Why were we not warned about the perfect flood?

IT STRUCK without warning, leaving a trail of destruction and human misery in its wake. The river Lee burst its banks in the early hours of last Friday morning after millions of tonnes of water were released from the Inniscarra Dam, eight miles west of Cork city.

The torrent was of the order of three million tonnes – three times the volume of water flowing through the Mississippi on a daily basis.

The decision taken by the ESB after rising water levels came within an inch of the top of the dam was to have catastrophic effects on the city sleeping below.

Under the cover of darkness, a wall of water, described as a “mini tsunami” by a senior executive in a luxury hotel which bore the full blunt, swept down the valley towards the largely unsuspecting population.

It smashed through a quay wall, threatening a city hospital with evacuation, and into surrounding streets, swamping vast parts of Cork’s historic Middle Parish.

Hundreds of people were woken from the beds to find their homes inundated with flood water.

People like Leonard Harvey, who lives off Grattan Street and who was woken by neighbours and rescued by firefighters. His neighbour, Joe Quigley, who got a phone call at 4.45am, said he came within inches of drowning. Many of the worst-hit areas had never flooded before.

Luckily, nobody died. But it is only now, seven days after the natural disaster, that the sheer scale of devastation and hardship, and the impact of the destruction on the civic, business, educational, social and cultural life of the city is becoming apparent.

A civic emergency has been in place for a week and the cost of the damage is still being counted. It includes:

- Tens of millions of euro worth of damage to both public and private infrastructure.

- The city’s main water treatment plant has been knocked out, leaving half the city’s population without water for a week.

- A city hospital kept open only with the support of the army.

- The closure of University College Cork (UCC) for week. One-third of its 80-acre campus was under water, 29 buildings were damaged.

- The forced evacuation of some 2,000 third-level students from their accommodation.

- The closure of an award-winning five-star hotel.

- The closure of Cork County Council’s administrative headquarters for a week.

- The closure of dozens of schools.

- The closure of the southern region’s biggest courthouse.

The army has been deployed to deliver millions of litres of water to the elderly and infirm.

The navy has been docked in port offering logistical support as its pumping experts helped pump flood waters from the water treatment plant.

In scenes reminiscent of the aftermath of hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, debris was piled up outside hundreds of homes.

A walk along Sheares’ Street shows that some 12 businesses in a 300-yard stretch have been forced to close.

The flood waters have receded, the clean-up is under way, but the devastation remains. So too does the fear that it will happen again.

There have been calls for an independent inquiry and for a complete overhaul of how water in the Lee valley is managed.

And while the initial focus was, quite rightly, on the emergency response, anger is building about why people were not adequately warned.

Those questions were being asked as early as last Friday. The ESB and the city council were in the firing line.

Dr Con Murphy’s surgery on the Mardyke was flooded by three feet of water, he was one of the first to publicly criticise the authorities.

“This came out of the blue for me. I can absolutely accept the explanation for opening the dam but why we weren’t warned bothers me. Everyone around me was caught on the hop.”

Top chef Denis Cotter, who owns the award-winning vegetarian restaurant, Cafe Paradiso, said he got no warning either.

“The first we knew about this was at 8am on Friday when staff arrived for work. They had to swim in to the restaurant,” he said.

“If we had got 24 hours’ notice, we could have saved an awful lot. Even if we had been given 12 hours’ notice, we could have moved stuff upstairs.”

The anger built during the week and peaked after ESB officials briefed the city’s Oireachtas members in Dublin on Wednesday night. Several questions remain unanswered.

People demand to know how the chain of communication between the ESB and the authorities with the general public works – or in this case – didn’t.

The ESB has consistently defended its decision to release the water. It described the flood as a one-in-800-year event and said it issued flood warnings to the local authorities – one at 11am and the other at 4pm on Thursday. By 6pm that day, the company said it had issued a public service warning to the RTÉ newsroom.

The ESB’s executive director of power generation, Michael McNicholas, said dam managers had no option but to release the excess water and the decision prevented a much greater flood.

He said staff knew on Monday November 16, four days before the flood, that significant volumes of rainfall were forecast for the week.

He said they recognised the need to trigger a dam release to achieve a significant level of spillage and they issued a flood alert.

“We were spilling water at a rate of 150 cubic metres per second and we continued at that level right through until Wednesday,” he said.

“Met Éireann was forecasting rainfall of 46 millimetres on Thursday but our records show that 90 millimetres, fell in the Lee catchment area. We were monitoring this and at 11am on Thursday, we issued a serious flood warning to all emergency services.

“We began increasing our spillage incrementally from 150 cubic metres per second at 11am, up until 535 cubic metres per second which we reached at 11pm, and we issued further flood warnings at 4pm to the emergency services and local radio stations.

“By then, our staff had serious concerns for the overall integrity of the dam so we increased our spillage to 535 cubic metres per second to prevent a catastrophe which would have led to uncontrollable flooding given 800 cubic metres a second was entering the system.

