'Once-in-800-years' downpour leaves traders counting cost

Ralph Riegel

THE last time Cork witnessed flooding of such magnitude, Norman sentries with crossbows patrolled the newly built city fort and most of what is now Patrick Street was still marsh and bog.

City Manager Joe Gavin described the events of last Thursday and Friday, which left most of the city's western suburbs under flood water, as "a-one-in-800-years event".

It was hard to argue with him as the Mercy University Hospital was transformed into an island. One of the city's busiest shopping areas, North Main Street, effectively became a new channel of the River Lee.

Some traders broke down in tears as they viewed the damage to Christmas stock.

Cork suddenly found itself dealing with its own version of Hurricane Katrina as 50,000 people in more than half the city suburbs were left without running water.

But while the issue of the levees in New Orleans became the central debating point of Hurricane Katrina, in Cork the central issue was the Inniscarra Dam and the ESB's controversial decision to release water on Thursday afternoon.

The ESB's position is clear -- they had no option but to release water to ease pressure on the dam.

The ESB released 535 tonnes downstream -- but argued that this was substantially less than had the dam not been there in the first place.

But the effect on Cork city was catastrophic. As Cork faces into one of the biggest clean-up operations of modern times, traders are worried that they may not have to wait another 800 years for the next deluge.

Environment Minister John Gormley -- who toured flooded areas of Cork on Saturday -- linked the flooding in Cork and Galway with climate change.

And one flood-hit Cork trader queried: "If this can happen now, what is it going to be like in 10 or 20 years' time if they are right about global warming?"

With Fine Gael's environment spokesman Phil Hogan demanding an independent inquiry into the Cork flooding, the ESB and local authorities seem certain to have further questions to answer.