Nicola Anderson: Life put on hold as weary residents man the pumps yet again
Published 31/12/2015 | 02:30
The main battle is not with the visible deluge of the Shannon, whose angry, shark-grey waters and fin-like lapping waves are barely corseted by her fortress of sandbags.
The chief struggle lies with the pernicious trickle's relentless underground quest to discover every crack and every pinprick in the tarmac road, allowing the water to spring to the surface like air from a punctured tyre.
It is with the forbidding bubble of water threatening to gush at any minute from the manhole covers in the street - and with the disquieting discovery that the mat behind the front door is suddenly and unaccountably saturated.
Floods come not in a flood, most of the time, it seems, but in a gentle unstoppable sop.
Down at The Strand in Athlone, Co Westmeath, Kevin 'Boxer' Moran waves a tired hand at one of the 19 pumps operating noisily but essentially, down by the waterside.
"If that big one went, we'd have 20 seconds before the whole thing would fill up," he says."It's filling up as fast as it's pumping out.
"We'd have about six minutes to evacuate and get out of here," he warns.
It had nearly come to that, at 2.30am that morning, when one of the pumps had perilously gone on fire.
The Boxer, pictured below with Minister Alan Kelly, has been almost four weeks into this relentless, raging struggle against the river which is the longest not only in this country but longer even than the Severn in Britain.
Day and night, he has helped out as a volunteer to spearhead the pumping operation.
But he is alarmed at the discovery of cracking tarmac and heaving foundations on the road along the riverbank at the centre of the operations at The Strand.
One council worker believes it's only a matter of time before the road gives way.
"If the road goes, we're done for. We'll have to get out of here," says the Boxer, matter-of-factly. Every hour brings a fresh challenge, he says.
He tells of an elderly man over at Deerpark who keeps asking him when the floods are going to stop.
"What can I really tell him?" asks the Boxer.
"We have no idea how this is going to go. This is absolutely frightening what's going on here." He believes tomorrow and Saturday will see the real showdown, when the waters will peak.
Ministers Alan Kelly and Simon Harris then arrive to inspect the flooding down at The Strand.
"He was shocked when he saw the levels," the Boxer tells afterwards, of his meeting with Mr Kelly in the yellow steel shed.
"But he said his own father has told him that he's never seen Lough Rea so high in his life either," he adds.
Working alongside the Boxer is butcher Brendan Callinan - who left the frantic bustle of the shop at Christmas time in the care of his brother.
"We still have the water kept out. It's a win - but it's a win we're hoping to be able to keep."
Just around the corner from The Strand, Edward Stevens brings us in to show where his doormat has suddenly started to soak through and damp patches have appeared on the walls.
"It's the same in the bathroom. It's coming up."
A short distance outside the town at his home at The Park, on Deerpark Road, resident John Stroud is grey-faced and bleary-eyed as he inspects a gushing fountain of water which has come down from other parts of the town into his back garden - now a sodden mess of grey sludge and tissue paper.
"Raw sewage," says John.
He barely slept the night before because the pump, which is his only defence, kept threatening to stop.
"I got to bed at four and was up again at seven," he says. As for Christmas, it had been "non-existent".
"Life is on hold," he explains.
"I've just been manning the pumps for the last four weeks."
Neighbour Derek Liddy shows where the canal and its walk have been completely subsumed by the ravenous Shannon.
Across a now invisible bridge is the Canal Walk estate - where a wall had to be broken down the previous night to free the residents, Derek says. Bewilderingly, a seven-acre plot of land nearby - on sale "for years" says Derek, had a Sold sign put up during the week.
The only thing that makes sense is that perhaps the OPW bought it to create flood defences, he suggests.