NSW premier Mike Baird has predicted the cost of the state’s wild weather could rise to hundreds of millions of dollars including major damage to the crucial Hunter Valley coal export network.

Touring the Hunter where four people were killed by the flood waters this week, Mr Baird said on Thursday he was shocked by the devastation.

“There is no doubt going to be a very big bill, and it is undoubtedly going to be in the hundreds of millions of dollars.”

The Insurance Council of Australia said that by Thursday morning insurers had received 24,450  claims as a result of the cyclonic storms and floods. It said insurance losses were estimated at $161 million and it was now sending assessors to the area.

“They are prioritising those policyholders who have suffered the worst damage where they can reach the insured property,” he said.

The Australian Rail Track Corporation said that the rail lines which take coal from mines in the Hunter Valley to the port of Newcastle have been flooded since Tuesday and would remain closed for at least another 48 hours.

It said the rail network could remain shut for even longer if flood waters did not recede. “Sections of the track remain underwater and there will be significant clean up requirements to allow track repairs.”

NSW energy network firm Ausgrid meanwhile denied accusations from the Electrical Trades Union that it was slow in reconnecting power to houses because it was trying to save money on over time.

ETU  secretary Steve Butler said management’s decision to restrict over time coupled with recent cuts of more than 1,000 jobs at Ausgrid had resulted in lengthy delays.

“We are getting reports through from frontline electricity workers about questionable decisions made by management over the past seventy-two hours that resulted in major delays to customers having their electricity reconnected,” Mr Butler said.

A spokesman for Ausgrid said the company was paying over time but staff could only work 14 hours per shift for safety reasons.

“It’s important because we are asking our people to work in a very hazardous environment around live electricity, for days at a time, so managing fatigue safely is essential,” the spokesman said.

Barry Hanstrum, regional manager for the Bureau of Meteorology, said the storm this week was “very comparable” in severity to the storms that hit the same region in 2007 when the Pasha Bulker ship was run aground at Newcastle’s main beach.

Mr Hanstrum said both events had involved rainfall over 300 millimetres a day and peak winds over 135 kilometres an hour.

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