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Paul Melia: Record storm surge proves we have work cut out to beat floods


Locals prepare more sandbags in the aftermath of Storm Eleanor in Galway. Photo: Andrew Downes

Locals prepare more sandbags in the aftermath of Storm Eleanor in Galway. Photo: Andrew Downes

Locals prepare more sandbags in the aftermath of Storm Eleanor in Galway. Photo: Andrew Downes

Once again, a major urban area has fallen victim to the ravages of nature.

The flooding in Galway which caused such devastation to businesses and homeowners could well be repeated in other parts of the country over the coming days, but one thing is absolutely certain - similar events will occur in the future.

While a single event cannot be linked to climate change, there's is little doubt our weather systems are changing. The severity of the winter storms we have seen may be linked to seasonal variations, but the reality is we are experiencing more frequent storms and flooding, and the science tells us we can expect more of the same. So, what to do?

The Office of Public Works knows the extent of the flood defences needed, and has set out the types of schemes required, and their scale; outlined their probable cost and set out the benefits which will accrue if the works are completed. The bill will be steep - at least €1bn.

In Galway city alone, works totalling almost €10m are needed to protect around 900 properties.

Defences in Cork will cost more than €100m, but some people are opposed due to the visual impact they will have on the city. Similar debates are likely in other at-risk areas.

While OPW Minister Kevin 'Boxer' Moran says he will push for additional funding, the simple fact is that we have ignored our flooding problem for many years, and are only now playing catch-up. The devastation in Galway is testament to our inaction.

But what's notable about the events in Galway is that no-one predicted the speed at which the flooding occurred.

The National Emergency Co-ordination Group on Severe Weather noted that an orange-level warning was issued by Met Éireann at 5am on January 2 for the city, but also Leinster and Munster, with high wind speeds expected.

The possibility of storm surges allied with high tides were also forecast, with a high tide alert issued at 11.46am the same day to all coastal local authorities.

Galway City Council insists temporary flood defences put in place for Storm Ophelia remained in situ, floodgates were in operation and thousands of sandbags were still available.


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However, the council did advise that "no serious flooding" was expected due to the wind direction, but added that the public should "remain vigilant".

Water levels were also at record highs around Galway, according to hydrometric data from the OPW. Wolfe Tone Bridge in the city recorded its highest ever level, at 6.58m, since records began in 1992. Monitoring stations at Oranmore Bridge, Clarinbridge and Kilcolgan were also at record highs.

And the Marine Institute has said the storm surge was almost a metre higher than expected. The water level at Galway Port was expected to be just under six metres at 6pm on January 2, but data shows it was well in excess.

The city council has defended its response, saying authorities did all they could to avoid flooding.

"We can cope in the city with a 5.6m to a 5.8m storm tide...we believe it was somewhere in excess of 6.5m so that is utterly unprecedented," chief executive Brendan McGrath told the Irish Independent.

So what do the events of Galway tell us?

Flood defences are needed, not just in the City of the Tribes but in all at-risk areas identified by the OPW. They also tell us the National Flood Forecasting System being developed is badly needed. But they also tell us that no matter what measures are in place from local authorities and the State to protect communities, nature will always find a way.

There is also the question of the warning system employed. Was enough done? Were businesses and homeowners advised of the risks to the extent required?

Perhaps the plethora of yellow, orange and red warnings aren't enough. Perhaps the public doesn't accept the dangers.

The fact that motorists insisted on driving their cars through flood waters suggests that not everyone accepts the risk to life and limb that arises in these events.

The fact no-one died is a relief, but it is of little comfort to homeowners and businesses counting the cost.

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