The Insurance Council of Australia (ICA) has declared a catastrophe for insurance policyholders in the city of Townsville, Queensland, which has experienced torrential rainfall and flooding over the past week.
Officials said that up to 20,000 homes are at risk of flooding after the coastal area received more than a metre of rain, up to 25cm of which has fallen since Sunday morning.
Several neighbourhoods have also been deliberately flooded as gates at the Ross River dam were fully opened to drain dangerously high water levels.
The dam can release up to 1,900 cubic metres of water a second, and reports say that cars and livestock have been swept away by the inundation.
Thousands of people have also been left without power or access to roads by the flooding, and the army has been brought in to protect homes with sandbags, while rescue teams have been evacuating residents by boat and helicopter.
Authorities have faced some criticism for deciding not to impose a forced evacuation on the Townsville area after more than 1,000 calls for help were received.
As of 8pm on Saturday, the ICA reported that insurers had received about 1900 claims with losses estimated at AUD $16.7 million (USD 12.1 million).
However, this figure is expected to rise significantly as residents continue to assess the extent of the damage caused.
Further rainfall is still expected in the region over the next few days, but the Australian Bureau of Meteorology has confirmed that the heaviest period has now passed.
“The Queensland Government and emergency services have informed the Insurance Council that dozens of homes and businesses may have been affected by the downpour and resulting inundation of the past few days,” said Rob Whelan, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of the ICA.
“Many other properties, as well as private and commercial vehicles, may have also have been damaged,” he continued.
“It is possible many more will be inundated in coming days, with some state government projections indicating thousands of homes could be affected. Therefore, the ICA has declared a Catastrophe to help escalate the insurance industry’s response.”
The declaration will mean that claims from affected Townsville policyholders are given priority by insurers and triaged to direct urgent assistance to the worst-affected property owners.
An industry taskforce has also been established to address issues and ICA representatives have been mobilised to work with local agencies and services and affected policyholders.
“The ICA has declared this Catastrophe to help reduce the emotional and financial stress being experienced by families and businesses, and provide them with peace of mind that their insurer is there to help,” Whelan stated.