Yorkshire fights back from the floods

PUBLISHED: 00:00 25 January 2016 | UPDATED: 15:23 26 April 2017

A chinook brings in supplies so repair work can get underway at York’s Foss Barrier

A chinook brings in supplies so repair work can get underway at York's Foss Barrier

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Receding water levels and a rising tide of community spirit - how Yorkshire is fighting back. Photographs by Nigel Holland

Workers assess the damage as Tadcaster finds itself cut in half by the collapse of a key bridge over the WharfeWorkers assess the damage as Tadcaster finds itself cut in half by the collapse of a key bridge over the Wharfe

Unexpected guests are not unusual at Christmas, but few – if any – are ever likely to prove less welcome than Storm Eva, who marked the festive season with torrential rain and high winds, bringing catastrophic flooding to Yorkshire on Boxing Day and beyond.

York, Leeds, Hebden Bridge, Mytholmroyd, Tadcaster, Sowerby Bridge, Cawood – the list of our cities, towns and villages hit by the devastating floods goes on and on.

More than 1,000 homes were flooded in Leeds after the Aire burst its banks; 500 more were hit in York as the Foss and Ouse collided to take river levels five metres higher than normal; around 2,000 houses were caught in the deluge that swept across Calderdale; and great swathes of the county were cut-off, marooned amid the rising waters, including Tadcaster, which was sliced in half when a key bridge collapsed under pressure from the raging Wharfe.

Prime Minister David Cameron arrived in Yorkshire on December 28th to see the devastation for himself. His first stop was the Foss Barrier, York’s main flood protection structure, which had to be lifted on Boxing Day after water entered the building and put the works in danger of electrical failure. This meant the Foss emptied directly into the Ouse, pushing water levels perilously high.

A hardy cyclist makes his way through the floodwaterA hardy cyclist makes his way through the floodwater

Among the many subsequent casualties was the Jorvik Viking Centre, perhaps the most well-known tourist attraction hit by the floods, which closed for the first time in 32 years after its world-famous recreation of a Viking-age street was left under 50cm of water. Thankfully, quick-thinking staff moved all the historic artefacts up to the first floor, but Sarah Maltby, director of attractions for York Archaeological Trust, said they were still ‘devastated by the scale of water incursion in what, until now, has been a watertight basement’.

In Leeds, council leader Judith Blake described the city as ‘devastated by flooding unprecedented in its severity’.

‘The council warned the government after several near misses in recent years that a major flood in Leeds was a catastrophe waiting to happen, but the response was slow and not the level of investment we know the city needs for it to be fully protected,’ she continued. ‘A preventable disaster like this must never happen again.’

As with many devastating events, there has been a spirit-lifting surge of goodwill and good deeds in the aftermath of the festive floods.

In York, volunteers Jade Robinson and Helen Cullen set up a roadside van offering free bacon butties and hot drinks to flood-hit residents on Huntington Road; local employer Nestle bolstered York Flood Appeal by £100,000, taking it well past its initial £250,000 target; B&Q gave more than £1,000 of personal protection equipment to charity Serve On, which deployed a team of volunteers, including veterans, to help residents cut off by flood water around Tadcaster; music stars Edwyn Collins and Tim Burgess put on fundraising gigs for Hebden Bridge Trades Club; and, right around the county, people have been turning out with flasks of tea and offers of help for anyone in need.

‘We’ve been overwhelmed by the response from businesses and members of the public who have offered their time, donations and financial assistance to give relief to the people directly affected and the communities around them,’ said Steve Stewart, chief executive of City of York Council.’

In Calderdale, communities have been out in force helping neighbours, friends and strangers alike since the floods swept through.

‘We’re grateful to everyone who’s pulled together in this strong community,’ said David Browning of Hebden Bridge Community Association.

And it’s been a similar story in Selby, where upwards of 100 homes and businesses were affected. Council leader Mark Crane praised the emergency services, the army, search and rescue teams, the Environment Agency and his own staff. And he also had warm words for ordinary residents too.

‘Particular thanks must go to the people who have helped neighbours in their own local community,’ he said. ‘Across the district, we’ve seen people coming together to support each other in these challenging times.’

David Cameron has announced a £40m flood defence package for the county, with £10m specifically earmarked for York to rebuild and improve the flood defences. The remaining £30m will be spent repairing defences on the Wharfe, Calder, Aire, Ouse and Derwent.

‘I have seen at first hand the devastation caused by flooding,’ the Prime Minster said. ‘And that’s why this work to repair and improve flood defences is so vital.

‘We are already spending £280m over the next six years to protect thousands of houses from flooding in Yorkshire as part of our £2.3bn investment to protect 300,000 houses across the country.’

Judith Blake, leader of Leeds City Council, welcomed the £40m investment but said she fears the cost of recovery will exceed the funds allotted by the government.

‘The extent of the devastation makes it perfectly clear that we need to take a longer term view than existing funding packages are offering,’ she said. ‘Although these deal with the immediate aftermath and are much needed, we must have further significant investment so that Leeds has the flood defences that are appropriate for the UK’s third largest city.’

The flooding response in Yorkshire will be overseen by transport minister Robert Goodwill, who has been appointed by the Prime Minister as flooding envoy to the county. It’s hoped that this new floods initiative will prove more fruitful than the last in 2014 which, according to the Sunday Times, was disbanded after three meetings and 22 months later has still not published a promised report on flood resilience.

Perhaps the new envoy’s first port of call should be Pickering, a previous flooding blackspot that stayed largely dry this time thanks to a defence plan straight out of the history books.

Centuries ago, monks at Byland Abbey built a bund to hold back rainwater coming down from the moors. Echoing their green solution, the town recently installed 167 log and branch dams, added 187 smaller obstructions made from heather bales, planted 29 hectares of woodland and built a bund to store up to 120,000 cubic metres of floodwater that can then be slowly released through a culvert.

On the day the floods hit, Mike Potter, chairman of Pickering & District Civic Society, was relieved to find the unusual £2m scheme held fast.

He told The Independent: ‘While there was devastation all over northern England, our newly completed defences worked a treat and our community got on with life as normal.’ w

What steps do you think should be taken to stop floods devastating our county again? Share your views at feedback@yorkshirelife.co.uk, on Twitter @Yorkshire_Life or by writing to Yorkshire Life, PO Box 163, Ripon, North Yorkshire, HG4 9AG.

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