VOLUNTEERS, communities, and church groups in the north of England have rallied together in the wake of widespread flooding, after a weekend of unprecedented rainfall across the region.
More than 60,000 properties were left without power, hundreds of homes were evacuated, and entire roads were washed away, when Storm Desmond hit the UK, on Saturday. Two men, both in their nineties, died in the storm in separate incidents in London and Kendal. In Cumbria, one of the hardest-hit areas, more than 5200 properties were flooded, 30 schools were closed, and four bridges were cut off.
The Vicar of St Elisabeth’s, Harraby, in Carlisle, west Cumbria, the Revd Sue Wicks, was contacted in the early hours of Sunday morning to help welcome people evacuated from their homes with drinks, food, and blankets at the community centre, before holding Sunday-morning worship.
Ms Wicks said on Tuesday that the church was now being used as a distribution point for basic food-stuffs. “The generosity and kindness of everyone has been exceptional: what they have they are sharing, whether that is time, blankets, food, or money,” she said. “A gentleman from Glasgow even rang up offering accommodation for anyone who would be willing to live there.”
Reports could not convey the horror of the situation, she said. “Many people are in total shock and unable at present to do much until the water subsides. Rats are swimming about inside the properties, which adds to the health risk.
“The constant fear of more floods will always be there. The financial implications for individuals will be enormous, too. Businesses are closed, and many of our parishioners are on zero-hour contracts, and therefore have no regular income.”
A retired cleric at St John’s, Keswick, south of Carlisle, Canon Michael Webb, said that the past few days had been a “traumatic time” for the community, but they were “pulling together”. “Many people, young and old, are out helping dig up the awful mud, or offering beds and meals,” he said.
New £6-million flood defences in Keswick — built to withstand the 2009 highs of 15.2 feet — were reportedly overwhelmed when the River Greta swelled to 17.4 feet.
On Monday, the Bishop of Carlisle, the Rt Revd James Newcome, spoke to the emergency services in the town who helped set up the reception centre at St Herbert’s C of E Primary School.
Bishop Newcome, who lives in Keswick, said in a statement on Sunday that he had seen, first-hand, the “terrible problems” caused by the flooding, and urged communities to “rally together” as they had when facing similar devastation after floods in Cumbria in 2005 and 2009. “I appreciate how difficult the current conditions are, but am confident that, once again, our churches will be providers of practical support and prayer,” he said.
The Bishop of Portsmouth, the Rt Revd Christopher Foster, apologised for Bishop Newcome’s absence from the House of Lords on Monday, in view of the flooding, and called for an “urgent” reassessment of the effectiveness of flood prevention measures in the UK. “In the past ten years we have seen in Cumbria three so-called once-in-a-lifetime flooding events,” he said.
More than 36 churches have made insurance claims so far, mostly in the north-west, after being directly affected by flooding, Ecclesiastical Insurance said on Wednesday. In Appleby, in east Cumbria, more than two feet of floodwater swamped the parish church after flood defences — for which the community paid £50,000 — were breached. The churchyard of St Peter’s, Camerton, was also partially covered by water after the River Derwent broke its banks.
Kendal Parish Church’s three church halls were flooded, as were the kitchen and boiler room, though the main building was unaffected.
Churches that have escaped flooding have been rallying to help. In Cockermouth, Churches Together have been working with volunteers to help those stranded by floodwater. In the town centre, Christ Church was open over the weekend to provide shelter, food, and drink.
The University of Cumbria opened its chapel and campus bar to students forced to leave their accommodation on Saturday night. The chaplaincy team also organised a special carol service for the community on Wednesday evening. The University Chaplain, the Revd Matthew Firth, said: “We need to celebrate the light that can never be overcome by darkness right now. The community spirit has been amazing.”
Northern Ireland and Scotland were also heavily affected by flooding, and hundreds of homes were evacuated, after riverbanks on the borders burst.
During Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, the Chancellor, George Osborne, announced £50 million of funding for families and businesses, after a call by the Labour MP Angela Eagle for more support for victims of flooding.
The announcement comes after the Prime Minister held an emergency Cabinet Office Briefing on Monday, in which he said that the Government’s “historic” spending commitment on flood defences in the Autumn Statement would go some way to repairing the damage. He also said, however, that “sometimes there are levels of rainfall, levels of flooding, that it’s extremely hard to protect against.”
Mr Cameron also visited Carlisle, where hundreds of jobs are now at risk after businesses were inundated by floodwater. A water-treatment works is out of service, as are two storage reservoirs in the town centre.
Mr Cameron was criticised by the Liberal Democrats’ leader, Tim Farron, for delaying £4 million- worth of flood defences to protect 440 properties on the River Kent, in Kendal, part of his constituency.
His comments came after the Environment Secretary, Liz Truss, told MPs in the House of Commons that £2.3 billion had already been spent on 1500 schemes to protect against flooding and to reimburse councils for the cost of dealing with floods. Ms Truss said that about 800,000 properties were protected by flood defences, but that by Sunday morning more than 3500 of those had been flooded, the majority in the north-west, where 200 military personnel had been mobilised.
The NHS was forced to declare a “major incident” in the region after hospitals struggled to cope with power cuts and a shortage of doctors and nurses, who were kept from their duties by flooded roads.
The Met Office said that rainfall records were broken in the Lake District after 341.4mm fell in the Honister Pass in 24 hours, to 6 p.m. on Saturday.
The Queen, in an official statement on Tuesday, extended her sympathies to those affected, and thanked the emergency services, military, and volunteers for their efforts.