Belfast Telegraph

Friday 1 August 2014

Linda McKee: Some statistics from the weekend deluge

Between 60mm and 80mm of rain fell in a space of 12 hours. Many of Northern Ireland’s rivers clocked up the highest flows since records began between 30 and 50 years ago.

Northern Ireland Water answered 3,500 calls at the weekend and completed around 1,000 jobs — at one stage answering a call every 10 seconds. Roads Service had 200 workers on the ground dealing with incidents, plus almost 100 vehicles in action.

Six pumping stations and three or four sewage treatment works were inundated. More than 120 roads closed at the peak of the floods. Several bridges were damaged. A road collapse damaged a water main, interrupting fresh water supplies. And the Broadway underpass filled with 50,000 cubic metres of water in just 45 minutes.

These figures all emerged yesterday when the Regional Development Committee called in representatives from the Roads Service, Northern Ireland Water and the Rivers Agency to find out what exactly went wrong.

All three said that soon after the severe weather warning came in from the Met Office last Friday, they joined in a conference call organised by Belfast City Council and including the PSNI, Fire Service, NIE and other agencies to co-ordinate the inter-agency response to the impending crisis.

The terse response from committee chair Fred Cobain? “It didn't happen. I was on the ground on Saturday and Sunday and it didn’t happen. There was no co-ordination with any of the other agencies. Without public representatives there would have been no co-ordination.”

It was a theme that emerged over and over again. Although the agencies described putting on more staff to deal with emergency calls from the public, the reports kept coming from exasperated committee members of panicked householders phoning agencies to find the line was dead or to be told that it was the responsibility of another agency.

Committee deputy chairman Jim Wells expressed shock that motorists were still able to drive into the Westlink underpass on Saturday afternoon even when the waters had risen to as much as two metres above the bottom of the basin.

And member George Robinson told his own personal story of driving through the tunnel shortly after 4pm on Saturday, just when the waters were beginning to rise in earnest. At that point it was down to one lane of traffic, yet no-one had cordoned off the road.

“I thought the underpass should have been closed then,” he said.

“As soon as I got to Lisburn I phoned the emergency services to alert them but there was no answer from anyone but the police and they said it was responsibility of the Roads Service. I thought that should have been a priority because of the possibility of the loss of life.”

But the fear is that once the issue goes off the media boil, it will quietly be pushed to the back of the shelf as other more pressing priorities come along. Memories can be short for those who weren’t directly affected.

This isn’t the first major flooding incident ever to happen in Northern Ireland and yet it doesn’t seem as though we’ve revamped our flood response substantially since the last time.

Committee members asked why they haven’t heard much since the Executive ordered an action plan to be drawn up following the last incident. According to Roads Service, they have done what they were asked to in the plan — carried out a review of how they responded last time — and were satisfied with the results.

All this, while the agencies regularly get together to carry out emergency planning exercises to simulate the aftermath of a plane crash at George Best Belfast City Airport, he said. The health and agriculture sectors, too, seem more on the ball, with regular contingency exercises to simulate avian influenza and foot-and-mouth outbreaks.

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