'The water came in so fast - we had no time to get sandbags ready'
Retired mechanic Jim Culleton stood in shock amid the destroyed furniture stacked in his home in Moore Street in flood-hit Mountmellick.
"It happened so fast. I looked out onto the street and it was like a river flowing past," Mr Culleton (74) said. "It came through the back door first. By the time we had sandbags for the front door, it was too late."
Mr Culleton was among hundreds of people beginning the grim task of clearing their homes of furniture and floorings and cleaning up after a deluge "of Biblical proportions" swamped the Laois town on Wednesday.
"I have no insurance and I had only recently spent €13,000 getting the place done up, including a new floor. Now I'm going to have to start trying to tackle it a small bit at a time," he said.
A Civil Defence amphibious vehicle set out at dawn to ferry isolated residents along flood-hit roads to shops and appointments.
Council workers, Civil Defence volunteers, fire brigade staff, gardaí and 30 soldiers from the Curragh military camp were all on hand to help the local population start getting back to normal yesterday.
A few doors away from Mr Culleton, the Gold Star Dry Cleaners was back open for business as owner Liam Brown (48) recalled the "scary" event.
"It was a flash flood. The water came in so fast," he said.
His main concern was saving the hundreds of dresses, suits and jackets entrusted to his dry cleaning company by the people of the town. "All the clothes were on hangers above the floor and were saved. We worked very fast to lift all the bags of laundry off the floor," he said. "I've been here 12 years and there was never any need to ask for flood insurance. We'll have to get all new carpets and just hope this flood is a one-off."
An old converted mill restored and refurbished in Irishtown is a base for Mountmellick Development Association, a busy crèche and restaurant. The crèche was the scene of drama on Wednesday evening as the water approached.
Paul Dempsey, chairperson of the development association, said 80 children were evacuated "in the nick of time".
"We just managed to get all the children out when the water came in. It was eight inches high inside the crèche within 10 minutes," he said.
The Hare's Corner restaurant was badly damaged by the flood waters raging from the Owenass River nearby. Dejected owner Declan Furlong (49) said: "The place is destroyed. We were about to celebrate our first anniversary in business. It's terrible. We have a staff of 14 people but I don't know when we can open.
"The flood happened so suddenly. Diners were here having lunch when the waters came in and everyone had to rush out.
"The waters rose about two feet in the restaurant. I'm concerned about all our regular elderly customers who depend on us. But there's a tremendous community spirit in Mountmellick. A lot of people have offered to help scrub the place out."
Manor Road was the worst affected part of the town. Houses in local estates were evacuated. In nearby Manor Court yesterday, Rosemary Whelan (34) said the waters flooded her home within minutes.
"My fiancé Michael O'Gorman and his father did their best and lifted some of the furniture but the water kept coming up through the floorboards.
"We've a big clean-up," said Ms Whelan, who works as a parliamentary assistant to Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan, who has one of his constituency offices in the town.
Passing her home in the floodwaters was a Civil Defence all-weather, all-terrain vehicle with a crew who had travelled from Dublin.
They said one of their first missions of mercy was to bring a woman out of her home so that she could get to a hospital appointment.
Mr Flanagan visited a special incident centre. His own constituency office was flooded. "This was a catastrophic event of almost Biblical proportions," said the minister. He was joined by Minister Kevin 'Boxer' Moran, who is in charge of the national response to flooding.
The ministers met with local officials, householders and business people affected by the flood to see how the State could help those not covered by insurance.
Laois County Council director of services Kieran Kehoe said a scheme that would deal with waste water and sewage separately had been mandated for the town. Garda Chief Superintendent John Scanlan said a dozen Garda officers were sent to the town and Garda patrols would safeguard against looting empty houses.
By late afternoon, most of the roads around and through Mountmellick were passable and an air of normality had returned.
But for dozens of families, the hard work is just beginning.