Wednesday 21 February 2018

After the flood: Donegal counts cost of devastating storm

On the Inishowen peninsula, people are still ­coming to terms with the terrible ­damage ­inflicted on their homes and roads by one night of ­catastrophic ­flooding late last month. Kathy Donaghy counts the human cost. Photos by Frank Mc Grath

Bernie Kearney in her bedroom which was destroyed after a mudslide crashed through her bedroom wall during the heavy rains and flooding at Urris Mannagh, Co Donegal. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Bernie Kearney in her bedroom which was destroyed after a mudslide crashed through her bedroom wall during the heavy rains and flooding at Urris Mannagh, Co Donegal. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
The remains of a Citroen C1 car which was washed down river by floodwaters at Carndonagh, Co Donegal. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Patrick McLaughlin with his son Pádraig and their lone surviving ram
Bébhinn Coady Mullins, who is working around the clock to make the family home habitable again. Photo: Frank Mc Grath

After the storm, an uneasy calm settled on Inishowen in north Donegal. People from the peninsula at the country's most northerly tip are still picking up the pieces after the catastrophic flooding of the night of August 22.

Only time will tell the true extent of the damage, and many people displaced by the deluge say it will be months before they are able to go home.

Everywhere you look, signs of the devastation left by raging flood water are visible. Fields full of rubble, trees washed up on shorelines, hillsides scraped raw by landslides, earth gouged by the rush of water and bridges washed away. While the county council has worked tirelessly to get the main roads to towns reopened, many small back roads remain closed.

But it's the human cost and the things people lost to the floods that remain. It's estimated 200 homes were affected by the flooding. To date, 50 families have registered as displaced with Donegal County Council. Many are in temporary accommodation until they are in a position to move back into their homes and in many other cases, arrangements are still being finalised. Some will never go back to their homes.

The remains of a Citroen C1 car which was washed down river by floodwaters at Carndonagh, Co Donegal. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
The remains of a Citroen C1 car which was washed down river by floodwaters at Carndonagh, Co Donegal. Photo: Frank Mc Grath

Nestled at the foot of the Urris hills, the shell of Bernie Kearney's home sits forlorn and abandoned. Bernie had a lucky escape when a massive landslide high above her home brought huge boulders bearing down on her home, pushing her car through her kitchen window where she was finishing her dinner.

A narrow escape

The home she tended proudly on her own since her husband James, a fisherman, drowned 22 years ago is now somewhere she will never live again. From a distance, all looks well but on closer inspection, splatters of mud are the first indication of the devastation that happened here. Bernie got out with her life as flood waters rose, escaping through a bedroom window before a wall of mud engulfed the house. Inside, it's a different story. Nothing remains. You realise her escape was indeed nothing short of a miracle.

Almost all of her possessions are gone. She saved a few clothes. Most of the things in her life had to be tossed into a skip. Surveying the damage, she points to where her kitchen table sat. She remembers frantically calling people to come and help her in the dark when she fled her home. She tells me that she's scared of the dark and enclosed spaces. The memories of that night have haunted her sleep since and Bernie says she's just taking it one day at a time. For now, she's staying with her sister Carmel in the village of Gleneely, a 20 minute drive away, until she can find somewhere of her own.

"It's a terrible thing to be homeless. If I get over this, I will build a house in the area but I'm waiting on insurance. I could never come back here with the fright I got," she says. With the help of close friends and family, including her brother John and nephew Martin, she is, as she says, "getting up in the morning" and dealing with things as they come.

In the nearby village of Clonmany, the smell of fresh paint greets you when you walk through the doors of the local youth and community resource centre. Staff and volunteers have worked around the clock for the last two weeks to ensure the local playgroup could reopen this week.

Patrick McLaughlin with his son Pádraig and their lone surviving ram
Patrick McLaughlin with his son Pádraig and their lone surviving ram

A scene of destruction

However, all over the centre, signs of destruction remain. The astroturf pitch at the rear of the centre is ruined. A brand new log cabin for the children to play in is no longer fit for purpose. The sprung floor of the main hall will have to be ripped up at a cost of tens of thousands. The hall itself has become a makeshift store for all the things rescued from the deluge. These random items have been piled high on tables, giving it the feel of an abandoned jumble sale.

The centre is the heart of Clonmany and everything happens here, from gymnastics to locals popping in to print boarding passes for flights. Centre manager Kathleen Coady says people have rallied round in their droves to bring some sort of normality back after the sewage-polluted waters wreaked havoc.

"It's been like a death - that's what it feels like," says Kathleen. "You keep wanting to take a deep breath but it's just not there. This place is part of us. For the first few days after the flood, we were working 16 to 18 hours a day. We were coming in at 6.30am and leaving at 11pm. We had to get the muck out as quickly as possible. There's been no time to sleep, never mind cry," she says.

Nearby in Riverside Park estate, Kathleen's daughter Bébhinn Coady Mullins is trying to put her home back in order after the flood water ripped through the downstairs of the home she shares with her husband Bernard and four children Luke (17), Adam (16), Alex (9) and Eva (8).

The Mullins family have been forced to leave their home but count themselves lucky that they were able to move into a vacant property in their own estate while they work tirelessly with family and friends to make their house habitable again. Like so many others, they have lost so much. The downstairs of their home is stripped back to concrete walls and concrete floors.

Bébhinn Coady Mullins, who is working around the clock to make the family home habitable again. Photo: Frank Mc Grath
Bébhinn Coady Mullins, who is working around the clock to make the family home habitable again. Photo: Frank Mc Grath

Bébhinn says she is struggling to come to terms with what happened.

