Sunday 22 July 2018

Status Red for 'once-in-a-lifetime' Ophelia... but did we make the right call?

In the wake of Ophelia there have been ­mutterings about an overreaction to the unprecedented ­hurricane, but our reporter finds 'arrogant' thrill seekers are attracting the greater ire

Ivana Rubisova and David Hucko, on holidays from Slovakia, struggle to make it up the hill from the beach as Ophelia hit the Lahinch coastline of Co Clare. Photo: Brian Arthur
Ivana Rubisova and David Hucko, on holidays from Slovakia, struggle to make it up the hill from the beach as Ophelia hit the Lahinch coastline of Co Clare. Photo: Brian Arthur
A few folk get a view of Ophelia from a diving board at Salthill, Galway. Photo: Niall Carson/PA Wire
John Meagher

John Meagher

Mark Breen is not one to soften his words when it comes to safety - and he found himself increasingly annoyed earlier this week when considering that some people were suggesting there had been an overreaction to Storm Ophelia.

The crowd safety expert vented his frustration on Twitter - "Status Red is not an overreaction. Don't be such thicks. 3 people died from it" - and days after Ophelia had come and gone, he was still smarting from it.

"Not only was it not an overreaction, but it was a textbook example about how best to handle a weather event of such magnitude," he says. "This was the worst storm to hit the country in over 50 years and there was brilliant, coordinated work from Met Éireann, the emergency services and the media to ensure the message got out there. It's terrible that three people lost their lives, but had the messaging not been so strong, it's certain that more people would have died."

Social media was especially busy on Monday - not least because so many people were told to stay home from work - but while there was much praise for the sometimes maligned forecasters of Met Éireann, there were some who questioned why certain parts of the country, including Dublin, had gone into shutdown.

Senior government figures, including housing minister Eoghan Murphy, felt compelled to justify the safety plan, but Breen reckons they shouldn't have bothered.

"I'd be the first to criticise the government, but on this occasion, they were correct to take such steps. You'd hope that people will be mindful of Storm Brian this weekend and the fact that it could do some residual damage, but, if we're to take anything from the experience of Monday, it's the importance of heeding the warnings of experts, doing our best to make safe any items that could become 'missiles' in a gale and to stay indoors whenever possible.

"And just because Dublin didn't get the brunt of it, doesn't mean that other places didn't. Just ask someone living in Cork if they thought there was an overreaction."

A Cork-based volunteer with the Coast Guard laughs at suggestions the safety plan was over the top. "It's such an arrogant, self-absorbed way of looking at it," he says. "I've never seen anything like the conditions in Cork Harbour on Monday morning. It felt like a once-in-a-generation or once-in-a-lifetime storm. The wind was as wild as something you'd see on the news during a Florida hurricane and I've never seen waves like that before.

"Thankfully, people down here really seemed to heed the warnings and the streets were deserted. You only needed to think of the roof being blown off that school [Douglas Community School in Cork City] or the roof of the stand collapsing at Turner's Cross [Cork City's home ground] to get a sense of how destructive Ophelia was. I think it's a miracle that only three people died - but that's no consolation to their poor families and friends."

The decision on Sunday night to close all schools and third-level institutions nationwide was widely welcomed, but there were questions about the wisdom of shutting every school in the country on the Tuesday, when conditions had - for the most part - returned to normal.

Damage at schools

Education minister Richard Bruton stressed that the measure was taken to ensure that each school would be able to assess any damage and decide on a course of action - something that would may not have been feasible if pupils were present.

Hurricane 'Ophelia'.... fallen trees Marina Park, Cork City
Pic Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Hurricane 'Ophelia'.... fallen trees Marina Park, Cork City Pic Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Hurricane 'Ophelia'.... fallen tree Knocknaheeny, Cork City Pic Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Advertising hoarding is ripped off during Storm Ophelia near Kent Station Cork city. Pic Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
City council workers begin the clean up begins following Storm Ophelia, Cork city. Pic Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
City council workers begin the clean up begins following Storm Ophelia, Cork city. Pic Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
Douglas Community School sports hall roof which was ripped off during Storm Ophelia, Cork city. Pic Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
Hurricane 'Ophelia'.... fallen trees, N25 Cork City Pic Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Hurricane 'Ophelia'.... fallen trees, N25 Cork City Pic Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
Hurricane 'Ophelia'.... fallen tree Knocknaheeny, Cork City Pic Michael Mac Sweeney/Provision
City council workers begin the clean up begins following Storm Ophelia, Cork city. Pic Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision
City council workers begin the clean up begins following Storm Ophelia, Cork city. Pic Daragh Mc Sweeney/Provision

And that was the experience of one primary school in west Dublin. "On the face of it, there wasn't much damage at all," says its principal, "but slates had come badly loose, a drainpipe was hanging down at the entrance and several of the trees at the perimeter of the playground had lost some branches. It took hours on Tuesday to put it right - you couldn't have had children there on health and safety grounds."

