‘It was a feeling of terror: when will the water stop?’: Britain’s flood victims, six months on

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Emma Laughton’s memories of the days before lockdown may not be like yours. When the shops and supermarkets around her home in east Yorkshire overflowed with people in search of essentials, she was trying to furnish a caravan. “Everyone was fighting over milk and bread and there I was, running around trying to get crockery and cutlery,” she says.

Exactly a month before Boris Johnson ordered a nation to stay at home, two metres of dirty water had coursed into the modest red-brick semi that Laughton shared with her husband, Richard, and their three sons. The flood, which devastated East Cowick, a small village a mile south of the River Aire, left the family traumatised and homeless.

Britain had just waded through the wettest February ever recorded, as endless rain throughout winter, and a series of Atlantic storms, overwhelmed rivers across the country. In four months, almost 5,000 homes were flooded. Then one disaster rolled straight into another. Receding waters left victims in limbo, facing a global pandemic, lockdown and indefinite delays to insurance payouts and building work.

The Laughtons tried to save what they could, moving some of their belongings upstairs before fleeing to higher ground. “Some people stayed and were trying to dig trenches, but it was like plaiting fog,” Laughton, 41, says, laughing at the memory. “There was no way it was going to work.” More than 100 houses were flooded in East Cowick and the nearby town of Snaith, where Emma manages a physiotherapy clinic.

It was Richard’s dream to raise a family where he had grown up. The house is yards from his parents’ farm, for which he has always worked. Their crops include peas and potatoes, which were also ruined in the flood. The couple moved into the house when Jack, now 13, was a baby, and have since raised Harry, now 10, and Joseph, six.

Before the waters peaked, Laughton was able to wade into her house to assess the damage so far. “The fireplace had already been knocked off the wall and the sofa was bouncing about upside down,” she says. “The most devastating part was looking down the garden at the kids’ slide and swing, which were only just visible above the water. All their toys, and the whole of their life here, just gone.”

Emma Laughton has been living in a caravan with her husband and three sons since March.

The Laughtons crammed into an uncle’s house for a month before the insurance company agreed to pay for the rent of the caravan, which is parked on the farm. A hastily plumbed washing machine sits under a shelter outside. The family moved in on 21 March, two days before Boris Johnson announced the national lockdown. They are still there; a family of five, squeezed into three boxy bedrooms.

At a small kitchen table with only four chairs, Emma and Richard have tried to homeschool three children – and continue to rescue their flooded house. But the firm that was going to dry it out furloughed its staff; then the builder that the insurer had asked to estimate the cost of remedial work couldn’t come out. When I first spoke to Emma in June, her house needed new wiring, central heating and floors. A ladder stands in place of the stairs that had to be ripped out.

She felt despairing and abandoned. The caravan has seemed smaller with each passing week, and the children have suffered from anxiety after losing first their home, then any sense of routine due to the pandemic. Laughton thinks the family will need therapy. “I lose the plot on a daily basis,” she says.

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Britain was soggy even before the start of last winter. Summer 2019 was among the wettest on record. Rivers raged. In November, the Don, which flows through Sheffield, Rotherham and Doncaster, reached record levels. Dozens of marooned shoppers spent a night in Sheffield’s Meadowhall mall as the streets around it flooded. In Derbyshire, Annie Hall, the county’s former high sheriff, died after being swept away near Matlock. Roads, railway lines and schools were closed as multiple rivers burst their banks. In December, southern England bore the brunt of yet more extreme weather. Police declared a major incident in west Cornwall. A tornado wrote off roofs and cars in Surrey.

Then the Atlantic storms rolled in, propelled in rapid succession by an unusually strong and southerly jet stream. Ciara, Dennis and Jorge brought gales and yet more rain. By then, the water had nowhere to go. East Cowick was among the last places to be struck as waters rose across a giant belt of northern England, the Midlands and Wales.

A flooded street in Mytholmroyd, West Yorkshire, after the River Calder burst its banks on 9 February.

It might be hard to remember now, but the floods dominated bulletins and front pages for weeks. Dan Jarvis, the Labour MP for Barnsley Central, remembers them as a “seismic event” for Yorkshire. Jarvis, who is also mayor of the Sheffield city region, visited the village of Fishlake after it was evacuated in November. “It took me hours to get into the centre of the village,” he says. “It felt like a place under siege, with huge great pumps gushing water away. I’d never seen anything like it.”

