A natural disaster declaration could provide much-needed financial assistance for landholders affected by last month’s devastating storm, Tamworth MP Kevin Anderson said.
Mr Anderson addressed a public meeting at the Walcha Bowling & Recreation Club on Monday afternoon.
Earlier in the day, he and Walcha mayor Eric Noakes met with landholders at the property of Angus and Lisa Kirton, who were among the worst affected.
With some farmers facing clean-up bills of up to $1 million to clear fallen trees, they have appealed to the government for assistance.
"I can only imagine the mental anguish and the angst that you've been feeling,” Mr Anderson told the landholders.
“Getting back on your feet after worst drought since 1965, then in the space of 20 minutes, having this absolute destruction come through, and wipe out sections of your country.”
Mr Anderson called the conditions absolutely cyclonic.
Winds of up to 190 km / hr – cyclone category 3 level – tore through the shire on the evening of December 20. More than 70 properties were damaged, and hundreds of thousands of trees brought down. Townsfolk and businesses were left without power for four days, and internet and phone connections for a fortnight. The clean-up is estimated to cost millions of dollars.
Farmers are facing clean-up bills of more than $600,000 each - which some say they won't ever be able to afford.
While he could not promise anything, Mr Anderson said he and the mayor were looking at options to help affected locals.
The Tamworth MP told the landholders he had spoken directly to both emergency services minister Troy Grant, and primary industries minister Niall Blair about their plight.
Support and assistance, Mr Anderson said, will come through a natural disaster declaration made by Mr Grant and the Office of Emergency Management, based on information from Walcha council and affected farmers.
This will open up financial assistance for council.
Mr Anderson understood that Mr Grant was close to making the declaration.
The natural disaster declaration will then trigger support and assistance measures for landholders, under the Disaster Assistance Guidelines.
Section D9: Grants to Primary Producers states that in severe circumstances, eligible primary producers may receive grants to help pay for clean-up, removing debris, and disposing of dead livestock; repairing or replacing damaged assets such as farm buildings, and essential plant and equipment; salvaging crops, grain and feed, and health maintenance of livestock and poultry; and fencing, pasture restoration, and infrastructure.
This will come through the Rural Assistance Authority, run by Mr Blair.
The process was being assessed now, Mr Anderson said.
“They’ve felt enormous pressure from me since this happened.”
The Office of Emergency Management, the Rural Assistance Authority, and Rural Financial Counselling would also go out of their way to help farmers, Mr Anderson said.
Other options include loans (unpopular, given that many farmers are already in debt with drought); and grants under extenuating and exceptional circumstances;
"We'll do what we can to help you get back on your feet, and rectify some of the damage," Mr Anderson said.
New England member Barnaby Joyce, speaking at the afternoon meeting, said the federal government would follow the council and state's lead.
In his role as special drought envoy, he said he considered this an exacerbation of the drought.
Coming on the back of the drought, many people's overdrafts were maxed out. Mr Joyce promised to speak to the Prime Minister.
"I will pursue this as hard as I can on your behalf," Mr Joyce said.
Mr Anderson said that while clearing the land was the biggest task, there were issues under workplace safety regulations about letting people enter dangerous country.
Farmers would also need to seek advice from the Office of Environment and Heritage about what can or cannot be cleared under native vegetation legislation.
Col Easton and Mitch Winton from Local Land Services provided information about what trees were considered dead, and could be removed without prosecution.
Karen Zirkler (Southern New England Landcare) said that when farmers were ready, the organization could support them to re-vegetate.
Many Walcha residents were still fuming after Telstra outages left them with an intermittent 3G service over the Christmas period, making EFTPOS unusable.
The phone company’s northern NSW manager Michael Marom apologised, and said the company was reviewing its process to improve their response time.
He advised residents – particularly the elderly and ill – to have both a landline and a mobile, and that any residents who have not yet switched over to NBN should do so. He also recommended satellite phones for people in remote areas.
Council will remove dangerous trees, and replant decorative trees. The council thanked farmers for moving trees off the road in Friday morning, and contractors for responding quickly.
Mr Noakes said he had talked to BlazeAid, a natural disaster recovery organization, which could send teams of experienced voluteers to cut down trees, and rebuild fences and other structures. He was looking for a co-ordinator – preferably someone semi-retired.
St Albert's College, UNE, will send down 45 students on Thursday, February 14, to help farmers in need.
Mr Noakes advised farmers and other locals to talk to their neighbours for emotional support.
"Talk to your neighbours if they're doing it a bit tough,” he said. “Chat to them over a beer or a cup of tea one afternoon if they're having a bad day, and just look after them, because this is hard work on a lot of people."