Cork swamped by inevitable floods

The floods will return, but Cork will probably still be without an effective defence, says Investigative Reporter Conor Ryan.

Cork swamped by inevitable floods

THEY are as predictable and as reoccurring as the tide that causes most of Cork City’s problems — the promises that something will be done.

Since 2006, there is now a 210-page consultants study to consider, preliminary options have started the public consultation process, and there is a commitment that something may start to be shovel ready by 2015.

You would swear it was all a fresh headache and flooding had not been a threat to Cork since people started reclaiming the marsh between the River Lee’s two channels a thousand years ago.

The wide berth politicians have given Cork in the aftermath of the year’s flooding says an awful lot.

The elected representatives have remained silent or made the usual vague, open-ended pronouncements. There is nothing for them to say because, as it has all happened before and will happen again, there is nothing new to say.

The city is swamped and some emergency aid is paid out but, despite so much investment in the city itself, capital has not been forthcoming to build long-term protection. An agreed engineering strategy has not emerged and there is no budget in place.

Putting in tidal and river defence systems along the quays seems like a obvious public good. It unites political parties. Yet, even as the baton has changed hands between different coalitions, little has been done.

Political priorities lie elsewhere.

The Tolka and Dodder river valleys in Dublin benefited from large-scale prevention schemes after flooding which famously saw their local TD, Bertie Ahern, wading through the waterlogged streets in his wellies.

Clonmel, the seat of former OPW minister Martin Mansergh, survived this week’s flooding, protected as it is by a defence scheme launched under his watch.

The €100m needed to sort out Cork, which has 12km of quays, has been described as prohibitive, but the recurring cost of cyclical flooding is even more expensive and it cannot be planned.

Flooding in Cork comes in two forms, both affected by the huge volume of water in the harbour, which only has a narrow escape channel between forts Carlisle and Camden.

This week’s version has been different to the one that devastated the upper part of the city in 2009. That 2009 event was fluvial (river-related). Extreme rains across the Lee’s 2,000 sq m catchment swelled it. This was compounded by the ESB’s handling and timing of the levels in the upriver dam. The flood plains had all been built on and the river burst its banks.

This week’s flooding was a case-study Cork harbour flood. A strong south-easterly gale drove a particularly high tide into the harbour and effectively blocked the escape channel.

At high tide, the water was higher than the city and the quay walls were not tall enough and not complete enough to prevent water spilling onto the streets. After high tide, this was worsened when a rain-filled river continued to pour into the city’s two channels and had nowhere to go.

The water level remained higher than the bridges for a number of hours, and poured through the city’s main commercial district.

This could have been avoided if the quays in the city were properly protected and the water had somewhere to go downstream.

Had something been done in the last decade, when investment went elsewhere, the country’s second largest commercial centre would have escaped damage.

But what has been a regular perennial problem has never become a fully fledged political or practical priority.

In the last 12 years, more than €196m has been spent on the urban capital programme in Cork City, €67m from the city council’s own resources.

That was obviously a priority for the council. It saw the repaving and pedestrianisation of much of the city centre, new lighting, and the construction of urban plazas.

According to the Halcrow consultants report, the Lee Catchment Flood Risk Assessment and Management Study, a comprehensive defence system for the city, which would combat river swells and the tides, would cost less than that.

“This is estimated to cost in excess of €100m for complete new defences and this may be prohibitive,” the report said.

That was €196m to beautify the city, when €100m could not be found to protect it.

In household terms, it is akin to a person spending their budget doing up driveways and gardens when the same amount would have provided long-term protection against the tide with change to spare.

This is what happened in Cork. This week, the high tide and gale breached the banks, just as it did in October 2004.

Yesterday, politicians again spoke about what needed to be done and Taoiseach Enda Kenny referenced the €100m bill cited in the 2009 study.

But, for all the billions spent on capital investment during the boom, if the tide comes back next week, next month, or next year, Cork will just as ill-equipped to keep it at bay.

The tide is a given. The solution is a question of politics and priorities.

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