Residents left high and not so dry again
Communities were forced to take lead while authorities limped into action
ON Saturday, February 1, the people of King's Island, in the ancient heart of Limerick city, awoke to find themselves in a watery version of Dante's Inferno.
For several days before the incessant rain, gale-force winds and high tides had been swelling the River Shannon. Then, at 7am, the river burst its banks. Within an hour residents found their homes, businesses and properties flooded as the waters submerged almost the entire area.
Very few homes were left unscathed. Hundreds were effectively destroyed, suffering severe structural damage. Many others, fortunate enough not to bear the full brunt of the flooding, still experienced considerable damage, with cookers, boilers, TVs, computers, fridges and other electrical equipment being rendered useless while carpets and furniture were left destroyed.
The local lack of preparedness was plain for everyone to see. Sandbags were in short supply. Communication with victims was all but non-existent. While the authorities limped timidly into action, the community took the lead.
When I raised the matter in the Dail last week, Junior Minister Brian Hayes confessed how impressed and amazed he was by the community spirit and solidarity he had witnessed when he visited the area. He recounted the story of how six young men from St Mary's Park worked 48 hours without a break to alleviate their neighbour's distress.
The people of King's Island exhibited a level of solidarity, camaraderie and community spirit that took years to forge. In this moment of adversity the community proved how unjustified its past portrayal in the media had been.
The many individual unsung heroes may not secure the full public recognition they deserve, but their good deeds will live on in the hearts of those who they selflessly assisted. Their tireless work complemented and augmented the professionalism, compassion and selflessness of the emergency responders on the ground.
While the feelings of shock, horror, panic and sheer terror of the first few hours have now abated, they have been replaced by a smouldering anger – anger at the lack of preparedness, anger at the tardiness and incoherence of the initial response.
Most of all it is an anger at the continuing uncertainty that the Government is allowing to fester. This uncertainty affects two groups of residents in very different but equally frustrating ways.
The first is those living in local authority accommodation. While Limerick Council will be responsible for restoring this accommodation, people have no idea whatsoever as to when this will happen.
The department's response appears to be that these people should contact the local Community Welfare Officers who are responsible for assessing and distributing compensation for furniture losses. This is strange: it seems to suggest that the people who provide fixed sum compensation of €310 for a cooker, €140 for a fridge or €25 for a kettle should also adjudicate on structural damage claims for €70,000 and more.
From my enquiries, it appears officials on the ground have not received any directive on dealing with structural damage claims of this magnitude.
So the victims continue to exist in a limbo.
They do not know either when or how they can have the urgent repairs necessary to return their lives to some form of normality. This is a hardship they can do without. Many of these people are those hit hardest by the recession. They have lost jobs and are forced to survive on social welfare. Others are elderly, retired and surviving on already stretched fixed incomes.
They need guidance, help and reassurance. Most of all they need a definite and clear timeline as to when repairs will be made. Local authorities need to make the assessments speedily and get the extra funding allocated by the Department of Finance without wrangling or bureaucratic penny pinching.
Similarly, those in private housing need to know how and when their assessments will be done and how speedily their claims can be processed.
Rather than set out clear timelines, the Government does as it always does: issue bland statements that are devoid of specifics.
Big strategic decisions need to be made now. Talk of only putting €45m aside for flood defences is laughable. The cost will be much higher. We need to face the facts now and act in a holistic way.
Michael Noonan's silence when visiting the areas of devastation in Limerick was in marked contrast to David Cameron's very clear words to his people after visiting the south-west of England: "Money is no object in this relief effort, whatever money is needed for it will be spent. We will take whatever steps are necessary."
When will our own Government do "whatever is necessary" for the people of King's Island.
Willie O'Dea is the Fianna Fail TD for Limerick City