Thursday 18 January 2018

'We'll stick it out - we've a better chance of saving our house if we're in it'

Mike and Gertie Dunning pump water at their farm in Athlone
Mike and Gertie Dunning pump water at their farm in Athlone
Jimmy Murphy and Barry Golden from Westmeath County Council with the local authority’s emergency vehicle
Local businessman David Snow outside The Ritz restaurant
Nicola Anderson

Nicola Anderson

By morning, the icy-cold bog water, the colour of strong black tea, was licking the tiles of the conservatory - but Mike Dunning was ready and waiting for it behind the sandbags, armed with two pumps.

He slept on the couch in the kitchen on Saturday night, up on the hour, every hour, obsessively checking to see where the levels were at. A friend from an oil company had given him a marker which he sank firmly into the ground of the garden.

"I don't know whether it's in metric or not but it's at nine now today, and when I put it down it was at three," he said.

For four days, the farmer and his wife Gertie have been marooned in their house in Carrickobrien, outside Athlone, Co Westmeath. But remarkably, their spirits remain buoyant, and as we pulled up in a bright yellow ex-army vehicle deployed by Westmeath County Council to reach those in need of vital supplies, Mike joked that Gertie was "wearing her high heels in the house".

"He's telling everyone that," scoffed Gertie.

Inside the house, all was peaceful, with a fire roaring in the stove in the kitchen, Brownie, the family pet, snoozing on the hearth and the deep soothing tick of a grandfather clock in the hall.

"What can you do?" the couple asked philosophically, as they stood outside their house and pointed out the paint cans floating downstream from the garden shed and the pile of turf, so carefully stacked up for the winter, lying ruined.

"That was the only feed I had left for the animals," Mike said of two soaked bales of silage in tattered black plastic. "A neighbour found them floating on the road and brought them up to me."

He's had to move his cows up to higher ground and his son Miley, who keeps horses in stables out the back, has also had to find alternative lodgings for them too.

The couple reared six children at the homestead where the Dunning family has lived for generations, and Mike recalled his grandfather telling him they had never experienced flooding there.

But in 2009, the river Shannon - half a mile from their home and barely a trickle in the summertime - rose overnight to encroach halfway up their walls.

They had to evacuate the house and stay in a hotel for three weeks and afterwards had to completely redecorate, with new wooden floors and carpets. But the house has never been the same, and every few weeks they notice bubbling paint in the sitting room.

Now, just six years later, they face more of the same hardship - only this time, with no insurance to cover the costs: "Nobody will touch us because of the floods last time," said Gertie.

The couple now refuse to contemplate evacuating.

"We have to stick it out. We have more of a chance of saving the house if we're in it," explained Mike.

He had one pump already and has borrowed another from his daughter up the road, with both working full blast from behind the barrier of sandbags carefully placed around the house with the assistance of the Defence Forces. The floodwaters remain at bay, for now.

The yellow council van set off once again, through the flood waters, which surged halfway up the metal farm gates at the worst points. Wooden stakes along the roadside act as a safety barrier to mark the treacherous deep ditches.

At the wheel were council workers Jimmy Murphy and Barry Golden - who had already driven another family into Athlone for their child's christening that morning, and had also done several mercy callouts for people who wanted to get to work or go shopping.

Next, they were on their way to bring retired teacher, Michael Healy, to exchange a gas cylinder and get some shopping in Dunnes Stores.

Mr Healy admitted that but for the 'relatively minor' inconvenience of being marooned, he was not really affected by the flooding as his house, fortunately, was part of the stock built for the flood victims of the 1950s and therefore has higher foundations.

"You can still see the remains here and there of the old houses that had to be abandoned," he said.

Back in Athlone, a battle was furiously under way down at the Strand, as council, civil defence and local volunteers manned the pumps that were working at full capacity to clear the drains. Cllr Kevin 'Boxer' Moran, with the Independent Alliance, was unofficially commanding the operation: "Nobody knows the Shannon like I do because I'm an angler," he explained. And it appeared that this is as much a battle with the Government as it is with Mother Nature.

"We want to prove to the Government that this can be done if they give communities the resources," he said. "We have 168 pumps in operation around Athlone and nobody has flooded. What's going on here is remarkable if we can hold out - and we want to prove that we can," he said.

For businesses, meanwhile, as they face the last crucial days before Christmas, the battle is for public perception. Rosie Boles in Burgess, one of the town's most-established department stores, said footfall was down by a third over the weekend, while restaurateur David Snow at The Ritz - which has sweeping views of the engorged Shannon - said a table of 25 had cancelled the night before.

"Because of where we are, people think we're flooded. But we're open. The whole of Athlone is open," he said.

Irish Independent

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