of State and thank him for visiting the many places affected by the worst of the flooding in the past few weeks. I am sure it was appreciated by the victims of the flood damage. The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government visited County Waterford also. The coastal areas of the south west, south and south east are taking a battering. There are trees down everywhere; there is damage to properties and homes; schools have had to close and serious damage has occurred. Unfortunately, the damage caused by bad weather and floods is ongoing.

I will first deal with Waterford and then some of the national issues. I had a meeting last week with the city and county manager of the newly merged authority in Waterford. He estimated that the cost of the damage caused to the coastal areas of Waterford and roads is in the region of €8 million. The council has submitted an application for funding of €8 million. There was flood damage in a number of private dwellings in Poleberry. In fairness to the local authority, it was very quick to respond. It did its best to prevent damage to the properties and on a number of occasions it was successful. However, some damage was caused and I understand a separate pool of funding is made available to the individuals affected. The Minister of State might explain how this works and the amount of compensation that will be available.

There was good news in Waterford in that the flood defence on the quay held up very well. Ironically, a former Minister who is basking in the sun in Florida would, I am sure, take credit for that. The investment made in flood defences for Waterford city has certainly paid off, by and large. When we install infrastructure, be it in Carrick or Waterford city, it does work and, therefore, we need to build similar infrastructure in other areas that are affected. This is not to say there has not been damage in Waterford, because there has been. The coast, especially Tramore, Passage and Cheekpoint, has taken a severe battering. The Minister of State might update us on all the applications for funding that have been made. What is the total amount made available? It is important that we have an answer to this.

I welcome the Minister of State's announcement that an extra €70 million has been made available to address the problems. It is obviously very welcome. In light of the current circumstances in the south, particularly Cork and Kerry, I ask the Government to reassess the already-promised funding. We will not know the full extent of the damage for some time because the storm is ongoing. I am sure further damage has been caused that will force the local authorities involved to reassess their applications to the Department. Even at this point, however, the Minister of State might indicate what the local authorities are seeking and what is available.

An issue arises with regard to the European Union. The Minister of State will be looking forward to taking a seat in the European Parliament, subject to his election by the people of Dublin. We need to make a case at Government and Commission levels for altering the threshold for emergency aid from the European Union. At present, Ireland receives only €1.33 million for every instance of damage worth €100 million. With ongoing damage being caused, as we have witnessed today and over recent weeks across the State, we are in a position to make a strong case for a reappraisal of the criteria governing aid at EU level. Both the Government and Opposition should lobby the European Commission on this. Obviously, the Government is in a very strong position.

I am sure the Minister of State will appreciate the point I am making because I do not want to be critical of him since he has, by and large, done a good job responding to the floods. The cutbacks to local government funding have had an impact on the ability of local authorities to meet the challenges and the added costs they face because of flood damage.

Let us consider the officials and front-line workers at local government level in Waterford and the staff in all the emergency services, including some workers who were pilloried not so long ago. ESB workers come to mind in this regard. They are the very people who were out on the front line protecting people and getting electricity working again. They are protecting people from the worst excesses of the flooding. Today in this House, we should put on record our appreciation for all the workers who are out in very difficult circumstances doing good work. Having said that, we must also point out that, when we cut local government funding, it has an impact.

There will be renewed focus and debate on climate change and the need for a climate change Bill. Much more could be done on this. Every local authority should have its own climate change strategy. There is an environment strategic policy committee in most local authorities. With the reform of local government, one of the more progressive steps local authorities could take would be to develop a climate change strategy and actions in their areas.

I thank the Minister of State for his response to the flooding. I hope that, in the not too distant future, he will be able to commit to further funding for the areas affected.

The first thing we should acknowledge is the sheer resilience of communities and businesspeople in the face of unprecedented flooding. The Minister of State and I were in Cork during the week and saw at first hand the effect of flooding on residents; it has been devastating for them. The Minister of State will have seen the damage done to the centre of Cork city, where businesses are in real trouble. The macro-image people like to paint concerns businesses in real trouble but the micro-image concerns the personal distress, as witnessed also by the Minister of State. He was speaking to Claire Nash from Nash 19, a restaurant in which she employs 24 people. There is a real danger that her whole business model will have been undermined by the flooding. We wish her well and hope it does not come to this. Along the street in question, Princes Street, there are 84 businesses. If one did not know the short street, one could hardly conceive that 84 different enterprises could operate there. Probably 300 people are employed along the street although it is not 150 yd in length. This is but one side street off Oliver Plunkett Street, which bore the brunt of the flooding. We pay tribute to the traders and communities in Cork on their resilience.

We saw the flooding in Limerick, where we saw at first hand that Kings Island was so badly damaged along with several hundred houses. The resilience of the people there needs to be acknowledged.