The perception that Dublin was barely affected by Storm Ophelia doesn't stand up to scrutiny when one considers that Dublin City Council reported that there were 150 incidents of damage caused. By the end of the evening, some 70 felled trees were having to be dealt with. The following day, Dublin Fire Brigade tweeted a map of the city festooned with pins showing the large volumes of call-outs it had experienced the previous day.

For the most part, transport services returned to normal on the Tuesday but the Luas didn't run until late that night. Pat Kenny led a chorus of irritation among Dublin commuters on his Newstalk morning show, but Luas management said its hands were tied in the matter: Ophelia had severely damaged the roof of the technical room of the Red Cow depot which runs the overhead cables and tram locator system. It had initially been assumed that the service wouldn't restart until 5.30am on Wednesday, but maintenance crews worked around the clock from Monday evening and the service was restored early.

The storm was considered by Met Éireann to have been the most severe since Hurricane Debbie waged destruction across the country in 1961. On that occasion, 18 people on both sides of the border lost their lives - a statistic that may have been attributable to the comparatively crude weather forecasting at the time and the fact that there wasn't a coordinated message to the nation to stay indoors and out of harm's way.

Met Éireann began to talk up the dangers of Ophelia almost a week before it hit Irish shores. Over the weekend, as it got closer to the south-western coast, a Status Red warning was issued in several counties along the western seaboard, and on Sunday evening it was extended to the entire country. It's the first time ever that every county in the Republic has had such a designation - the most severe in safety terms.

And it's a warning that the vast majority appear to have taken. Many businesses gave their staff the day off work, or allowed them the option of working from home, and there was a noticeable reduction in traffic from the earliest hours on Monday throughout the country.

Dublin's streets were largely deserted and one newspaper report of an eerily quiet Grafton Street noted that only one store had opened its doors for business. And yet, a number of people chose not just to go outside but to take to the sea in what was interpreted as a show of defiance. The Coast Guard was called to a number of windsurfers of the Louth coast - they had been notified by concerned members of the public - but the water-sports enthusiasts claimed to have been perfectly safe in the water.

Later, video footage emerged on social media that showed swimmers taking to the wild waters at Salthill, Galway. Rescue services were not required, but when approached afterwards, one swimmer said he was a seasoned open-water devotee who swam here every day and was able to handle himself even in stormy conditions.

And, in Wexford, the RNLI was called to a yacht that had found itself in difficulties among the huge waves. There was no loss of life at sea on Monday, but there were robust views on all sides about the rights of thrill seekers to pursue their passion in stormy conditions. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was among those who insisted that the time had come for legislation to be drafted to make it an offence to needlessly put the lives of 'first-responders' at risk.

His views were shared by Niamh Fitzpatrick, sister of the Coast Guard helicopter pilot Dara, who was one of four crew members killed earlier this year on a rescue mission. She tweeted that "reckless idiots" who put rescuers' lives at risk should be aware of endangering others and should "stay in for one day".

It's a sentiment echoed by Michael, an RNLI volunteer. "I've never known so much advance attention on a storm like Ophelia and how dangerous it was going to be," he says. "There's no way that any of those people who were in the sea or messing about on piers didn't know about the warnings. But, there's an arrogance in people, too - this idea, that they know best, and no nanny state will tell them otherwise. It's very frustrating and I've been on rescue operations before in stormy conditions where people had gone out in boats when they clearly weren't experienced enough to handle the dangers.

Stop and think

"In Status Red conditions there are no excuses whatsoever for anyone to go swimming or surfing, and I don't care how experienced they think they are. You could be an Olympic swimmer but when you consider how quickly the waves crash against the shore in storms like Ophelia, you could easily find yourself smashed to bits, too. I think anyone who volunteers in this area would love to see some kind of fine introduced for those who just blindly go ahead and do as they want."

Niamh Stephenson, RNLI's media manager, says it is up to legislators to decide whether or not to punish transgressors. "It's not something for us to think of," she says. "Our primary goal is to rescue people, irrespective of the circumstances. If they get into difficulties, the RNLI will try to be there for them."

But Mark Breen hopes Ophelia will change the conversation. "Maybe it will make thrill seekers stop and think for a second," he says. "Yes, nobody died in the water on Monday, but how would those people who went out anyway have felt if the lifeboat had been sent for them and consequently someone a few kilometres up the coast died because the rescue service was occupied?

"It all boils down to people working out that there are experts in different fields and it really is worth listening to them, so the next time there's a Status Red warning let's hope nobody decides it's an opportune time to swim - or demonstrates their ignorance by going on Twitter to tell everyone that there's been an overreaction."

@johnmeaghermuso

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