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Saturday 17 March 2018

Friendships and family prevail as houses fall

Laughter amid the devastation as neighbours pick up the pieces

John Sparling in what was once the living room of his mother’s house in the St Mary's area of Limerick
John Sparling in what was once the living room of his mother’s house in the St Mary's area of Limerick
Brian and Teresa O'Brien and their children Jessica, James and Adam in their front room of their home on St Ita's Terrace in Limerick
Paul O'Sullivan, husband of minister of State for Housing and Planning Jan O'Sullivan, clears out a house on Athlunkard Street in Limerick
Mick Quinlivan and Christy Tidings clear out a house in the St Mary's area of Limerick

WHAT is the one thing you'd save if your home was destroyed in a natural disaster?

When John Sparling awoke on the morning Storm Darwin swept through Limerick city, he found himself having to make that terrible choice. Seven-and-a-half-metre waves were blowing in from the river Shannon, which flows close to St Mary's estate where he lives.

The home he had lived in for 39 years was fast becoming submerged in water and, suspended between a state of shock and panic, he charged through the house to rescue his beloved dogs.

Two weeks later, standing in a home gutted from roof to floor, he stares straight through the shell to the hard earth underneath, thinking of those irreplaceable items he couldn't reach in time.

"The pictures of my dead father, I can never get those back," he says.

His mother – the well-known writer Maureen Sparling – was in hospital the morning the floods hit. John has yet to break to her the news of the full extent of the damage. Sandbags still rest in the place where they were stacked outside the door. Almost a mock reminder of the lack of control we have against the strong hand of Mother Nature.

I spoke to John last Thursday, the day after his native Limerick city was again battered by south-westerly winds and rising flood waters.

Extraordinary footage circulated of an entire roof being ripped off a warehouse beside the raging River Shannon as easily as you'd peel back a tin of sardines. Cars lay crumpled under the rubble of stone walls, and enormous fallen trees made many roads impassable. John stood before me with tears in his eyes as his life's belongings sit drenched in a pile outside the door of his home.

The story has dominated the news for the past two weeks, but the damage it has done to people's lives needs to be seen to grasp the full extent. And still he laughs.

Despite their ordeal, laughter is the common sound inside every home we visit as they clear out the debris.

In a house up the road we find Christy Tidings and Michael Quinlivan, best friends for 60 years. Michael has a sweeping brush in his hand and Christy a wall scraper and the pair are buckled in two.

Their deep chesty mirth fills the air as Christy recalls how tears rolled down his cheeks when an early repair job the pals attempted to tackle went desperately wrong. They look out at the Virgin Mary's statue, her arms outstretched, in the soggy park across the road.

The estate has suffered very publicly through the years. Crime and poverty are well documented here. What kind of God would let a natural disaster wipe out the life the many good people have built against those odds?

But Christy won't hear of it: "It doesn't shake my faith for a second."

On the morning of our visit, one media outlet has mocked up a tongue-in-cheek list of "21 pictures of politicians wearing wellies and staring at the floods", which show representatives with a mixture of boredom and faux concern on their faces. But the politicians who visit here feel they can make a difference. And the locals appear genuinely grateful they took the time.

They walk Sinn Finn leader Gerry Adams through the wreckage of their homes, pleading with him not to forget their plight.

Many have no insurance, either because they couldn't afford it or because they weren't granted it in the first place due to flood risk. I ring one local TD to ask if he will take me around the worst-hit area, but I'm told by his secretary that he is in the Dail.

Fianna Fail TD and former Defence Minister Willie O'Dea is on the ground, busy with his notebook and pen taking names and numbers of residents who now find themselves without electricity.

A man leaning over his gate, Eddie O'Doherty, describes how his car, which he couldn't get flood cover for, has been written off. Eddie has suffered two heart attacks in the past and now has difficulty getting into his local GP for his routine check-ups.

Meanwhile, across town, a row of private homes on Athlunkard Street have also been badly hit.

One man pushing a wheelbarrow looks like any other hard worker helping out his family, but a second glance confirms he is the husband of Housing Minister and local Labour TD Jan O'Sullivan.

Paul O'Sullivan modestly chooses not to inform me of his political connections, saying he would prefer not to pose for photos "for personal reasons". However, he does have words of praise for the efforts of the local council, who he said has been "a great help" putting a skip directly outside the property and supplying them with dehumidifiers to help lift the dampness. "Morally, they owe us nothing," he adds.

Darkness is setting in by the time we arrive at the home of a family of nine back at St Ita's Terrace. The mother, Teresa O'Brien, is resting her head on the counter of a bare room where the kitchen used to be. She doesn't turn around immediately when we enter, appearing to be composing herself for a moment before finally greeting us with a smile.

Her children range from ages nine to 25, with a grandchild aged two, all of whom are now living in temporary accommodation.

She and her husband Brian couldn't afford the €1,500 insurance premium and couldn't get flood damage when they tried to find an alternative policy.

Everything on the first floor has been wiped out bar the family portraits and world Irish dancing champion trophies that still take pride of place on the wall. They pile into the front room where the two-year-old's bedroom used to stand, his name still hanging on the door. Again, the laughter echoes out on to the street as they huddle in for another family photo.

Brian describes how the community has been their saving grace. One man even broke a door down with a sledgehammer when the key jammed with the pressure of the water and he couldn't get his children out.

Dubbed Storm Darwin, the name evokes thoughts of every man for himself, a survival-of-the-fittest mentality as a means of getting by. But such a sentiment couldn't be further from the truth.

Not in this neighbourhood.

Niamh Horan

Sunday Independent

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