Senator Cullinane referred to the response at local level by local authority workers, ESB staff and everybody else. They sometimes get bad press and people sometimes complain about overstaffing in the public service but we must ask whether these are the kinds of people we would be inclined to lay off when we make such complaints. I, for one, would say they absolutely are not.

During his visit to Cork, I was glad to hear the Minister of State announce the €50 million or €100 million budget that has been put aside, and that Cork has been prioritised for flood defences. The problem in Cork is multifaceted because there are different types of flooding in the region at different times. A combination of geographical and meteorological features caused tidal flooding, which occurred in the city on the last occasion. In other places, such as Glanmire in June 2012, the sheer volume of rain falling into the valleys across County Cork caused the flooding. Dunmanway and other places in west Cork were similarly damaged. Some 56 houses in Meadowbrook Estate in Glanmire were overwhelmed by water that reached a depth of 6 ft. The residents are just getting back on their feet. The immediate response to their problem was reasonably good, although it could, perhaps, have been better. Again, the insurance companies have been dragging their feet. When people are flooded out of their homes, they become very distressed and vulnerable, and insurance companies tend to play a long game with them, making a derisory first offer. Owing to the conditions some residents are in, they are inclined to regard this as a final offer and they accept a sum that is way too low. This occurred constantly among the residents of Meadowbrook who were blackguarded by the insurance companies. This is the best way to describe it. This kind of practice must be stopped. The insurance companies are very mobile because they are multinationals; they can get up and go in the morning. Therefore, our response to them must be robust but, by its nature, it is rather limited.

All sorts of issues arise with regard to flooding in Cork, Limerick and Waterford. With Councillor Robert Ireton in Courtown last week, I saw the damage done to the harbour. One could not imagine it unless one saw it. The sheer force of the water that damaged the harbour and surrounding beaches was remarkable. We can blame bad planning, of course, as it certainly can play a role, but on this occasion the problem was the unprecedented volume of water combined with meteorological factors.

It is good to see that the flood defences for Cork are the first national priority. Addressing the problem will require 12 km of walls. I was in the United Kingdom talking to officials from Somerset County Council in a place called Cockermouth, a small village where some rather innovative flood defence barriers were installed. In Cork, we are very proud of our river and the ability to gain access thereto from all parts of the city. There is concern that raising the walls might limit this ability a little. The people in Somerset have constructed a very innovative and effective response whereby the flood defences actually rise with the tide. As the river rises, the flood defences, which comprise walls along the riverbanks, rise with it.

They are 100% effective and while cost probably would be an issue with that one, in an ideal world it is the kind of defence-----

As with glass, it is far more expensive.

Yes. I was glad to hear Senator Landy pointing to the success of the Clonmel flood defences, which is extremely welcome and shows we are not completely at the mercy of the elements in all circumstances. I do not wish to say too much more, except to note Senator Byrne's reference to some sort of announcement from the Government as to how to get the message out regarding the amber and red alert system. He mentioned AA Roadwatch and I believe that is a suitable organisation to use for this purpose, because it has the networks and access to the local radio and television stations. On a lighter note, even though there is a code red in Cork at present, I note that Bishop Colton, the Protestant Bishop of Cork, tweeted this morning his fear that he might be blown away in the wind. Hopefully, Members will be assured that Bishop Colton will be all right.

The Senator managed to mention nearly every community and every county in the southern constituency. It was very impressive.

Senator O'Brien, in fairness-----

It demonstrates my concern-----

It certainly does.

----- and no more than that.

I understand that.

Senator O'Brien, please do not interrupt other people.

I thank the Acting Chairman for his protection from cynics.

I call Senator O'Donovan, who has five minutes.

I welcome the Minister of State to this House. I have called for this debate for some time and while I will not attempt to go over ground that has already been covered, the Minister of State last week visited Cork, west Cork, Limerick and elsewhere. Consequently, he has seen at first hand what has happened and I welcome the financial packages his Department and the Government are putting in place to try to alleviate the serious flooding. I must also pay tribute to the resilience of the people as in some instances, places such as Skibbereen, Bandon, my home town of Bantry, and Clonakilty have been flooded several times. In some of these towns, substantial progress is under way for a flood defence scheme, which is welcome and hopefully can happen sooner rather than later. I wish the Minister of State due speed with those programmes.

I spoke some time ago by telephone to a friend about the storm that hit the south-west coast this morning, which probably has been the worst for 40 to 50 years. As I speak, ESB lines, trees and telephone masts have come down. I tried to call someone on his mobile telephone but after I eventually got through to him on a landline, he told me his telephone system has not been working today. It demonstrates the tremendous red alert that people in the Cork-Kerry region have been obliged to face this morning. People elsewhere in Ireland should be grateful they have not been hit by this tremendous storm, with gusts of up to 160 km/h, which is frightening.