The Fishlake flood set a pattern for winter. Journalists crisscrossed Britain to meet devastated residents. Jarvis remembers villagers tiring of the media attention. “But I said to them, ‘We’ve got to make the most of it now, because it won’t be long before the waters recede and the camera crews head off. And then it will be harder to make the case for the action we need to prevent this happening again.'”

He was soon proved right. In February, floods competed for attention with a wider looming crisis. By March, as the coronavirus gathered pace, the waters had receded. The camera crews had gone. “I think there is this sense now that people have been left behind and forgotten,” Jarvis says.

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Lisa Thwaites had always dreamed of running a cafe. Early last year, she took a redundancy payout from Thomson Reuters, the media corporation, where she was a manager at its offices on the edge of Mytholmroyd. The large village sits on the River Calder, 40 miles west of East Cowick. In August, Thwaites and a childhood friend took over the Blue Teapot, turning a traditional tearoom into a little vegetarian cafe between the Calder and the Rochdale canal.

Lisa Thwaites at the Blue Teapot cafe.

Thwaites, who is 44 and still brimming with optimism, says she could not get insurance for the cafe. Mytholmroyd has been flooded regularly, most recently in 2012 and 2015. But work was finally under way to protect 400 properties. The GBP35m scheme to move bridges, widen the river and raise its banks had been due to be finished by winter. In the meantime, Thwaites made regular payments into her own flood fund. “If it did happen again, I thought I’d have that pot to get back up and running,” she says.

On Sunday 9 February, the Calder reached record high levels, easily breaching the unfinished new defences. More than a metre of water flowed into the Blue Teapot, burying Thwaites’ dreams in a thick carpet of mud. She worked for five weeks to get the place open again. Days later, lockdown forced her to close.

A five-minute walk from the Blue Teapot, Suzanne Stankard, 58, lives alone in a two-up, two-down on the main road through Mytholmroyd. Stankard spent years abroad as a textiles lecturer before coming back to Yorkshire in 2014 to work at Leeds Arts University. In her younger days, she lived in a flat but now felt it was time to put down roots.

She invested everything in her little house, which backs on to the river, moving in in April last year. She hung her textiles on the walls, bringing a flavour of Malaysia to the Calder Valley. “It’s got beams and an inglenook fireplace,” she says. “I thought I’d never be able to own another property and I just loved it. It was exactly what I wanted.”

Like Thwaites, Stankard felt reassured by the new defences and the unlikeliness of another severe flood so soon after the last one. Even as Storm Ciara swept across England, she went to bed without a second thought. Early next morning, her phone lit up with messages from neighbours. “I looked out the window and could see how high the river was coming,” she says.

A puddle crept under the back door. “I started mopping but then just stood there, watching it come into the living room, around my sofa. One inch, two inches.” She retreated to her stairs, climbing a step at a time as the waters rose. “It was a feeling of terror: I can still feel it now,” she says, four months later. “I was watching in disbelief, thinking, when is it ever going to stop?”

When it did stop, more than a metre of water filled Stankard’s home. “By then I was lying on my bed, terrified, and crying at the shock of it,” she says. The water’s gentle rise and fall belied its destructive force: a dresser toppled; the inglenook stove was ruined; the kitchen destroyed. And there was mud, everywhere. It ruined old photo slides from her travels and a treasured photograph of her mother as a girl.

When we speak, Stankard is still camping in her home, waiting for any work to be done. For weeks after the flood, she became deeply anxious and had to take weeks off work. “I couldn’t sleep, I couldn’t get to grips with what had happened in here,” she says, pausing. “It was just… that water, that amount of water.”

More than 120 miles north, Gino Antonacci had put everything into the Bridge House guesthouse in Hawick, in the Scottish Borders. He had rescued the building from dereliction in the early 1990s, evicting a pair of hens to create a modest B&B and Sonia’s Bistro, named after his wife. Antonacci, 67, had considered selling the business and retiring a couple of years ago, but couldn’t bear to see it go.

