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December 2009

Worst Floods Ever

Image of high floodwaters

By Hugo O'Doherty

With November set to go on record as the worst month for flooding in Ireland since records began, many of those affected may take comfort in the news that things cannot get much worse.

The fallout after the initial disaster – shortages of clean water in many parts of the South and West, damaged property, frustrated insurance claims and public anger at the response of the government – reveal the humanitarian as well as economic and infrastructural cost of what has happened. According to insurer Hibernian Aviva, damage to homes may exceed €250 million.

As we enter December, the force and frequency of the rains is not expected to be as substantial as recent days and weeks. At the time of writing, however, water levels on the flooded River Shannon could take three weeks to drop. That is according to the government’s Emergency Response Co-ordination Committee chairman Seán Hogan, who said that the tremendous volume of water may take that amount of time to work its way south to the sea.

National and regional daily newspapers have been inundated with a variety of letters from those affected, whether they be commending relief efforts or calling for more help. Conservative estimates suggest that 1,500 people have been evacuated from their homes, though this figure does not take into account those who evacuated voluntarily. Stories of parents desperately trying to get their children to school have also been a regular feature of the flooding crisis.

Agricultural land in some areas of the country has been rendered useless at a time when the farming industry was already struggling due to the ongoing economic situation both domestically and globally. South Galway farmer Michael Kelly said “we have 20 farmers in my area alone who are cut-off”, adding that it was “appalling” that Minister for Agriculture Brendan Smith had not visited the area.

The farming community, however, is now able to draw upon a €2 million Fodder Aid Scheme provided by the Ministry of Agriculture. According to the Irish Farmers’ Association (IFA), the fodder will be brought to Gort, Ballinasloe and Banagher and distributed through the organisation’s branch structure to farmers who need foodstuff for their livestock. The fodder fund is in addition to the €10 million already earmarked by the government for flood relief, a figure that is expected to be increased as the true extent of the damage is revealed.

With the Shannon about 30 inches above its normal level in Carrick-on-Shannon, five inches higher than the previous record flooding, business and properties have been devastated. Terry Casey, an accountant in the town, has had to abandon his office and does not expect to return for three months. “It’s complete devastation. It was tough enough as it was with the recession”, he stated.

His case is just one in the expanding catalogue of struggling businesses and abandoned homes. Others face impassable roads, stopping children attending school and people from getting supplies.

Eastern parts of the country, which remained largely unscathed after the initial flooding, finally succumbed on Sunday 29th and Monday 30th of November. The River Liffey burst its banks, flooding much of Kildare, including Sallins and Leixlip, and parts of Dublin. The capital is expected to escape the worst of the flooding, however. Three nursing homes in Kildare were evacuated, revealing the true hardship that people have gone through in recent days.

Water levels in Athlone are expected to take weeks to recede, leaving homeowners and businesses in peril. Tens of thousands of people in Cork and elsewhere remain without clean running water. Parts of County Cork, such as the town of Fermoy, are particularly prone to flooding and have experienced severe hardship in recent weeks.

At a time when the UN Climate Change Conference is set to take place in Copenhagen this month, global warming and its effects have naturally been mentioned in conjunction with the floods in Ireland. NUI Maynooth geographer Prof John Sweeney wrote in an Irish Times article that floods on the scale we have seen "could recur every two or three years before the end of the century because of climate change".

Others, such as Minister for the Environment John Gormley, have pointed the finger more squarely at bad planning and building on flood plains, particularly during the construction boom that came to an end last year. "I think it makes sense to most people that building in flood plains is not a good thing. And I think over the years we have ignored good planning advice, we have zoned in areas that should not have been zoned and those lessons have been learned", said Gormley.

Charities such as St. Vincent de Paul were quick to offer help to flood victims. The charity has not disclosed the amount of money that is allocated to relief, but said it would be distributed around the country to those in need.

Good news and silver linings have been hard to come by during the crisis, but one potential positive consequence of the crisis is an unexpected fillip to the economy when the clean-up operation begins. "Floods are bad but flood restoration can actually provide a stimulus to the economy", said Prof Richard Tol, a leading economist at the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI).

As the government spend the Christmas and New Year period counting the financial, economic and potential political cost, rural communities and individuals have the more immediate and fundamental problem of trying to rebuild what has been taken by the flooding. Expectations remain realistic among affected communities and businesses, but they are at least taking comfort that help has been mobilised and the worst rains have fallen.

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