Monday 5 December 2016

Flooding batters hearts and minds - and still it comes

Thomastown faces a big clean-up and locals fear for the future unless new policies are put in place, writes John Masterson

John Masterson

Published 03/01/2016 | 02:30

STRUGGLE: John Masterson pictured with Shem Caulfield in Thomastown in the same canoe that overturned while carrying Tanaiste Joan Burton. Photo: Dylan Vaughan
STRUGGLE: John Masterson pictured with Shem Caulfield in Thomastown in the same canoe that overturned while carrying Tanaiste Joan Burton. Photo: Dylan Vaughan
STRUGGLE: Tanaiste Joan Burton (right) pictured as a boat capsized on the Quays in Thomastown Co. Kilkenny. Photo: Dylan Vaughan
STRUGGLE: Evelyn Cusack of Met Eireann at the National Coordination Weather Group briefing yesterday. Photo: David Conachy
STRUGGLE: Flooding in Enniscorthy, Co Wexford. Photo: Patrick Brown

'I love that river. I wouldn't be far from it. The Nore is a magnificent young river. It is not ponderous like the Shannon or the Barrow. It is dynamic and powerful."

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The irony is that Thomastown artist Shem Caulfied is talking to me standing in six inches of water in his front room on Thursday morning. A pump is working again. At its worst the water rose higher than his plug sockets and that was the end of the pumping. Shem lives on the quay with just the narrow road between his house and the river he so loves. After the flood in 2007 he fitted pumps under the floor with tilt switches in the hope that water would never get into the house again. They kicked in a fortnight ago.

"It is the psychological toll it takes on people that is the worst," he tells me. "It takes a while. A lot of people will need practical support. When this happens to your home or business it can give a person's confidence a big knock."

Neighbours are dropping by to see that all is well. A few people reminisce about 1947. Worse again. One man remembers a butcher's block floating down the street. One man shows me where the water level was on the quay wall in 1968. It was a little bit higher then several people tell me. This is a wall that has been well surveyed and where strengthening has been promised. It needs to be done now.

By Wednesday afternoon a good half of the centre of Thomastown is under water. Catherine Gabbett is frantically emptying the contents of 'In A Nutshell', her antique shop, into her husband Mickey's and son William's cars. The water is still rising.

The car park beyond her shop and under the bridge is a dangerous torrent. Water is streaming into the back of shops and flowing the wrong way up the one way system. Sim Treacy's magical hardware shop on the corner still looks dry. He takes me inside and shows me a few inches of water that has come up into their back office. He has never seen it so bad. A Civil Defence woman is warning everyone not to walk through the water. A manhole cover has been found and they don't know where it came from.

"We are lucky so far," Sim tells me. A customer recalls one of his earliest childhood memories from 1947 when his brother rescued a red toy car from the main street for him. It was Christmas Day and he remembers women being carried through the water to go to Mass.

The water is pouring out on to the street from O'Keefe's where I often buy the papers, eggs and milk and just about everything. John Paul Phelan's constituency office next door looks much the same. The bookshop will suffer badly. Books and water do not mix. Everyone feels for Sinead Mara, just back from Australia to open her beauty salon. The new floor is destroyed. Firemen break through the front door of an unoccupied house and release a huge backlog of water. There are about a dozen people ourside O'Hara's bar on the corner enjoying a beer in their waders. The pub is well sandbagged but with this deluge sandbags only offer limited protection.

By Friday midday the levels are well down. You can drive through Thomastown again. But the damage is enormous. 'In a Nutshell' escaped by inches. Anne Marie Minogue takes me through the Credit Union. We squelch along the floor tiles to their car park where the water had come up to four blocks high. Sandbags helped. Anne Marie and Noelle Roche had spent hours the day before getting all the equipment and computers up high. "I had a fear," she tells me. "It is a mess, but thankfully we will be fine. Customers will go to Bennettsbridge office for a short while."

Next door, O'Keeffe's is closed as they work on the mess. Deirde, daughter of owners, Paudie and Katherine O'Neill, shows me around.

"It came up on us in minutes," she says. It is heartbreaking. Everything in the fridges and freezers is gone." She gets back to the clean up. They want to get back to business.

Lots of people tell me they need to dredge the Scardines, a spot about 100 yards downriver from Shem Caulfield's house. Apparently some locals got at it in 1969 with a Hymac and pulled out an island.

The Fisheries Board won't allow that sort of thing nowadays I am told. I get the distinct feeling the locals are not entirely happy about this policy.

Shem Caulfied is a student of the river. He tells me that the profile of floods has changed. "It used to be like a bell curve. They would rise slowly, peak, and lower slowly. Now it all happens in a rush. Partly it is the boom. We are reducing the places for water to attenuate, to seep away slowly and naturally. That was how bogs functioned.

"We have not planned well. You can't plan for the 100 year flood. But the 100 year flood is becoming the 50 year flood. Now the water gets into the system too quickly. There are places in England where you are not allowed build a cement patio around your house.

"We need all of the statutory bodies to get together and plan for the management of the whole water catchment area properly or we will get more and more of this."

John Masterson presents KCLRLIVE on KCLR96FM from 10 to 12 Monday to Friday

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