Monday 19 August 2019

'I think we can come up with clearer guidelines,' says minister as widow of man killed during Ophelia calls for new protocol

Eoghan Murphy

Sean Nolan and Elaine Keogh

Minister for Housing Eoghan Murphy has said that lessons can be learned about how the government reacted to Storm Ophelia and that they could have offered clearer guidance to the public.

Minister Murphy was speaking to Sean O'Rourke on RTE Radio 1 today when he was asked about the response to Storm Ophelia in light of widow Pamela Goss' criticism of current guidelines during severe weather warnings.

Mrs Goss' husband Fintan was one of three people killed during the storm and she has called for clearer guidelines during Status Red alerts.

Minister Murphy said that the government was reviewing the response and that lessons had been learned from the weather event.

"My department had responsibility for responding to Storm Ophelia because we have the local authority, the fire services and Met Eireann in my department," he said.

"I was in the emergency centre all day on the Monday (October 15) and I remember when Sean Hogan (Director of Fire and Emergency Management) came to me with the information of the three separate fatalities that had occurred.

"That was very distressing for us because our work there that day was to do exactly that, to prevent the loss of life.

"My heartfelt sympathies goes out to the families and friends of each of the three individuals who did die on that day.

Minister Murphy went on to explain the current process.

"There is a mechanism in place when you have a Red Alert for a storm warning that kind of cascades where if a county is going to have a red alert or status red for a storm you close the public transport.

"Thereby you close the schools and there is a knock-on effect into other bodies and public organisations.

"The same thing doesn't happen on the private side so what we do is we try and communicate with private businesses what we think is going to happen.

"We were very clear on that day to stay indoors but we put it up to businesses to decide what they thought was best for their employees based on what public transport would be available or not or how exactly their place of work operated."

The Minister also explained the review operation began almost immediately.

"On the evening of Storm Opehlia, when the storm had effectively passed, myself and Sean Hogan began a hot debrief in the room with all of the officials present about lessons learned.

"Earlier this week there was a second review of exactly what had worked and what hadn't.

"We discussed it again yesterday, in the Cabinet security committee and later this month there will be another phase of that with the local authorities

"In December I will have a report on lessons learned and part of that report will talk about how we can work with private enterprise to make sure they have actions in place for when a status red alert occurs.

"Now we were very clear on that day, the message was stay indoors as this storm passes you. In some parts of the country it only passed for a very brief period of time

"Businesses have different ways of working today and we feel it is for the businesses to decide what is in the best interests of the safety of their employees.

"Can we come with clearer guidance on this? I think we can and that work is under way at the moment."

Ms Goss has written to the Oireachtas members in county Louth, where the couple lived with their two children, saying a set of rules saying that only emergency vehicles would be allowed on the road during a Status Red weather alert would “remove the confusion for employers about whether staff need to come into work, or go home from work, during the height of the storm".

In an emotional interview this week the young mum said she suspected the worst when her husband didn't arrive home from work.

Fintan had text her when he was leaving work and when he was not home 15 minutes later she said she knew something had happened.

“He text me at 14 minutes past 2 and said ‘leaving now, be home in 15,” she said.

“It was exactly 15 minutes later and I was so on edge [as he wasn't home]."

She didn’t want to ring him in case he was driving and she thought he might have dropped into his mother, who lives nearby, but he hadn’t.

Instead, as she waited, she looked on Facebook and saw a notice that there was a tree down and access was closed to the Newry Road at Ravensdale.

“I sat down over there and I had this sick, sick, sick feeling and I just knew, I just knew,” she said.

“Then I rang him and his phone was off.  It is never off; it always goes to the message minder or else he’d have it on silent for work and it wouldn’t answer, so I just knew.”

It emerged that a tree had fallen onto the back of his car, killing him.

Mr Goss’s brother, Colin, echoed his sister-in-law’s calls.

“For me once a red alert issued all public roads are should be closed except to emergency staff,” he said.

“It wouldn’t take much to put that in place and it would take out all ambiguity as Pam says,” he added.

The matter was raised in the Dail on Wednesday evening by Louth Fine Gael deputy Peter Fitzpatrick, who referred to a report being carried out into the storm response.

In a statement the Department of Housing said it, 'extends its condolences to the families and friends of the three people who lost their lives during Storm Ophelia last month.'

'The response to Storm Ophelia is currently being reviewed. A report will be prepared which will be submitted to the Government Taskforce on Emergency Planning for its attention before being submitted for the approval of Government in January 2018.'

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