The guesthouse, which sits on the corner of the Teviot, an increasingly flood-prone tributary of the Tweed, and the smaller Slitrig Water, had survived serious flooding in 2005 and 2015. Storm Ciara spared Hawick from floodwater but the rivers were dangerously high. During breakfast in the bistro, a dog walker ran in to tell guests that a chunk of the guesthouse foundations was missing. Cracks began to open in the walls. Everyone got out.

An hour later, the entire corner of the two-storey building crumbled into the river. Beds and television sets floated away. The dust settled to reveal what looked like a shattered doll’s house. “I can’t even remember what I was thinking,” Antonacci says of the collapse, a video of which made worldwide news. “I was completely cold, frozen.”

Antonacci’s insurer took three months to accept his claim. By then, lockdown had further delayed rebuilding work. The stress got to him. He and Sonia went back to a family home near Rome to recover and isolate. In Hawick, his guest rooms remain exposed to the weather. He can’t see the place reopening until well into next year, but is determined that it will. “That building has become a part of me,” he says.

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John Curtin, a hydrologist and flood forecaster, joined the Environment Agency when it was formed in 1996. As its director of flood and coastal risk management, he is now responsible for keeping homes dry. The scale of that task this winter became clear in February, when the colour-coded map the government agency uses to show UK rainfall compared to the monthly average ran out of shades of blue. Light blue had denoted average rainfall, through to a very dark navy for triple the normal levels. Later that day, Curtin published a new map with two new shades of purple to show wide areas of the country where four or more times normal levels of rain had fallen. “It’s incredible to have had that on the back of the winter we’d already been through.”

Curtin visited Mytholmroyd in early March. The opening of a new GBP7m bridge in May, designed to let more water flow under it, felt to residents like a fire engine attending a pile of ashes. While Curtin tells me it was “heartbreaking” that the flood scheme there was not finished in time for Storm Ciara, he also says it’s too early to know whether it would have prevented another flood as bad as February’s.

A “mosaic” of measures builds resilience, Curtin explains, including better farming practices and land management to reduce run-off. The agency’s forecasting and warning systems are also improving. “We know that the worst mental health stress affects people who are unwarned and unprepared,” he adds. He is anxious to point out that 10 times as many houses flooded in the 2007 storms, despite river levels then being generally lower than this year.

But the agency has also been forced to shift its approach. “We tended to have a cycle of flood, invest, flood, invest – but then you were just responding to the last event,” Curtin says. “We want to understand what climate change will bring, especially with sea level rises, and prepare our communities.” Put another way, he says, “our thinking needs to change faster than the climate”.

Flood protection in Britain has always been fraught – and deeply political. There were riots and court battles in the 17th century when a scheme to drain vast expanses of eastern England inadvertently caused Snaith and Fishlake to flood. Pumps, washlands and culverts still help to protect that precarious reclamation. They have largely worked; Snaith last flooded badly in 1947. But this year the area ended up under an expanse of water almost the size of Windermere.

The Laughtons blame the authorities. They say culverts were blocked and pumps did not work; that their village was effectively sacrificed. “It wasn’t a natural flood, I believe. Others may differ,” Emma says. East Riding Council says an investigation it launched into the cause of the floods in East Cowick and Snaith is ongoing. The Environment Agency refutes any suggestion of deliberate flooding. “We do not sacrifice town X for town Y – it’s just not how we operate,” Curtin says.

Anger towards the authorities had simmered all winter. Six days after the November floods, Boris Johnson engaged awkwardly with a mop in a Matlock branch of Specsavers. He was heckled in South Yorkshire. Labour accused the prime minister of neglect and of being distracted by the general election campaign. Johnson faced criticism again in February for staying at Chevening in Kent, one of the estates at his disposal, when Storm Ciara struck. He was heckled again during a late visit to Bewdley in Worcestershire.

The chancellor, Rishi Sunak, announced an extra GBP2.6bn for capital flood defence projects in the March budget, although this does not include new funds for maintaining defences, many of which were breached or damaged. Dan Jarvis said in July that GBP16m of government money for flood prevention in South Yorkshire was “completely inadequate”, and a fraction of the GBP270m he had requested. After his visit to Fishlake in November, Jarvis called for an emergency floods summit so that authorities and agencies could better coordinate. He says the government had agreed to a meeting before lockdown, but “nothing has happened [since]”.

