Wednesday 26 October 2016

Life reduced to detritus, memories float in filth

The flooding is a humanitarian crisis, says Brendan O'Connor, and we must not let our resolve recede with the waters

Published 13/12/2015 | 02:30

WATER: The Quiet Man Museum in Cong is threatened by the floods
WATER: The Quiet Man Museum in Cong is threatened by the floods

We build a life of bits and pieces. In many ways, this stuff we pick up along the way is who we are; it becomes our history, our home. The growing collection of sticks of furniture, photographs, ornaments and whatever else, become the layers of our past and our present. In them are our memories and our sense of self.

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We all become more painfully aware as we go along in life that one day, when we're gone, this collection of inexpertly curated stuff will be dismantled and scattered, some of it dumped, the odd bit kept as a vague memory of us. When we see it happening to other people, or when we have the sad task of disposing of a loved one's effects ourselves, it can all seem rather pathetic. Take a collection of items out of the context of the person and the home that held them together and they can just seem like vain attempts to ward off the inevitability of life and death, sad little comforts to cling on to, to protect us from the vastness of the world and of eternity.

Most of us in the first world never expect the dispersal of these bits of fragile armour to happen in our lifetime. Most of us never expect to see the comforts with which we lined our lairs to ward off the world suddenly dispersed, floating around, rendered pointless and pathetic, in filth-ridden water. And that is one of the reasons why flooding is beyond an inconvenience and is an acute trauma, a deeply upsetting experience.

We all have huge sympathy for people like the traders of Bandon, a merchant town, who spent the week trying to clean out their shops and get back in business for Christmas. But there is a deeper sympathy again for those people who have had their homes, and the collections of things that represent a life, destroyed and defiled.

Of course you can argue that these are first world problems, that there are far worse and bigger humanitarian crises raging out there in the world. But there is no doubt that this has become our own home-grown humanitarian crisis now.

In the grand scheme of things, there are, of course, bigger tragedies than that of Catherine Lynch, who finished renovating her home last week, who had her furniture stored in the basement and who now sees it floating in the garden where her polytunnel, now submerged, was. But Catherine's story and all the countless other stories we have read all week, are tragedies that speak to us in a uniquely Irish way. This woman, recently widowed, trying to get on with life, house-proud, a gardener, too, and her life and her memories and her attempt at a fresh start destroyed and floating around her in dirty water. And her husband not there any more to cry to or to fix it.

The rest of us are becoming familiar with places many of us have barely heard of before. These are strange names to some of us but we feel their devastation. Places like Carrowkeel, where there are dead rats and toilet paper floating around. In places we do know, like Athlone, the system has started belching out raw sewage.

Flooding is bad enough. No matter how hard you clean, no matter if you get rid of your carpets and your floorboards, you will always think you smell that stale, rancid smell of the floodwater that infected your home. But sewage is another kettle of fish altogether. Lise Hand's plaintive story of Millie Prangwell, who moved back to her native Athlone 25 years ago partly for a gorgeous view of the Shannon, told the sewage story.

It happened to Millie in 2009 and when the insurance man arrived he threw out everything, even if it hadn't been touched by the water. Everything she owned, thrown out, her whole life contaminated and infected. And now the sewage-infected water is coming again through the drain in her shower. Imagine how disgusting and sad it is to see your house overrun with filth like that.

We empathised, too, as we heard how, in towns and villages along the Shannon, they waited, wondering when the water might come. Most of us didn't know that it can take floodwater five days to come down the Shannon. We were vaguely aware, after what happened in Cork in 2009, that the ESB can cause chaos, too, by opening the floodgates. And we felt for those people on the Shannon as they waited for what was becoming more and more inevitable. The water was coming, they just didn't know when. And they could try and prepare, but they had no idea how bad it would be.

By Friday, when the clean-up should have been in full swing and people should have been trying to get back into their homes for Christmas, it wasn't over. In fact, orange warnings were in effect. It was coming again, and it could be worse - worse than 2009. So they prepared as best they could and they sat and waited for the destruction of their lives and their homes.

What has been happening in the West this past week or two, something that seems to be happening around the country with more regularity in recent years, is a full-blown humanitarian crisis, and it will continue happening. And for all the talk from the Government that, as Simon Coveney says, they can't stop the rain, we can put in place defences against the worst excesses of it.

The other Simon - Harris - was quick out of the traps to blame legal challenges for the fact that six years on, a protection system for Bandon, promised since the town was devastated in 2009, is still not even nearly started. Excuses are not good enough for a whole side of the country who feel they have been abandoned by a Government that does not understand their lives and their troubles.

As the waters recede there is every chance that the will to do anything about this will, too. But the bald facts are that we have the technology and we have the money to make sure that this does not happen to most people. Obviously there are more complex issues here, too, like how we allow people to manage the landscape they live in, the landscape we only visit.

But at the simplest level, the level of flood defences, every citizen of this country deserves not to see their lives reduced to detritus, floating around them in sh*t.

Sunday Independent

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