She says the previous night she woke at 4am and was unable to get back to sleep. It was raining outside and she was petrified, convinced she heard the gurgling of water. "I didn't think it was going to affect me the way it has. I saw a video someone took of the floods, and it was like bringing me back to the way it was that night," she says.

Overcoming trauma

Her biggest challenge, she says, is making sure her children feel secure and safe in their home again. While Eva was staying with her grandmother Kathleen on the night of the floods, her other children were home, and she worries that her youngest son Alex is traumatised by what happened.

"It's your home - it's where you protect your family. Alex was terrified. He tells me he hates thinking about the flooding. The way he was reacting that night will always affect me. When he saw the water coming in and up the toilet, I think he knew we couldn't stop it. He had his hands up over his ears and he sat and rocked on the sofa. I've said 'we are so lucky nobody was killed' and I've tried telling him we'll get a nice new house now," says Bébhinn.

Despite being up half of the night, Bébhinn is focused on the job at hand and getting back into her home. "I am 100pc confident I will get back into my house. We are looking at Christmas at the latest. If we get back, I will have a flood-proof front door and back door. I will have every mechanism to prevent flooding I can. I will be ready," she says.

However, she believes a lot more work needs to be done to prevent the same thing from happening ever again, and she says the council must ensure rivers are kept free of debris so people are not forced out of their homes in the future. According to Brendan O'Donnell, senior roads engineer with Donegal County Council, lessons will be learned from the recent flooding. He explains that after any major weather event, council chiefs sit down for a debriefing session to see what could have be done differently - and this occasion will be no different.

The issue of debris, trees and branches building up in rivers is something that will be discussed but Mr O'Donnell says this will require a conversation between councils and agencies nationally to work out what can be done and who is ultimately responsible for keeping rivers clear in future.

Lessons learned

The council boss says calls are still coming in about damaged bridges and culverts, but the council must now draw a line under things and make a provisional estimate of the total cost of the damage and clean-up. He was reluctant to put an overall cost on it yet, but says the process is coming to a close.

He says a wet summer where peaty and boggy ground never got a chance to dry provided the worst possible backdrop for the amount of rain that fell on high ground on the night of August 22. The ground simply didn't have the capacity to absorb the water and land was simply ripped away down hills, taking infrastructure like roads and bridges with it.

"It was a unique set of circumstances that exacerbated the situation - it's difficult for any county to be prepared for that. If that kind of rain fell on flatter ground, you wouldn't have seen the scale of destruction that we saw," says Mr O'Donnell.

In the nearby town of Carndonagh, where the Carndonagh and Glentogher Rivers burst their banks, Patrick McLaughlin 'Mooney' believes lessons must be learned from the devastation, and he says rivers and their banks have to be cleared. A part-time farmer who works for Donegal County Council's roads department, Patrick says State agencies must decide who has management of the country's rivers and whose responsibility it is to keep them clear of debris building up.

Patrick was called up on the night of flooding to go out to keep the roads clear. While he worked tirelessly, 20 of his spring lambs drowned in a low-lying field at the back of his property. When he returned at 3am, the roar of the Glentogher was all he could hear at the back of his house. He knew his sheep were gone, and he says he was so tired and heartsick he couldn't even go to bed.

"Myself and my father used to farm together. You get attached to your stock. Myself and my son, Pádraig, are carrying that baton now. Luckily, we found eight lambs in the garden next door and one ram. We gathered the others up, but there are some we'll never find - they've been washed out into the bay," says Patrick.

Walking through his field, which was the scene of the destruction, Patrick surveys the damage. It's full of rocks and debris. It will have to be fenced once again and totally reseeded. In all, Patrick estimates €25,000 worth of damage has been caused. The replacement of a stone embankment alone will cost €5,000, but Patrick says he will spend the winter doing it. However, he is adamant that lessons must be learned so generations to come will not have to pay the price.

Over the mountain road in the town of Buncrana, where many other families have similar stories to tell, Susan Farren is manning a depot of goods donated by the public to help people affected by the floods.

A community activist, Susan was so moved by the devastation in Inishowen, she set up an appeal to help the people in the area. A local businessman gave her his premises to store donated items from duvet covers to kettles. It quickly became a hub for people from all over the country looking to do something to help Inishowen and people began arriving with van loads of toiletries and household items.

A community effort

Susan says they have 50 families on their database and are doing what they can to help people affected by flooding. "There's no particular type of family. Every single family's needs have been different. For all of us volunteers, it's been emotionally overwhelming. We've been working all hours and it's worth it to see the joy on people's faces when they have a sofa to sit on. That's not to say everything is fixed. It's a stepping stone to getting things sorted out," says Susan.

The local effort to help people displaced or affected by the flooding is huge and ongoing. Last weekend, country music stars Daniel O'Donnell, Nathan Carter, Big Tom and Dominic Kirwan took part in the Flood Aid for Inishowen Charity Concert, raising €30,000 in the process. More events are lined up from charity spin-a-thons in local gyms to further concerts.

The big flood will loom large in the collective memory of Inishowen people for generations to come. Where you were on that fateful night will be a question oft asked in years to come. But what has come after will also be remembered. Neighbour helping neighbour putting things back together again. Friends showing solidarity and support. People fundraising and volunteering and giving what they can. People getting on with it in their own inimitable way. The storm has a force to be reckoned with in this place.

Indo Review

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