While on my feet, I also wish to express my sympathies to the families of the two unfortunate Dutch nationals who were lost off my native Sheep's Head Peninsula. Thankfully, one body has been recovered and hopefully the other will also be recovered. However, in the context of these conditions, the tides and the Atlantic Ocean, I note from historical experience that a good friend of mine was lost at sea quite close to where I come from, on the same side of the Sheep's Head Peninsula, and his body was never recovered. I wish the recovery operation well and thank all those involved who helped in the rescue, including the Irish Coast Guard and the local community. It was necessary to call off the search because of the appalling weather in the area.

Without being parochial, I am somewhat concerned that my home town of Bantry has been left out of the loop as far as a flood relief plan is concerned. Whereas the flooding over the past three or four years has not been as serious as it was in locations such as Bandon, Clonakilty or Skibbereen, I note that on four recent consecutive occasions with high tides, Bantry town was flooded and some properties were damaged. My concern is the local authority and Office of Public Works, OPW, plan for the flood relief scheme for Bantry town is dependent on and related to the inner harbour development. In other words, it is dependent on their ability to do some work on the inner harbour where the river enters the sea.

My concern is this may be an interdepartmental issue involving the Minister of State's colleague, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Varadkar. He has passed over control of Bantry Harbour to Cork Port but leaving that issue aside - I do not intend to get into that debate today - I do not wish to see one entity pass the buck to the other because much of Bantry is low-lying and historically, the town has been flooded. In one sense, I am being selfish because given the Minister of State's input to and knowledge of the flood situation, I would prefer him to remain in that Department but that is a matter beyond my control. However, I urge the Minister of State to ascertain the current status of the Bantry flood relief scheme because over the course of my business life in Bantry comprising approximately 30 years, my old office has been flooded approximately once a year. Sometimes it happens four times in one year and then one might have no incidents for five or six years. I am not being selfish about this as there are many other hard-pressed ratepayers, shopkeepers and low-lying houses, as well as some apartments that are subject to flooding. I hope the Minister of State can take up this issue.

The most important point I wish to make today concerns the question of insurance. I have raised this matter numerous times in this Chamber and I believe I tabled notice of a motion two years ago. In this day and age, it is completely out of the question that someone who gets flooded once, through no fault of his or her own, has the door shut completely against him or her in respect of getting flood relief insurance or house insurance that covers flooding. Regardless of what the Minister of State must do, be it to legislate or to impose some sort of levy, I note this started a long time ago. It is perhaps 20 to 25 years since the PMPA got into difficulties and a levy was imposed on every other road user who had motor insurance to pay for that debacle. In the situations to which I refer, people who have found themselves flooded, as well as commercial businesses that are paying rates and all sorts of water charges, find themselves locked out.

The question I posed in this Chamber last week on the Order of Business concerns what will happen when the OPW's flood relief schemes are finished. For example, the schemes in Fermoy, Mallow or Clonmel are well advanced and are almost complete. Can some form of a guarantee be provided to enable people to approach the insurance companies? People should be able to tell the insurers that as these schemes are complete, the travesty of a huge flood, which hopefully might be a 50 or 100-year event, is unlikely to happen. They should be able to force insurance companies back on board without crucifying those property owners with private homes or businesses. This is something that must be built in because going back to the Minister of State's predecessor in his present role, I acknowledge the amount of work that has been done on flooding by the Office of Public Works for the past eight or ten years. It is an ongoing process but, unfortunately, there appears to be no light at the end of the tunnel from the perspective of different towns, as different scenarios develop. The insurance issue will be of huge importance and it pertains to the peace of mind of ordinary people who can state they have been flooded previously with the loss of furniture, carpets and equipment. It is a crazy situation.

I understand some money is being made available in respect of flood relief for coastal areas. I do not ask the Minister of State to perform a Houdini-like trick and if one considers the coastline of Ireland in its entirety, it is a small island with thousands of kilometres of coastline and it will be impossible to defend every area. However, my message would be to highlight those areas that are vulnerable and try to protect them. The problem in my native region is that while we have plenty of mountains and peninsulas with rocks and cliffs, it is the safety of the people with which we are concerned.

I will conclude by making a point in respect of those who come to Ireland as visitors or people coming from Dublin or wherever to places such as west Cork or west Kerry to engage in hill walking or mountain walking. One must send out a clear signal that in conditions like those which obtain at present, doing so is absolute madness. I was involved in the Sheep's Head Way committee for years and last Saturday, when this terrible tragedy unfolded, was a day on which, as they say down in west Cork, one would not put a nasty bad dog outside the door. It was an appalling day. I appreciate that people who go there as visitors do not understand the gusts of wind that can be encountered when one goes on cliff walks. However, I hope a message can be sent out that hill walking, cliff walking and mountain climbing are great pastimes but there are times when it should not be done. I do not know how it can be prohibited, as opposed to sending out warnings, but it is most unfortunate because each year, there are incidents involving people being washed off rocks or off the Cliffs of Moher or down in County Kerry. It appears to be recurring and an attempt must be made to deal with this because it is an appalling vista for any family to be obliged to face.

