Saturday, 6 February 2010

The Cumbria floods of 2009

This is going to be a hard one to write about. But I feel that I should record my thoughts on this, due to my involvement.

The flooding that occurred in November 2009 in Cumbria shocked the nation. We had what was classed as a 1 in 1000 year event. Cumbria was hit by what is now being called "flooding of biblical proportions".

But I dont want to talk about the facts and figures. I want to talk about the feelings that I experienced, and the things that I saw. I want to offer a dedication to PC Bill Barker who tragically lost his life when the North Side Bridge collapsed in Workington and he was swept away into the raging River Derwent.
PC Bill Barker

I want to pay my respects to the wonderful people of Cumbria, and their magnificent spirit. And to show my pride in my colleagues at the Environment Agency who worked round the clock to the point of exhaustion without ever complaining.
Some of my colleagues working through the night in Cockermouth

Glyn talking to a local MP in Workington

Workington and Cockermouth were the places most reported on, but there were so many other places that were hit by the rising waters. And so I went (along with one of my colleagues, Lynsey) up to Keswick to see where we were needed and what we could do.

The drive to Keswick was scary. The roads were flooded, and on either side of the A66 fields were under water, making the whole landscape look more like an estuary or huge wetland rather than fertile farm land. The bridge in Keswick had been closed for safety reasons, so to access the part of the town that we needed to get to, we had to drive a long circular route and come in alongside the River Greta (shown here in full flood).

The flood waters in Keswick had receded at this point from the streets, but the River Greta was still a raging, vicious looking monster, and we were expecting more rain. And so we went and set up a mobile information centre on the car park of the local Catholic Chuch "Our Lady of the Lakes and St Charles Borromeo" with the kind permission of the priest, Father Peter Sharrock. The photo of the church was taken on a nice sunny day before the flooding.

This second photo was as the flood waters were rising, taken from the chuch car park towards the gates.

We were joined by members of Cumbria County Council, the local Flood Action Group, and the Red Cross. We wanted to be on hand for any residents who needed information, had enquiries, were concerned about any more predicted rainfall, or just wanted someone to talk to. Even if all they wanted was someone to listen and to care, and even give them a hug. What more can you offer to someone who has just lost their home and everything they owned? Words at a time like that don't mean very much. But we cared. Very much so.

Across the road from our centre (we had kindly been granted the use of the mobile library by the council), occupants of the houses were busy dragging out ruined furniture, carpets, (and anything else they could move) onto the street to be collected and taken away. People who had already finished this very sad task were taping little notes to the inside of their front room windows giving contact details incase people needed to find them. Some of these were the addresses of relatives, or emergency centres.

I was amazed at how these people were coping. Neighbours were hugging each other, and standing out in the street together talking quietly, and surveying each others ruined possessions. Nobody was screaming and shouting (that was probably what I would have been doing if it were me - wanting to vent my frustration and grief at someone or something).

But the Cumbrians are a very hardy people, with great spirit and resilience. I work with them every day and I love them dearly.

A few of the locals were using the church car park as a short cut and spotted Lynsey and I standing outside in the pouring rain, with information sheets, and our name badges and Environment Agency jackets on so that people would know who we were, and that we were available.

A little old lady, who I had just watched throwing her things into a skip outside her devastated home, came over to me, grabbed my hands and said "Now, you are ganna get your death stood out here. Can I get you a cup of tea?"

I thanked her and said "no thank you, we'll be fine. Is there anything we can help YOU with?", to which she replied no there wasnt, and then laughed and said unless we wanted to send any young and good looking firemen her way as she was very upset at missing out on being carried from her home like some of the pensioners in Cockermouth had. I waited until she had gone back across the road to her home, and then I burst into tears. I could not believe the generosity being shown. Or the humour that these people were finding at a horrible time like this. Everyone passing had a joke to make "Hey lass are we ganna need our wellies tomorra?" "Shall ah trade me car in for a boat?"

God bless every single one of them.

Usually, even in a crisis, I can be relied upon to raise peoples spirits, and have a laugh and a joke with my colleagues. But this day words failed even me. I remember driving into Keswick and just staring open mouthed. I remember Lynsey gasping and saying "Oh my God" at some of the homes we passed. Other than that, and discussing our plan of action and the information we were to give out, and making sure that Lynsey was feeding back to the office any information we could gather, we didnt really say a great deal.

The drive back to our office in Penrith was a very sombre one. We were cold, wet and hungry (we hadnt even taken anything to eat or drink with us when I dashed out of the office 8 hours earlier, grabbing the car keys and shouting to Lynsey to come on). Both of us were wrapped up in our own thoughts. We were to go to Cockermouth the next day, and although in a crisis things are very exciting - and by exciting, I mean you are so pumped full of adrenalin that you are performing your duties without even having to think what they are - neither of us were looking forward to it one little bit.

Nothing in the years I have worked for the Environment Agency prepared me for the shock I would feel, or the depression that settled upon me like an icy cloak that night. I sat at home and listened to the news reports, and tried to get some sleep - but in a situation like this you dont sleep. Your mind is turning over and over, reliving the sights and sounds. Trying hard not to imagine what those poor people were thinking. And squeezing back the tears at something as simple as being offered a cuppa by an old lady who had just lost everything she had in the world, but yet still found the time to care enough for two "girls" she thought would freeze to death standing in the rain on a deserted church car park.

