FERGUS FINLAY: Flooding crisis must precipitate real action when waters recede

There weren’t many left without power for too long, despite some of the worst wind in recent years, writes Fergus Finlay

WHAT a week or so that was. There were times when it seemed as if our country was slowly drowning. I saw the Barrow and the Nore in full flood as if Noah himself was coming. I saw water lapping over the main road bridge in Enniscorthy, a good 2m higher than I’ve ever seen it before. I saw water cascading down the main streets of towns in Wicklow and Wexford and Kilkenny as if the apocalypse had arrived.

On the news we all saw exhausted residents and townspeople battling to save their homes, and coping with what seemed like irreparable damage. As storm after storm raged through the countryside it often seemed like it would never end.

Towns like Bandon, that have suffered heavily in the past, were hit again. Shopkeepers who have given up trying to buy flood insurance watched in despair as their Christmas takings floated down their main streets.

For the families involved, it must have been an awful, unforgettable time. You could fully understand the anger and frustration of people meeting government ministers after a week or more of fighting a losing battle with the elements.

But there were other things happening too. I drove a lot of country roads during the awful weather, and it was impossible not to notice that where a bit of decent preparation had been done, culverts were running clear, and coping with an enormous volume of rapidly moving water. Where there was sand-bagging going on, communities were out in force to help. Right through the Christmas period there were signs of local authority staff out and about, working way beyond the call of duty to keep their communities safe.

At national level, decisions were being made and communicated on a daily basis, by a task force that never seemed to go off duty and were all looking increasingly exhausted as the weeks wore on. In the end, I would guess that we all know about the houses and families that couldn’t be protected from the floods. But we don’t know how many crises were averted by the sort of decent planning that seemed to be going on, and by the remedial work that has been carried out in towns like Clonmel since the last disastrous floods.

We do know that no hospital was forced to shut down, no nursing homes had to be evacuated, no elderly or infirm people were put at risk. There was one terrible tragedy near Fermoy, when a mother and her daughter died in a flooded field, apparently after a car crash. But nobody died directly from the floods, nobody lost a loved one. Everything else can be fixed in time.

So maybe, while we sympathise with all those families and businesses that were affected by the floods, we should also pay a tribute to the public servants who planned the response and the local authority workers at every level who worked might and main to ensure that things weren’t an awful lot worse. We spend an awful lot of time in this country criticising people who work in the public services, but we never seem to realise that when we need them most, they’re always there.

That applies to people like ESB workers too. There weren’t too many families left without power for too long, despite some of the worst wind we’ve seen in recent years. That was because ESB crews left their families to work in some of the worst conditions to get electricity back to their customers, and they deserve thanks for that.

And what of the politicians? As usual, they were in a no-win situation. Joan Burton was mocked for braving the elements and having the kind of accident any of us could have — an accident she dealt with with a laugh. Enda Kenny was mocked, on the other hand, for not being seen in photocalls in Wellington boots, even though he was ensuring that responsible ministers and officials were working around the clock.

A former tánaiste, Michael O’Leary, was given the nickname minister for snow because he took an active and visible role in dealing with the consequences of awful weather back in 1981. Ever since then, politicians have known that they are damned if they do and damned if they don’t when it comes to the weather.

When we’re wading through muck and damage, we want our politicians at our side. But we also want them performing miracles at their desks. We never seem to have realised that even politicians can’t defeat nature.

But they can plan for it, and they can learn lessons. When property was king in Ireland, there were many who warned that it was dangerous to take the natural flood plains around places like Carrick-on-Shannon and cover them with concrete to facilitate the insatiable appetites of developers. Hopefully we’ve learned the lesson, even if it’s the hard way, that our failure over generations to respect the needs and habits of our waterways is going to bite us hard every now and again.

But the main thing we have to realise, and start to plan for, is that this really is the future. Unless the world’s scientific community is wrong about climate change, we already know the sort of consequences it will bring for us. Well before this year’s bad weather, the Environmental Protection Agency and others warned that climate change consequences for Ireland would include a rise in the sea level, more intense storms and rainfall events, an increased likelihood and magnitude of river and coastal flooding. They are also predicting water shortages in summer in the east of Ireland and adverse impacts on water quality throughout the country.

It may or may not be the case that this year’s storms are a manifestation of climate change happening now. They are certainly a warning that it is starting to affect us, and we have to plan.

That’s why the worst thing that could happen after the storm passes is we all breathe a sigh of relief and forget about it.We need to worry about the next one.

CLIMATE change has to feature in the election manifestos of every party that contests the general election — not as a platitude, a box to be ticked, but as a leading priority. Planning, preparing for, and investing in climate change measures is more important than tax cuts. The idea that we should all be encourage to go out and spend more, while we fail to invest adequately in reducing our own carbon emissions and preparing for a different climate future, is just absurd.

And yet I’d be reasonably certain that as soon as the first opinion poll of the year is published, the entire media concentration is going to be on the gladiatorial side of the election, and not on the real issues that need to be addressed. If a government is elected in Ireland in March, whatever its personalities, that doesn’t put climate preparation front and centre of its concerns, it will be letting us all down. If we decide to vote for the best tax cuts package on offer, and ignore the need to invest in the future, we’ll be letting ourselves down.

More on this topic

Hundreds still waiting for flood relief fundingHundreds still waiting for flood relief funding

Most in favour of state-back insurance fund to help weather victimsMost in favour of state-back insurance fund to help weather victims

€106m set aside to fix roads damaged in recent floods€106m set aside to fix roads damaged in recent floods

Government announces plan for new group to combat  River Shannon floodingGovernment announces plan for new group to combat River Shannon flooding


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