I welcome the Minister of State of the House and thank him for attending a meeting in Cork last Thursday night with the business community, the local public representatives and Oireachtas Members. It was an extremely constructive meeting. Moreover, the proposal made at that meeting about the setting up of a forum involving the Office of Public Works, Cork City Council officials and the business community is important.

That is a point I continue to make.

What is missing from local authorities currently are ratepayers. We do not have enough ratepayers on local authorities. I was a member of Cork City Council for 12 years and I was one of two ratepayers out of 31 at any one time sitting on local authorities. In Cork City Council, €65 million is collected from ratepayers in Cork city, which is a huge amount of money. I welcome, therefore, the consultative process the Minister has set up to ensure that those who are directly affected by the flooding are kept in the loop in terms of what is happening.

Businesses have been very badly affected in the city, and the situation is devastating. One person who attended the meeting on Thursday night spent 22 years building up a business only to find suddenly that they have to go back to the drawing board to try to get it operating again. It is frightening that people have to face into that.

I called to a number of premises in Cork city on Saturday including the Evening Echo office in Oliver Plunkett Street, which is a new office. While they had put flood barriers outside the front door, they still found water coming in through the walls from neighbouring premises. Regardless of the flood protection people put in place, unfortunately it does not always work because of the current structure. That is something that must be taken into account when planning for the future.

Local authorities will have to examine this issue in regard to some form of rates rebate for premises and businesses, and businesses have come through tough times in the past four to five years, adversely affected. If we consider the situation in Blackpool two years ago, there has been too much of a delay in dealing with that issue. I found also that when businesses looked for a rebate on rates, there was no give by the local authority. That was unfair and we must be conscious of that because as other speakers have highlighted, these people are employers and they are making sure their employees are looked after in good times and in bad times. It is important that we do likewise in regard to ratepayers and local authorities taking that into account. Some concession should be given.

As a ratepayer I am paying rates to Cork City Council on my own business, and substantial rates are being paid by businesses in Cork to the local authority. I was talking to people recently who have one of the smallest ground floor units in North Main Street. They are paying between €9,000 and €10,000 a year in rates. I would imagine any business with a 1,000 sq. ft. ground floor premises on Oliver Plunkett Street or on Patrick Street is paying anything up to €10,000 to €15,000 per annum, which is a substantial amount of money. They are paying, regardless of whether they are making profit. It is important that issue is taken into account.

There is another issue we need to examine. Following on the contribution by Senator Darragh O'Brien, and I have tabled a Private Members' motion this evening on this issue, which I raised previously, namely, a central fund between the insurance companies. We have the Motor Insurance Bureau dealing with car accident cases where the car driver is not insured.

It is interesting to look at the system in place in the United Kingdom. The net cost in the UK, and we are talking about a far bigger number of insured premises, is ST£10.68 per premises that is insured. I am not saying we should start exposing businesses or householders to more expensive premiums but we must look at it with a view to putting in place some kind of a structure, perhaps even a central fund, with Government coming on board also to support that central fund in some way. It has to be considered for premises damaged by flooding whose owners cannot get flood cover insurance. It must be examined in some way.

Senator Barrett referred to the flooding of the River Shannon. My own home place was affected when the Inniscarra dam was built. My family lost land in that flooding but what was interesting about the people involved in the building of that dam was that they also built new roads. The amazing aspect about the new road that was built is that it was built by French contractors and we have not seen one pothole on that road since the day it was built.

We need to examine the question of getting international advice on flooding to see how other countries have dealt with it, particularly the Netherlands. We should not be afraid to say we do not have all the answers. We do not have all the answers, and we should not be afraid to look for international advice on this issue. It is interesting we did that when we were building the hydroelectric stations. We did it in regard to building of roads attached to that, and they did a superb job. This is not a criticism of any contractor that has built roads since, but I am talking about coming up with fresh ideas on how we deal with issues, and we should do that in this context as well. We should not be afraid to ask for that advice.

I compliment the Minister of State on his initiatives and that he was out in the communities, which I know was deeply appreciated. Fortunately, those of us in Leitrim escaped the worst excesses of the flooding on this occasion, although in previous years Carrick-on-Shannon had been isolated to some degree, particularly on the relief road, because of its close proximity to the Shannon, although as the Minister already knows, further down the Shannon and around Athlone in particular there is a great deal of flooding.

I reiterate what has been said by all of us on this side of the House, namely, that we in Fianna Fáil fully support the Government's measures and proposals in addressing this national crisis. However, we believe there should be more adequate information transfers between the Office of Public Works, OPW, and the insurance industry to help homeowners access home insurance after flood defences have been rectified.

