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Saturday 24 February 2018

Northern Ireland politicians forced to calm public anger after flooding

Steven McCaffrey

NORTHERN Ireland political leaders have tried to calm public anger over the handling of flash floods that swamped large parts of Belfast.

Further downpours are forecast, as thousands struggle to clean up damage already caused by overnight flooding across the city and parts of County Antrim.

The minister responsible for the roads and water system, Danny Kennedy, said infrastructure was simply overwhelmed by the deluge.

"I have seen firsthand the misery caused as well as the work that is ongoing to deal with the situation," he said.

The minister said all possible action to alleviate the crisis was being taken, but he added: "Agencies remain in a state of high alert to respond to any further flooding events. Unfortunately, we cannot prevent heavy rain and cannot guarantee that there will be no further flooding."

Stormont has alerted local government emergency response teams across Northern Ireland to deal with any further flooding.

Mr Kennedy said: ""Whilst we are still dealing with the aftermath, we also must focus on the forecast of more flooding.

"The Met Office has issued a further amber weather warning valid from 04:00 to 21:00 on Thursday.

"There are expected to be further slow moving torrential downpours tomorrow afternoon, with the possibility of further flooding."

The minister said teams worked throughout the night, and continued to assist those still dealing with flood damage today.

"Firstly, my concern is for all those affected by last night's flooding," he said.

"Clearly we had very exceptional cloudbursts last night in a very short period of time. The severity of the rainfall overwhelmed our roads and sewerage infrastructure in some places.

"Realistically, no infrastructure would have been able to cope with the level of rainfall that we have seen. It simply isn't designed to cope with those volumes of rain."

But in a reference to calls for government to fund a more rapid modernisation of drainage systems, he added: "I welcome comments made today about the need to increase investment in infrastructure."

First Minister Peter Robinson, who witnessed the efforts to deal with flooding at first hand, said he was aware of complaints from the public and said Mr Kennedy should report back to the Executive for a full ministerial discussion on the lessons to be learned.

Emergency services reported receiving more than 700 call-outs linked to flooding in greater Belfast, while the region's water authority said it handled nearly 3,000 flood calls. In addition, 1,000 homes were hit by power cuts.

Major roads were left impassable at the height of the crisis, while scenes of rising sewage water flooding homes sparked complaints that government agencies were slow to respond.

Mr Kennedy praised the work of the emergency services and, following complaints that a flood helpline was overwhelmed, he said more staff had been assigned to offer assistance.

He pledged that major efforts would be made to keep roads open, after arterial routes throughout the south and east of the city were flooded.

"Roads Service retains stocks of sandbags, which can be distributed to those in need when we attend flooding incidents, or through the local councils," said the minister.

"Whilst Roads Service's obligations do not extend to helping people clean up their homes, Northern Ireland Water will help householders who have experienced out of sewer flooding.

"I urge people to exercise caution when travelling and to take measures to help protect their properties. Advice can be obtained from local authorities and NI Direct Websites. If people spot blocked gullies or drains they should report them to their local Roads Service Section Office."

His comments came after a night of chaos for thousands of people.

Cars were submerged during the massive downpour yesterday evening, and scenes of floods pouring down from high ground onto houses were reported across the city.

Even a police vehicle in West Belfast was submerged, with officers rescued from the rooftop.

Neighbours rallied to help each other as the rain hit last night.

And today a group of pensioners stranded on their way to a funeral had to be assisted on the Stewartstown Road in Belfast.

A breakdown lorry helped get the mourners to church, before their vehicle was taken away to be repaired after becoming swamped on a flooded road.

Environment minister Alex Attwood said he had instructed councils in Northern Ireland to immediately convene their emergency response group to address the flooding.

An emergency financial assistance scheme has been made available to provide £1,000 of emergency funding for households damaged by flood water.

A Northern Ireland Water (NIW) spokeswoman said the agency's call centre had received 2,800 calls about localised flooding.

She added that areas affected included Lisburn, Dunmurry, Belfast and Bangor.

The spokeswoman said: "NI Water have received reports of blocked sewers, reports of external flooding and reports of internal flooding which are being responded to by staff and contractors.

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