AS FLOOD alerts remained in force in parts of Britain this week, many communities were clearing up after storms Ciara and Dennis.
And, although Ecclesiastical Insurance, which covers the vast majority of churches, promised that premiums would not rise because of the floods, at least one priest was concerned for the disaster’s long-term effects.
“The clean-up of houses and shops will take months, long after the press and politicians have lost interest,” the Team Vicar in the Tenbury Team Ministry in Hereford diocese, the Revd Mark Inglis, said. “Properties that have flooded will never be able to be sold; some people will never reopen their business; some people will be thrown in homelessness and poverty because they are uninsured; and flood defences have not, and will not, be built here.”
His church, St Mary’s, Tenbury, lost its heating when the boiler-room in the crypt was flooded last week, but there were already plans in place to build a new one above ground level. An entire row of gravestones, however, was displaced, and two vanished completely as the River Teme surged through the churchyard. “There will be many months of discussions as to who exactly is going to pick up the bill for that,” Mr Inglis said. “It’s going to be an interesting question.
“Most people are quite resilient, and, over time, they will fix their houses and fix their businesses, but a small number of people won’t. There are people who are old and won’t be able to return to independent living; there are some businesses which probably won’t reopen: one small retail shop here has already said they are not coming back. There are a couple of very fragile old people who may not be able to return to their houses at all.
“We are not likely to see improved flood defences here: we’re too small, and the Environment Agency has suffered under austerity. I don’t have the technical knowledge to say if we can prevent this sort of thing, but it would be nice to see properly engaged local and national government here, and that isn’t currently the case. The way climate change is happening is quite frightening. Maybe parts of towns are going to become uninhabitable within our lifetime.”
This week, the chief executive of the Environment Agency, Sir James Bevan, told a water industry conference in London that not every home could be protected, but flood defences did work. While about 4000 properties had flooded this winter, they had protected another 85,000.
Repairing damage can be a major and complex undertaking owing to the age and structure of churches and the types of construction materials used. In the worst cases, it can take months to dry and decontaminate plaster, floors and walls. “Flooding in churches and associated properties can cause heartache to the church community”, Ecclesiastical’s Claims Customer Service Manager, Derek Thomson, said. “We’ve been incredibly busy responding to calls and helping churches get back on their feet in the wake of the devastation.”
The insurance company, which has received more than double the number of claims in a normal two-week period since Storm Ciara hit on Saturday, February 15, had claims teams on standby. By the Monday morning, an emergency response team was in West Yorkshire, even knocking on the doors of people who had not made a claim to see if they needed assistance.
Claims teams also visited Swansea and Herefordshire. “Being on the ground was invaluable, allowing us to see the situation for ourselves, and ensure our customers received the urgent support they needed”, Mr Thomson said. He went on to say that it was too early to assess the financial implications of the overall claims payout.
While acknowledging that it is impossible to flood-proof churches, Ecclesiastical does help properties with advice on flood resistance measures such as barriers, airbrick covers, and using landscaping to divert floodwater. “Flood resilience is a way of designing buildings so that even if the property is flooded, disruption and damage is minimised,” Mr Thomson said. “This includes installing tiles instead of carpets, drainage systems within cavity walls, and raising the height of sockets and door sills.”
ONE church that the insurer helped was the 12th-century St Michael and All Angels, Tirley, near Tewksbury, which was badly affected by the 2007 River Severn floods. Pews were replaced with removable chairs, timber flooring was replaced with flags, a sump pump installed, and electrical sockets raised to chest height. An Environment Agency grant helped to raise the organ seven feet on to a platform with stainless-steel stilts.
A churchwarden, Katherine Creese, said: “We tried to help ourselves as best we could, but Ecclesiastical were brilliant, helping us throughout. We turned it to our best advantage, really. We have taken contingencies to minimise damage. We read the river and have local knowledge of what can happen. When the warning comes, a few of us just get on with it: stacking chairs, moving kneelers and other things onto the organ platform. We also have a ‘portable church’ with everything a service would need — even a keyboard — so we can worship in the village hall. We have done absolutely everything we can to protect us.”
They have been flooded three times since November, and this week the water was rising again. Mrs Creese said: “There is a huge mental strain as well as the physical one, but we are starting from a much better position. Our fixtures and fittings will just need a good clean. It will take a while to dry out, but we hope to be back in by Easter. We have got to smile and look for the best. We just batten down the hatches and rally round; we do our best to keep our lovely church right for future generations.”
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