Fianna Fáil is also looking at fresh legislation to help uninsured people based on measures in the UK, which I will deal with shortly. The impact of the weather also underlines the need for an enhanced task force and emergency planning to take the lead in setting out our preparation for storms and a rapid response.

Much of the emphasis has been on the south, the west and the south east, and rightly so, specifically with regard to Cork. I read in the newspapers last week that one of the reasons Cork is susceptible to frequent flooding is because the location of the city is like a saucer. Senator Landy made a similar reference in regard to Tipperary, namely, that once the water tips over into the saucer, it cannot get out.

And in Limerick too.

I applaud the Government's response to the plight of people in Cork city. It is essential that our second city should be spared the worst excesses of flooding in the future and I suggest that whatever resources are available should be prioritised in regard to Cork city. Works carried out here in Dublin on the Dodder and the Tolka have gone a long way to alleviating the problems that arose.

Regarding the situation in the UK, I am sure the Minister of State is fully aware that they previously used a statement of principles, a voluntary agreement with insurers that informed insurance policy towards at-risk properties. However, this has now been replaced with a water Bill currently before the Houses of Parliament. Included in the Bill is Flood Re, the new policy. Last year the Association of British Insurers, ABI, and the Government agreed a memorandum of understanding on how to develop the model of Flood Re. The not-for-profit scheme has been built to ensure flood insurance remains widely affordable and available. It will be run and financed by insurers as a not-for-profit fund that will cover the cost of flood claims from high risk homes. Insurers will pass the flood risk element from those households deemed at high risk of flooding to the fund. This equates to a levy of ST£10.50 in annual household premiums and represents the estimated level of cross-subsidy that already exists between lower and higher flood risk premiums. Flood Re will be designed to fully deal with at least 99.5% of years. It is a point that has been made. I am sure the Government is examining some similar legislation in this regard in its dealings with the insurance industry.

On the EU solidarity fund, I share the views expressed by various people that there is a need to review that fund. I wish the Minister well in his own aspirations towards a seat in the European Parliament, after our own Fianna Fáil candidate has been elected.

I wish him well. In 2009 the Irish Government secured €13 million under the EU solidarity fund. The fund was set up in 2002 to respond to natural disasters and has been used to deal with the effects of 59 disasters, including storm damage and flooding. In light of all that has happened in recent years, I am sure the Minister of State will agree that the fund needs to be reappraised.

I commend the Department of Social Protection on the important role it is playing to assist households. The community welfare service's emergency clinics are providing assistance to those who live in the worst affected areas. A number of stages are followed by the Department in its response to emergency events. The first stage is to provide emergency income support and payments for food, clothing and personal items in the immediate aftermath of an event. Stage two involves the replacement of white goods, basic furniture and other essential household items. Stage three involves identifying the longer term financial supports or works required. I welcome the initiatives by the Department because they are helping to alleviate the difficulties faced by some householders after their horrific experiences.

The total expenditure under the humanitarian assistance scheme approved by the Government in 2009 was €2.2 million by the end of last year, in respect of approximately 3,500 payments. Does the Government intend to increase the fund given that the amounts paid out seem small relative to the overall fund? Last year five households were paid a total of €51,450 for refurbishments. I wonder whether that ratio should be improved. I welcome that an initial sum of €15 million has been approved in line with recent Government commitments to provide adequate resources.

I welcome that €70 million in funding is to be provided, in addition to the €25 million in humanitarian assistance already announced. I note these funds are intended to cover damage incurred prior to 6 January. Local authorities and the Government are to be commended on the speed with which they have responded to the storms and the emergency services have done Trojan work on the ground over the last several months.

The storms which ravaged the west of Ireland prior to 6 January caused damage estimated at €19 million in Galway county and €1.2 million in the city. This figure has certainly increased in the aftermath of the more recent storms. Even today, there are reports that the winds hitting the south and south west are the strongest in living memory. I am sure many people are living in fear along the west coast.

Last weekend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food travelled to Galway. I accompanied him to Spiddal, where the promenade has been destroyed, as well as many other parts of the Connemara coastline. The areas that were damaged along the coastline of Galway city include Silver Strand, Blackrock to Southpark and Claddagh, Ballyloughan Beach and the Spanish Arch. The proposed extension of the promenade in Salthill to Silver Strand will be a critical tourist amenity for Galway city. Thousands of people walk along the promenade every week. The damage to the area between Silver Strand and Salthill promenade is estimated at €400,000. Galwegians have for years been calling for this coastline to be protected with buttresses and rock armour at the Knocknagoneen Drumlin, which has undergone significant erosion. The Aran Islands and Inishbofin off the west coast of Galway have also suffered severely from the storms. For the sake of tourism and the wild Atlantic way, it is important these areas are supported.