I was amazed at the extreme effort put in by all of my colleagues. Caroline who was heavily pregnant, but worked every single day - even over the weekend - dealing with the media enquiries and VIP visits to the county. And Sarah who was pictured on the front of the News and Star, with such a look of desolation on her face as she tried to comfort a friend, that it sent shivers down my spine. Our Ops delivery guys who worked round the clock clearing debris, and sandbagging to give additional protection to the flood defences. All of the staff who volunteered to come off their usual day jobs to man the Incident Room and take phone calls just to relieve the pressure from the staff who were right in the centre of things. And our North West Comms Team. They kept the world informed. The requests going to that office were incredible in their volume. The phones rang constantly, and staff were on call throughout the night. I spent one late night shift with them observing their professionalism. The accuracy of the information they delivered, and the speed with which it was obtained would put any International News Agency to shame. And what you have to bare in mind is that none of this information is available on a computer screen. Each request - sometimes with under a half an hour dealine - involved phone calls, requesting the most up to the minute data, getting this checked and approved (and this was from staff who were already being bent out of shape trying to keep this data coming in and collated, along with answering their own enquiries from other parts of the business) and then feeding this back to whichever reporter or News Desk had requested it.

There are so many more people who deserve praise such as the police, fire service, ambulance crews, mountain rescue teams, and the army and RAF. Every single person involved gave 100% of what they had.....and then still managed to give more, despite incredible fatigue.

But as you read this, please spare a thought for the hundreds of our staff who dropped everything to work 24 hours a day, under tremendous pressure to support the people of Cumbria. We had volunteers coming in from other regions such as North East, Midlands, and Head Office (Bristol). We very rarely get praise - and that is not what Im looking for now, and I know it's not what any of my colleagues would want either. We don't just do this because "it's a job" - we do it because we genuinely love what we do and believe that we can make a difference.

One success we can take away from the Cumbria floods of 2009 are the Carlisle Flood Defences. This multi million pound scheme was started following the terrible flooding in Carlisle in 2005. Even though the scheme had not been finished and parts were still under construction when the flood waters of November 2009 started to rampage through the county....they held.

Sign up to our free flood warning service
We can't always stop the sea and rivers from flooding, but we can tell you when it's going to happen. Some 70 per cent of those who can sign up to receive Floodline Warnings Direct service still have not done so. If you're one of them, sign up now.

Floodline Warnings Direct is a free service that provides flood warnings direct to you by telephone, mobile, email, SMS text message and fax.

Sign up for Floodline Warnings Direct online
You can also sign up for Floodline Warnings Direct by calling Floodline on 0845 988 1188 or Typetalk 0845 602 6340. Simple advice on what to do, before, during and after a flood is also available from Floodline

This service proved invaluable during the Cumbria floods, and our warning system ensured that the emergency services were well prepared and were able to evacuate the majority of residents before the worst of the flooding hit. It also gave thousands of residents, who had already signed up for the service, advanced warning. This enabled people to prepare themselves for the likelihood of a major flooding event, such as removing valuables to an upper floor of their homes or businesses; sandbagging; and making sure that elderly or infirm neighbours and relatives were being helped.

Thank you for reading this, and if you live in an area at risk of flooding and have not yet signed up for our Flood Warning service, please do it. In reality, it could mean the difference between life and death.

Murphy has a better social life than I do !

When I first moved here, I was a bit daunted at the prospect of starting a new life in a new place where I didn't know a single person.

Maybe that isn't so hard in a big town or city, but I moved to a very small Lancashire village which is basically one street, and has a population (which I have now found out is combined with the neighbouring village) of just over 1000 people.

Everyone seems to have been born and bred here, as were their parents and grandparents and so on right back to the founding of the village. Everybody knows everybody else, and it's a very closely knit place with lots of community involvement in everything. And I was instantly recognised as "someone new".

But I have never been to a more friendly place in my life. Everyone is so welcoming. And due to the location, everyone seems to own a dog, so dog walking across the moors, through the forest or down the river is a big thing and everyone uses it as an excuse to hear the latest gossip, catch up, and socialise.

And dogs are such funny animals. Not for them the hesitancy of waiting for someone to say hello. They just run up to each other, have a sniff, wag their respective tails and then indulge in a game of chase or play fighting.

And that is exactly what Murphy did. He has got so many friends here. There is Milly the 4 year old Doberman who lives two doors up, then Dennis his favourite playmate (a little 18 month old Westie) who lives 4 doors up. Boris the German Pointer who lives near the pub. And Sol the Springer who lives across the road. Then we also have Holly, Trixie and Daisy (Border Collie, Lurcher puppy, and Golden Labrador) who live at the back of me, and Skye and Sally who are the two Border Collies who live in a lovely house overlooking the lake. Oh and we cant forget Digsy the terrier and Star and Lilly (Lilly is Star's mum and they are both black labs).

I know every single dogs name, and where they live, but none of the owners names. I was chatting with Zoe who is "Dennis' mum" two weeks ago and we were laughing because she said "Everyone knows you as "Murphy's mum" but the others were saying that they don't know your name"....and I had to admit that I was exactly the same. So we all got together on Wednesday for a long walk and made a point of introducing ourselves properly to each other.

Wouldn't it be so much simpler if we were like dogs? No reticence about making introductions to strangers. No worries about "will they say hello back to me". And definately no hang ups about making a fool of yourself. Maybe if we still had tails we would find it so much easier.

So I suppose that I really need to thank my silly Springer for making me so many new friends here. If it wasn't for him, I'd probably have spent the next few years living in isolation in this village and being too shy to walk up to anyone and say hello.