A spokesperson for the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs tells me investment over the next six years will protect 336,000 properties, and that ministers are “still working to identify suitable arrangements” for the Yorkshire summit. Meanwhile, the weather records keep toppling. Adaptation and a degree of fatalism may be required. As the environment secretary, George Eustice, said in February: “We’ll never be able to protect every single household.”

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For some, the emotional attachment to a home is more powerful than any flood. Siobhan O’Connor lives in the house where she grew up in Shrewsbury, the Shropshire market town close to the Welsh border. The house, which her parents bought almost 50 years ago, sits at the end of a lane just yards from the River Severn, which meanders ominously around the town’s medieval centre.

Siobhan O'Connor, whose family home of almost 50 years was flooded.

O’Connor’s parents are old enough to remember the 1947 floods, which devastated England. But Shrewsbury largely escaped further serious flooding until 1998. “I think we’ve been flooded 12 times since then, but not as badly as this year,” she says.

O’Connor, who runs a small communications company, moved back into the house 12 years ago and lives with her father and young son. Her mother died last year. After severe floods in 2000, the family raised electrical sockets, added flood-proof plaster and acquired pumps. But the pumps were no match for what happened in February, when the Severn breached its banks. When I speak to O’Connor in June, brown water still fills her washing machine and – thanks to lockdown – a cleanup crew is only just arriving.

Work to better protect Shrewsbury is being done, but O’Connor wouldn’t leave either way. “My mum’s from Lancashire and she loved the north, but she absolutely loved this house,” she says. “She’d watch her sons row past on the river and my son is about to start. It’s beautiful here and full of memories. So what do you do?”

Like everyone I speak to, O’Connor found strength in her community. In Mytholmroyd, people donated time and materials to help the Blue Teapot reopen. Suzanne Stankard describes the response of neighbours in her street as “like going back 100 years”. Hawick townsfolk rallied around Gino Antonacci, raising thousands on a crowdfunding page. In Snaith and East Cowick, the 12th-century St Laurence priory, which sits on high ground, became a refuge and community centre. “At one point I had firefighters napping in one of the chapels,” says the rector Eleanor Robertshaw.

Robertshaw led a team of volunteers who supplied food, bedding and clothing to residents who had been flooded, as well as a steady flow of tea. The church was also a place of calm in which to take a breath, or share information. Emma Laughton retreated there every morning just to sit briefly with neighbours. “We could talk about insurance and know what was happening,” she says. Lockdown then forced the church to shut, and the village lost its community centre. “We felt awful about it,” Robertshaw says.

Technology filled part of the gap. Robertshaw began uploading recorded sermons to YouTube (“I don’t trust myself not to swear doing them live,” she says) and had a bigger congregation than ever. Laughton is part of a busy village messaging group they call the Cowick Riviera.

Laughton has also endured the loss of the family’s submerged potato crop, the death of a 70-year-old aunt, who caught the coronavirus in hospital, and emergency surgery on Jack’s hand after a go-karting accident. She is still waiting for the impact of it all to hit her, she says: “I’m very much the sort of person that gets on with it and then it affects them after. I’m not there yet.”

When I call again in early August, the insurance money has at last come through and building work is under way. Laughton hopes the family can move back into their house in early September. Daily visits to the building site have helped Joseph, their six-year-old son, who had developed behavioural problems during the long wait for life to feel normal again.

Laughton says only a handful of residents on her street have been able to go home, almost six months after Storm Ciara. While she can’t wait to leave the caravan, she says the flood has shattered her bond with the home in which she was raising a family. “I keep going back to this shell of a house, but I’ve got no love for it any more,” she said in June. “We were hoping to extend but now we’re just waiting for house prices to come up so we can move.” She is prepared to make a loss – flooded houses tend not to sell well – but some things are more important. “I just wouldn’t feel safe keeping my family here.”

Days after we speak in August, rainstorms once again sweep across parts of Britain after an unprecedented heatwave, blocking roads and flooding homes. As summer turns to autumn, the Laughtons and the 5,000 victims of last winter’s inundations will hope that more than a year passes before the next “once-in-a-generation” flood turns their lives upside down.

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