In regard to future proofing our coastline, Dr. Kieran Hickey of NUIG's school of geography has recently stated that the entire promenade in Salthill, which acted as a natural coastal defence for decades, should be raised 0.5 m because of climate change and the associated higher water levels. Those who are familiar with Salthill will realise what a huge undertaking that would be. As an island nation, we have a long history of flooding but we have always responded in an ad hoc manner, whereby we fixed the immediate problem and moved on. In these days of climate change, such an approach will no longer suffice.

Will the Government consider establishing a body with the relevant expertise to gather the various reports on climate change and analyse its potential impact on our coastline and waterways in order to develop a long-term programme for flood defence? The Government's national climate change strategy notes that the OPW is pursuing a number of research programmes and has produced regional coastal hazard maps, and a plethora of other bodies are also involved in planning and research. Notwithstanding the current constraints on the Exchequer, a long-term strategy needs to be put in place whereby one body is charged with mapping future changes and making recommendations to the Government instead of a multitude of agencies reporting at various times and by various means.

How does the OPW propose to deal with damage to critical local infrastructure that is not directly in the control of local authorities or in public ownership, for example, access routes to beaches, burial grounds or residential areas?

The south west of Ireland has experienced hurricane force winds today. Schools in the region should not have remained open given that a code red alert had been issued. In Shannon the schools have closed and children have been sent home. Their parents have had to collect them. In one area a row of mature poplars was ripped out of the ground.

A single Department needs to be made responsible for making decisions on funding applications and, if they have to be moved to other Departments to get funding, that is the way it should be. I ask the Minister of State to explain how councils and other groups around the country can access funding. I had a discussion with my local mayor on how funding can be accessed. I do not think the Government can provide enough funding to solve all the problems but it will have to deal with the major ones. We cannot deal with many of the problems until the storms are gone. Limerick has flooded again today and I am sure the entire west coast is getting walloped. Roads that had been cleared of water are now flooded again. If the works had already been done, they might have been swept away. People will have to be patient. The danger to life should be our first concern, domestic residents come second, industry comes third and farmland comes last. All of us are getting calls from our colleagues in the county councils. We will have to develop a long-term solution for our coastal areas, even if that means we must suffer through another winter.

I saw water coming over the wall at the lagoon beside Shannon Airport. I have lived in the area for 35 years but I never saw water coming within 3 ft. of that wall, let alone come over the top.

That tells us where we are. Shannon is 6 ft. below sea level and we have 15 pumps going all day everyday all year round. The areas need to be protected and if there is a breach in the banks of the Shannon, the whole town gets flooded rather than just one area. It is all 4 ft., 5 ft. or 6 ft. below sea level. I have seen the estimates coming in from the councils. I do not know how they come up with the estimates they submit. We must get clear costings on what the projects cost and start with the major ones we can deal with now. Flood barriers in Limerick are an absolute priority because there is a danger to people in their homes. The situation in Cork is the same. We can deal with those first and deal with other cases afterwards. People must be patient.

Perhaps the Minister of State can outline the approach and who should make the call when there is a code red alert. If UCC students have been told to stay in the building because of flying debris and parents must pick up children sent home from schools, there is a danger to life. There must be a decision taken to close the schools in those areas. I rang my son a while ago for a damage report on our house, our area and our business and he thinks the winds are 130 mph or 140 mph. He has never seen anything like it. The trees were at a 45 degree angle for two or three hours. I do not know what the wind speed was but it is pretty serious.

I thank my colleagues who spoke in this useful debate and made interesting observations. While we are talking, many of our emergency personnel are out there fighting this and helping people. Everyone owes them a debt of gratitude for the work they are doing. I will deal as best I can with the points made.

Senator Thomas Byrne spoke about what happens when an emergency develops. If it is a transport emergency, the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport leads, if it is a weather emergency, the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government leads, and if it is a flood defence emergency, the Office of Public Works, OPW, leads. I attended the first emergency co-ordination meeting in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine where there is a specialised unit set up to deal with this situation. It is good to see everyone represented around the table, including Met Éireann, the HSE and the ESB, and reporting in. The system has been in place for a number of years and it is working.

The website established by the OPW called has a lot of information. It shows the height of the river closest to any point in the country. It is real-time information and people can see what is going on. I will report back to the House on the protocol for schools and whether the decision is taken centrally or by each board of management. The new Met Éireann system of codifying upcoming weather events is penetrating through to people about the serious nature of such events. In circumstances where there is a code red, a fair point has been made by many colleagues on whether schools in the area should close automatically. Is the decision taken by the Minister for Education and Skills or is it taken locally? We need clarity on that matter and I will report back to the House.

