Wednesday 22 May 2019

Frontline workers continue to toil full month after the first rains fell

Response: Sean Hogan
Response: Sean Hogan

Paul Melia, Environment Editor

The first rains of Storm Desmond fell on Galway City on December 4 at 4.50pm.

When the deluge finally stopped almost 30 hours later, some 130mm of rain had saturated the city.

It was the beginning of a national crisis which more than a month later has seen almost 600 homes across the country affected by flood waters, caused millions of euro worth of damage and resulted in severe disruption to transport services.

An entire winter's rain fell in December alone, and now every shower threatens devastation.

But throughout the crisis, dozens of officials from government departments, the HSE, An Garda Siochana, Defence Forces, Civil Defence, local authorities and other agencies have coordinated the response to help prevent loss of life and damage to properties where possible.

They include Sean Hogan, Director of Fire and Emergency Services at the Department of the Environment. Responsible for implementing the national framework for emergency management, he said the plan has evolved over time as flooding and severe weather events have struck. More than 80 days' training has been provided to officials in recent years to help communities cope with nature's fury.

"As each event has happened we reviewed, fairly critically," he told the Irish Independent. "There has been a decade of solid work and it's an ongoing process. The national plan uses best practice from other countries. It's about coordination and the additional structures being put in place, and identifying issues and trying to pre-empt them.

"We would be quite happy that the national response is working well and the local piece is working really well. It's also important to remember that in a lot of places like Clonmel, Carlow, Mallow and Fermoy the flood defences worked very well."

Meetings of the National Coordination Group begin at 9am, and it has met almost every day since early December. At a national level, the emerging issues are identified. The measures needed to keep communities safe are coordinated locally, with councils assisting each other.

In Donegal, the fire service in Northern Ireland helped. Staff from Dun Laoghaire Rathdown in Dublin went to Kilkenny, while Meath sent staff to Offaly and Westmeath, and Sligo helped Mayo. At the height of the crisis, between 1,500 and 2,000 local authority staff were working on the ground, some with little sleep. That equates to almost one in 10 people working in the sector. Between 750 and 1,000 remain at the frontline today.

It's testament to their dedication that most remain in the field despite not being paid overtime. Under the Haddington Road agreement, only outdoor staff are entitled to additional payments. The rest will hope to secure time off in lieu.

The work takes its toll, chief executive of Galway City Council, Brendan McGrath, said.

"In the initial 24 to 48 hours after the storm, people worked on two and three hours' sleep. Now we have rosters in place. You have issues with resilience, having the facilities to give them (workers) equipment and dry clothing. We must have hot food and toilets, which have been provided in some areas by Civil Defence, which is also assisting with water rescue, and they would have a couple of hundred volunteers in some counties.

"With pumps running for 24 hours a day, they can break down and you need to have back-ups."

Cork and Kerry each had 250 staff on the ground during the peak of the crisis. Clare dealt with 300 calls on a two-day period in mid-December, and installed 25,000 sandbags, which don't always provide the protection needed.

"Often with sandbags, they work but the water can come up through the drainage system," Mr McGrath said. "We've also had reports of water coming up through the floor. We're dealing with real people whose lives are ruined."

More than a month after the crisis first struck, the local authorities remain on high alert and busy. Since Christmas Day, some 1,683 calls seeking help have been made, with no end in sight for many communities.

'We need to limit building in risky areas'

Too many people live in  low-lying areas at risk of flooding because private developers are not forced to bear the full cost of building in risky areas.

A study of more than 50 major flood events, which displaced at least 100,000 people each, has found that low-lying urban areas are more often hit by large floods, yet these vulnerable areas are the economic powerhouses of many economies.

New research co-authored by Dr Tom McDermott of the School of Economics and the Environmental Research Institute at UCC finds that in the past 30 years, more than 500,000 people have been killed by floods and more than 650 million displaced globally.

But when the waters recede, economic activity resumes and vulnerable businesses do not move location.

"Part of the problem is that many historical cities were built in flood-prone locations, the risks of which were once offset by access to rivers or oceans," the research says.

"These cities persisted in their flood-prone locations even when modern land transport reduced the importance of access to waterways.

"But this is not the only reason why flood-prone locations are overpopulated. Governments bear much of the costs of building and maintaining flood defences and compensating flood victims. As a result, private developers can build on cheap flood-prone land without bearing the full cost of their actions. Consequently, too many people end up living in these risky areas."

Dr McDermott said that climate change would result in greater flood risk, and that "at a minimum" a ban on new building on flood plains was needed. "Rising sea levels and more extreme rainfall episodes as a result of climate change will lead to greater flood risk. At a minimum, tighter planning restrictions are required," he added.

Irish Independent

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