“It was the sudden increase in rain on Thursday – double the amount that Met Éireann had forecast – that forced us to take the action.”

However, an expert on flooding in Cork, says it must have been clear to the ESB, given rainfall levels throughout the summer and early autumn, that water table levels were very high.

Professor Robert Devoy, who teaches courses on hydrology and physical geography at UCC, said this rainfall would have reduced the absorptive capacity of the ground to cope with further heavy rainfall forecast for November.

“Given high levels of saturation and forecasts a month ago that November was going to be very wet, I would have been releasing water from Inniscarra as fast as I could for the three weeks before the flood,” he said.

Irrespective of these arguments, by last Thursday week, the die had already been cast and a range of factors had come together to create the “perfect flood”.

But there was still time to warn the city – to allow institutions prepare, to allow householders move furniture, files and cars to higher ground.

After the ESB’s alert, the city council issued a flood warning on its website on Thursday evening. Before the flood, its site would record just 1,700 hits a day – hardly a widespread method of communication.

This warning failed to reach those who needed to hear it most, and who ultimately were to suffer most.

The key questions the authorities must answer are:

- If, as they argue, the situation was so critical at the dam, why did the ESB not flag the seriousness of the situation to the local authorities?

- Did the ESB tell anyone that it was releasing an unprecedented amount of water?

- Was the alert passed in the form of a phone or email? And to whom was it passed?

- Is it enough to simply post a warning on a website few people visit?

- And why were greater efforts not made to communicate this warning to the public – those who stood to suffer most?

A key recommendation must surely be the setting up of some form of early warning system that is guaranteed to reach the masses.

Some suggestions include the setting up of a detailed email or text database of city centre businesses.

The Cork Business Association of the Cork Chamber could be involved or perhaps the council could arrange a van with a loudspeaker to drive around at-risk flood zones.

While the investment in the city’s main drainage appears to have paid off, Government must also release funding to bolster the city’s quay walls which failed at Grenville Place when they were most needed.

There are questions too about why so many crucial buildings, which were damaged by the flood, were built not just on flood plains, but in known, at-risk, flood zones in the first-place.

Climate change expert Dr Kieran Hickey, a climatologist and climate change expert at NUI Galway who lectures in flooding and natural disasters, said the flood disaster must force planners to review their policy of allowing development in such areas.

He also disagrees with the ESB’s assertion that this was a one-in-800-year event. “To make this kind of statement properly, you need a long historical record. This is just a way of measuring the scale of an event – a statistical average.

Dr Hickey graduated from UCC with a masters in the historical climatology of flooding in Cork 1841-1988. His research of almost 300 floods shows the Mardyke area was covered by nine feet of water in 1853, and by six feet of water in 1875.

He pointed out that Cork was hit by a flood of similar scale in 1853 which floated a barge from the north channel to the Mardyke.

Two of UCC’s 29 buildings which were damaged – its Gateway IT building built on the site of the city’s old greyhound stadium on the Western Road and the Glucksman Gallery – were both built on known flood-risk zones. Archives show that the former greyhound stadium site flooded in November 1941 and again in December 1964. Data from the Office of Public Work’s (OPW) Flood Hazard Mapping website details two recent floods at the site in February 1990 and again in November 2000.

The site is flagged by the OPW as a “multiple/recurring flood point”.

Further downstream at the Glucksman, where 184 priceless works of art stored in its basement art store were damaged, records also show that site is prone to flooding. Archives show that UCC’s Lower Grounds nearby flooded in November 1892, and that Donovan’s Road bridge, near the Glucksman, was destroyed in a flood in November 1916.

“When the going was good in this country, planners and architects made certain decisions and no one had the guts to say certain things were wrong. If you spoke out, you were seen as negative, or anti-progress or anti-development,” said Dr Hickey.

And he warned that Cork – a low-lying city built on 13 marshy isles designed to flood to control the flow of water in the estuary, and with a steep-sided, narrow valley with little capacity on the other side – is vulnerable to flooding from the east and west. He said authorities will have to consider an intervention such as a tidal barrier.

Few can argue that the city’s emergency response following the flood has been fantastic – with dedicated public servants going above and beyond the call of duty to get the city back on its feet. But as Irish people experience first-hand the effects of climate change, a sea-change in attitude at both Government and local level is needed.

A Met Éireann/UCD study on climate predictions for the 21st century published last year predicted winter rainfall increases in the range of 15%-20% “towards the end of the century”. This is already looking very conservative, blogger John Gibbon has written on his aptly named www.thinkorswim.ie.

As people on the western seaboard wade up to their waists in the tangible proof of climate change, the Government must learn lessons from this disaster.

Cork, and other Irish cities, will be hit by floods like this again. That is a scientific fact.

But Irish cities must be protected, prepared and warned. A city must never be brought to its knees like this again.

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