March 2014

Burrowbridge 01

Burrowbridge 1960’s

With daffodils and snowdrops erupting into a carpet of flower everywhere, It is as if a distant  trumpet call is arousing nature from its winter slumber in preparation for the forthcoming Spring. It’s a trumpet call with refrains of joy and promise of the great outdoors beginning to stir once more like a giant shrugging off the effects of a deep sleep. This distant clarion call has but one verse repeated over and over again like a mantra, “March has arrived, Spring is coming”.

March the month that is fabled in the UK for coming in like a lion and going out like a lamb. March the transitional month that day by day leaves behind the clinging tendrils of winter and beckons the ever warming embraces of the forthcoming Spring with its lengthening evenings.

As winters go in the UK, apart from a few nights of frost the winter has been exceptionally mild. Unfortunately it has also been the wettest winter on record accompanied by a continuous barrage of storms from the Atlantic causing serious damage and flooding issues across the country. The first of the real heavy rain started on Christmas Eve and many residents, particularly in Somerset, forced to leave their homes are only just starting to regain access to their property as flood levels slowly recede . Alas regaining access to property does not mean being able to live there due to extensive damage caused by floodwaters. Floors have to scrapped and replaced as well as furnishings. Walls have to be dried and stripped back to bare brick for treatment. It is estimate that the repair process to individual homes will take an average 7-9 months.

Burrowbridge 02

Burrowbridge 2013

The big question is could this damage been avoided? The Somerset Levels flooding in winter is not in itself news, it frequently happens usually without significant damage to property or farmers crops. But the depth and duration of the flood not only during the last winter but also the one before has given vent to the anger of residents who have been saying for years this was going to happen unless preventative measures were taken. Alas there are no ears more deaf at times that the ones sheltered behind the impermeable walls of Whitehall. More concerned about saving derisory amounts of money on internal budgets than having the foresight to see the vast costs incurred by flood damage, repairs and loss of business.

It is only after the proverbial floodgates have opened are politicians to be prised from their cosseted surroundings into action. Give his due, but then it is his job, the Prime Minister did visit the Somerset Levels. This was however only after what were perceived as disastrous PR visits by the Environment Secretary Owen (I have forgotten my wellies) Patterson and a separate visit by the Chairman of the Environment Agency Chris Smith upon whom vexed residents unleashed their wrath.

Whether driven by a politicians sense of self-preservation or not, the Prime Minister made it clear that money was not an object in resolving the crisis. A battery of huge pumps from Holland have since been brought in to help lower the water levels and a 20 year plan has been devised to help alleviate the problem of a more permanent basis. Part of the relief plan is to start dredging the rivers this month as soon as the river banks become firm enough to allow heavy equipment to be safely used. Some estimates have placed to cost of the 20 year plan as high as £100 million and it will remain to be seen if the enthusiasm for money not being an object statement, drains away with time like the floodwaters itself.

In the days following the Prime Minister’s visit, leaders of other political parties not wanting to be left out, or seen to be left out of the picture descended on the area like a flood of their own. Each one making most of the sudden photo-opportunity. Many families at the time struggling like King Canute to hold back the ever rising flood waters from their own homes found this procession of opportunistic politicians somewhat nauseating.Perhaps for some this might also be their first and last visit.

Burrowbridge 03

Burrowbridge during 2014 floods

Although not entirely the cause of the problem, the lack of dredging over the years due to what some would say were penny-pinching savings, were clearly a major contributory factor in the levels of flood water rising as high as they did. As regular dredging stopped, so the rivers became narrower and shallower as silt built upon silt.

A series of startling photographs have emerged in the public domain which clearly show the effect of the lack of dredging. The first picture taken in the 1960’s at Burrowbridge in Somerset show the River Parrett to be wide and deep flowing. The second picture taken at the same spot last year shows by stark contrast the river has become narrow and shallow. In final picture showing the effects of the flooding, it is hardly surprising the arches of the bridge have completely disappeared under flood water as the now significantly reduced capacity of the river struggles to contain the watery deluge placed upon it.

Politics being what it is, primarily the art of survival, it is unlikely that any proverbial heads will roll. More likely a blame game will ensue with each political party blaming their rivals of neglect during their terms of office. The best that can be expected would be the appropriate Minister standing up in Parliament and simply saying “Sorry” on behalf of the Government before sitting down again.

The Great Storm of 1703

Storm CloudsLiving in Somerset makes one acutely aware of not only how extensive the flooding in the county is, particularly around the Somerset Levels, but also of the extraordinary duration of the flooding. It was on Christmas Eve 2013 that the area experienced exceptionally heavy rainfall when the flooding commenced and now, six weeks later little has changed in this aquatic landscape, leaving one with a literal sinking feeling the Somerset Levels are becoming tiny semi-permanent atolls of habitation. It is little wonder that Alfred the Great chose this area as a safe and impenetrable retreat to initial flee from and then fight the Viking invaders.

At long last following tremendous pressure  from the triple verbal onslaught of local Members of Parliament, farmers and residents, the Government has agreed that finally local rivers will be dredged to alleviate future flooding, the very point that locals have been campaigning to achieve for years. The problem is that dredging operations cannot take place until the riverbanks are dry and firm enough to safely support the weight of dredging equipment. With a seemingly constant bombardment of storms rolling off the Atlantic Ocean, one cannot help but wonder if that may be some time away and will the Levels remain under water for months to come?

The prolonged flooding and storms triggered a distant historical memory of a natural disaster now known as the Great Storm of 1703 which befell the UK. The storm produced a exceptionally low atmospheric centre with observers noting readings of only 973 millibars but it is thought that atmospheric pressure may have fallen as low as 950 millibars over the centre of the country.

Thanks the inspiration of the author Daniel Defoe, he advertised nationally for people to write to him with their personal accounts of the storm. It was the first time such a national reckoning of a disaster event and it’s aftermath had been accurately recorded. The thousands of letters he received led Defoe to write his renown book “The Storm”. It was calculated that between 8,000 and 15,000 lives were lost overall. The West Country of England was badly effected particularly around Bristol. Hundreds of people died on the Somerset Levels, the very area which is flooded today, along with thousands of sheep and cattle. The ferocity of the storm was so great that one ship was found 15 miles inland. Across the country storm damage was extensive with over 2,000 massive chimney stacks blown down and over 400 windmills destroyed. Many vessels were lost at sea.

Clearly natural disasters are nothing new, some like volcanic eruptions or earthquakes are difficult to take advance preventative measures against, but effective advance planning can help reduce the loss of life, damage to property, livelihoods and transport.. One hopes that the preventative measures promised for the Somerset Levels are not a one-off operation but part of a sustained effort for the future. Perhaps Somerset’s global mini-disaster will prove to be something of a wake-up call that maintenance in all its forms is something that cannot be neglected in the future.

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