Senators Conway, Naughton and Mulcahy referred to having one Minister in charge. We set out €70 million in additional funds that can be drawn down by local authorities. There are existing schemes and this year I have €45 million to spend in the OPW on flood defences. Some €3.5 million is set aside for the minor works scheme, involving projects of up to €500,000. I will be inundated with applications in the coming weeks and by April my €3.5 million will be spent. I was present at the Cabinet discussion on this point yesterday. Through a Supplementary Estimate, I will have additional funds for drawdown. We are working through the existing Departments. Local authorities submit applications and we will provide funding to local authorities. When our funds dry up, we will return to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform at some point in April, May or June and seek Supplementary Estimates to be approved by both Houses to get more money. Our task is to give the money to the local authority, which procures workers and contractors to get the work done. That is the approach. We have not taken the approach of having one lead Department because we already have schemes. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport made an announcement two weeks ago that €350 million is now available to local authorities. It is up to them to spend the money. Let them spend the money and come back later for additional moneys. The system we put in place is to use the existing schemes rather than introducing new bureaucracy. The existing schemes have a means through which local authorities can be given funds.

Senator Barrett made interesting points about flood maps. There has been a sea change in attitude and I apologise for using the dreadful pun. When we present maps to a local authority now, the light switch immediately goes on. If there is talk of a planning application on these plains, it is removed. There has been a major change and the local authorities have greater regard for flood maps than was the case some years ago.

I agree with Senator Barrett that it is intolerable that Cork, the second-largest city and conurbation in the State, should be at risk of flooding every time there is a major weather event. We must deal with this, which is why I made the announcement last Thursday on behalf of the Government that in July we will have a preferred solution. There is a lack of understanding in the public debate. Getting to a solution is a major event and takes many years. We must hydrologically model the solution. In the case of Cork, there is a tidal problem and a fluvial problem of significant rainfall amounts. I have heard people suggest a tidal barrier but that would flood Cork because-----

It could be the Venice of the south.

-----if there was a major rainfall event there is no way in which the city can discharge the water. There must be a hydrometric solution, which is complicated. In July we will have a preferred solution and it will take a year or a year and a half to get detailed designs in place, including consultation and dealing with the question of who owns the land and whether it must be acquired. Senator John Gilroy referred to the 12 km of quay walls that must be built.

When we get to the point of moving on a major capital investment, we need stakeholder involvement. There is no point in the local authority not having done the homework in getting people onside in saying to the business community that it is not rocket science and that we must build walls, embankments and pumping stations. It is horrible work and the city will be knocked out for two or three years while we do this work. The big gain with the capital infrastructure is that there will be certainty about flooding events, as we have seen in other parts of the country.

Stakeholder involvement is crucial. In order for us to get going on the Cork scheme, which will be the largest flood defence scheme in the history of the country and involving somewhere between €50 million and €100 million, at the tail end of next year all other timelines must be clear. The crucial engagement is with stakeholders to get them on board, to see what we are proposing, to comment on it and to support it. Otherwise, we will lose time and we will not be able to get construction going. I fully agree with colleagues about Cork, which is crucial.

Senator Barrett also referred to the turloughs in south Galway, which is the most complicated area of the country for engineers. Rainfall takes place and the water stays and there is no way we can get it out via turloughs into the sea. We have had to relocate over 20 families, through the Department of Social Protection, in that area of south Galway because, over the long term, it is cheaper to do so and flood the area then to provide a defence solution. That is part of the mix. It is very emotional for people to hear that they must be relocated because there is no solution. In some parts of the country, there is no solution or the solution costs such an astronomical sum as to be not justifiable in a cost benefit analysis.

Senator Denis Landy spoke about Limerick and whether this was a freak situation. It was the first question I asked about Limerick and I was told it was a one in 200 year event. What happened in the Shannon Estuary is that we knew there was a 7 in. surge on top of the tide on Saturday morning.

However, we did not have a forecasting system, which would have helped to predict the impact of a 7 in. surge in the estuary on homes and businesses in the city. We need to get to that point. An interesting aspect of the Cork engineering solution is that once we get to that point, we can predict with a much greater degree of accuracy the impact of such events on housing and on commercial areas of the city. Senator Landy rightly asked if it was a freak incident, but I cannot answer that question.

Central government will fund 90% of the cost of the scheme and the local authorities will fund the remaining 10%. If problems arise this year in this context, we will look at it again. I have seen cases in which we have given funds to local authorities but they have not been drawn down.

In fairness, local authorities in the west are under severe pressure in dealing with the damage.

The good news is that it will act as a stimulus for employment. We need to get the local contractors working on the plan. Most of the work will be done by the private sector, notwithstanding the fact that the OPW and local authority staff are doing really important work.

I agree with the point about insurance companies cherry-picking those whom they will insure. We need to have a debate on flooding to deal with this specific issue.

