Lismore flood survivors’ efforts to build back better hamstrung by insurance, government payout rules

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Laurie Axtens reckons that when the next flood comes, his 92-year-old mum should be able to make it up the ladder and through the escape hatch he has built in the family’s North Lismore home.

A piece of cement sheeting is loosely secured to one wall in the ceiling cavity, allowing access onto the roof.

The Axtens were rescued from the roof when flood water swept through their neighbourhood 12 months ago.

Desperate to move back into the family home of 40 years, Mr Axtens took a cash payout from his insurer and set about retrofitting the property to better withstand the next flood.

“I’ve made it safer,” he said.

“If that flood happened again, I would not be scared for anyone’s life.”

Along with the escape hatch, Mr Axtens said his main priority was reducing the buoyancy of his weatherboard house to prevent it from lifting off its stumps.

He has bolted the structure to the ground, with a second set of bolts and brackets attaching the stumps to a base-plate.

In addition, he has installed up to four 18-millimetre stabilising steel rods through each wall.

“I’ve locked the house down and created an escape route onto the roof, so I’ve kept the worst-case scenario in my mind and I’ve dealt with that as best as I could,” he said.

“My family bought this house before they thought it would flood, and I’m just dealing with those consequences.”

In January, the Northern Rivers Reconstruction Corporation announced funding of up to $50,000 for eligible home owners to carry out works, as set out under its “flood resilient design framework”.

A spokesperson said homeowners who had paid for work before officially securing a Resilient Homes Program offer could still receive funding for reimbursement, to be considered “on a case-by-case basis”.

Homeowners need to provide evidence of the retrofitting works, including receipts, photos and any records of work.

Mr Axtens said he had no regrets about retrofitting his home, but work to reduce the buoyancy of a house was not listed as eligible for reimbursement under the Resilient Homes Program.

“I don’t get it, you are designing for further disaster, replicating the same things,” he said.

Barriers to resilient rebuilds

Sasha Mainsbridge from community organisation Mullum Cares said people were hamstrung by insurance rules around rebuilding flood-affected homes.

She said under most policies, insurers would only take on “like-for-like” rebuilds.

She said anyone wanting to rebuild in a more resilient way was being told they would have to take a cash payout and manage the project themselves.

Mullum Cares has been working with a group of mainly older, single women in this situation.

Ms Mainsbridge said these people were finding the process of trying to build back better insurmountable.

“People are finding it impossible to project manage the rebuild of their homes and yet they are being told by their insurers that is their only option,” she said.

Mullum Cares is hosting a “sustainable house day” this month to “inspire and encourage” people grappling with how to rebuild their homes.

Insurance issues

Insurance Council of Australia chief executive Andrew Hall said Australia faced a “massive challenge” working out how to keep insurance affordable in the face of increasing costs.

Mr Hall said government grants through schemes like the Resilient Homes Program recognised the gap between insurance coverage and the cost of building back better.

He said it had been “a slow grind” getting claims processed as people waited to see if they were eligible for government grants.

“This issue is, which builder does that work and who covers the warranty and making sure it is insurable at the end of that work being completed,” he said.

He said the Insurance Council was at the tail end of negotiations around these issues.

It is holding face-to-face meetings with customers around flood-affected parts of northern New South Wales this week.

(Original ABC Article)