I will meet, at Senator Kelly's request, a gentleman who has come up with a solution to the problem, and we will certainly look at what he is suggesting.

Senator Darragh O'Brien mentioned an insurance levy. As the Senator will know, the previous Government looked at this issue, and it was reported to the Government in 2010 that a levy was not the solution at that stage. We announced that we would consider that again in the next four to six weeks. At present, insurance companies have declined insurance cover to those in areas that have flooded. That is the current situation for many of the businesses that I visited in Cork last week. It is intolerable. A State indemnification scheme would be a major undertaking. We would have to consider the extent of the funding involved and who would make a contribution to the fund. My understanding is that from EUROSTAT's perspective this potential liability would go onto the State's debt. That would have significant economic repercussions, were we to take that route. The preferred solution would be to have an element of State indemnification, which would give support to everybody. The present situation is that people have no recourse and no solution. We must find the middle ground. I am open to considering the levy proposal or a contribution. Interestingly, in the case of the UK, as mentioned by my good colleague Senator Mooney, the insurance companies are breaking with Government and are getting out of it now because 95% of the cost to the insurance industry has been borne in the past two years because of the severity of weather conditions in the south of England. We need to deal with the issue in accordance with our ability. We cannot pretend there is a quick-fix solution.

I do not disagree with the Senator about SACs. I think Europe is being blamed rather than our over-zealous application locally, which is the cause of the problem more so than the actual SACs. In Portrane, an attempt to improve the growth of marram grass in the dunes is being examined with the aim of creating a better barrier. Those involved can apply under the minor works scheme, and I expect to receive an application shortly. I give Senator O'Brien a commitment that I will turn it around, as the sums involved are not significant. I am aware that Fingal County Council will make an application shortly to the Department, and we will turn it around if it will give us a cost benefit.

Senator Michael D'Arcy, among others, called on the public to keep away from the coastline. Senator Cullinane raised the issue of applications for minor works. I hope I have explained that the total cost of minor work carried out by the local authorities comes to €19 million, whereas I have only €3.5 million to spend. I presume I will have that money spent by the end of March. I then return to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Howlin, and put the case for a supplementary estimate, and we will extend it again. The best way to proceed is by using the local authority minor works scheme.

The estimated cost of the damage is in the region of €60 million to €70 million currently, notwithstanding what happens today. The GNI threshold for the EU Solidarity Fund is €770 million for the country. The damage caused by the weather would need to be worth €770 million and one would need to prove to the Solidarity Fund that a part of the national wealth or GDP had been knocked out as a result of this disaster to be able to get a significant drawdown. We are looking at whether we can apply on a regional basis, where the thresholds are slightly less, but it is not looking particularly strong at present. If we were to succeed in drawing down funds from this account, I understand we would be talking about €1 million or €2 million. Virtually all the resources will come from the insurance industry or our own national resources.

I hope I have answered Senator Gilroy, who also spoke about Cork defences.

Senator O'Donovan spoke about Bantry, but I understand that it comes under the CFRAM process. It is complicated by the harbour issue. I wish to be fair to the other towns in Senator O'Donovan's constituency. Last week I was in some of the larger towns in south west Cork. Works will happen this year in Skibbereen and Bandon, and the following year in Clonakilty. Those communities have been hit.

I agree with Senator Colm Burke on the involvement of stakeholders. Local authorities should look at relief on rates for businesses in areas hit by the weather. We look for international advice. Many of the CFRAM contracts involve international engineers who are working with us. We need to learn from best international advice. I fully agree with him and we are very conscious of the need to learn from others. Fresh ideas are crucial in this regard.

Senator Mooney raised the question of humanitarian aid. The reason such a small amount has been drawn down, as he rightly points out, was that extensive flooding was quite localised. I have spoken to the Minister for Social Protection and I know there will be a much more significant drawdown. Apparently, the income threshold is €70,000 per house. The people affected have to replace floors and white goods, and if they have no insurance, we will have to help in the structural improvement of the houses. The local authorities and the OPW have a role in advising the Department of Social Protection about what is being proposed when people have no insurance cover. I expect significant sums will be drawn down from the €10 million. Senator Naughton spoke about one body being responsible. The OPW is the body dealing with CFRAM, which will give us the strategic view and the long-term solution. Once we have the CFRAM maps in place this year and provide the solutions to the European Commission by December 2015, we will be in a good position to plan for the future.

I hope I have answered Senator Mulcahy's point about one Minister. The reason we have chosen to use the existing schemes is that these schemes exist across four or five Departments and there is no point in creating a new bureaucracy. My message to local authorities and my colleagues who are working with local authorities is to get the applications into the OPW as soon as possible so that the OPW can turn them around and put them in fund to get the repair work done.

We have come to the end of the debate. I thank the Minister of State for his very comprehensive reply and for responding to each of the Senators' questions. He has been very helpful.