Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Belfast must build flood defences: Council pledge as flood catastrophe is narrowly averted

Volunteers give out sandbags at Inverary Community Centre in the Sydenham area.
Volunteers give out sandbags at Inverary Community Centre in the Sydenham area earlier this month
FLASHBACK: Flooding on Holywood Promenade earlier in January Jonathan Porter/Presseye.
FLASHBACK: Flooding on Holywood Promenade earlier in January Jonathan Porter/Presseye.
In Old Warrenpoint Road, Newry, the O'Hare family get help from a neighbour to deliver sand sandbags to the house. NewRayPics
In Old Warrenpoint Road, Newry, the O'Hare family get help from a neighbour to deliver sand sandbags to the house. NewRayPics

Belfast City Council is to push for new flood defences to be built in the east of the city — after residents narrowly escaped having their homes destroyed by rising water.

The pledge came last night just hours after Sydenham residents watched in terror as a tidal surge saw the Connswater River rise and threaten to burst its banks.

DUP councillor Gavin Robinson revealed at the January meeting of Belfast City Council that two years ago councillors had pushed for new flood defences.

The council offered then to pay 50% of the cost but that other statutory agencies had not moved quickly enough to make it happen.

Mr Robinson said that after “catastrophic consequences” had been narrowly avoided over the last few days, he intended to push to ensure that new flood walls were now built.

High tides and strong winds caused difficult driving conditions on some parts of Northern Ireland's east coast yesterday, but Belfast escaped major flooding.

Across Northern Ireland emergency services have spent days battling the elements and 70mph gusts to secure homes, businesses, transport links and car parks in the biggest ever flood prevention effort seen here.

Up to 40 public, private, voluntary and community organisations were involved in the multi-agency operation, which was led by the PSNI.

Residents had braced themselves for the worst as suburban city roads usually lined with traffic in Belfast became bunged with lifeboats and fire engines.

Front doors and windows of houses were piled high with sandbags and plastic sheets.

End-of-terrace homeowners feared the worst — the tidal water bursting through their walls.

Tracey Harrison (47), who lives opposite the Connswater River in east Belfast, couldn't sleep in fear of the impending surge.

 “I was up at 2.30 this morning and couldn’t sleep. I looked out at the water and it was right up at the bridge and then it came back down again.

“We have had everything upstairs since Friday, we had to bring the washing machine and cooker back down so I could do a wash and cook the dinner.

“I am so relieved. I wasn’t really sleeping because I know how quickly the water could wash in. I have a disabled son and he has been absolutely terrified. He wouldn’t leave his room.

“It could happen again, they need to build a fence or barrier.”

Tracey was a worried mother among thousands who were delivered the ominous note through the letterbox on Thursday night stating: ‘Pack a bag in case of evacuation and prepare to be away from your home for several days.’

The waters did indeed rise. The coastlines were battered with waves and the salty foams of North Antrim.

In Co Down, where much devastation was anticipated, roads became rivers but communities remained safe.

The police commander in charge of the multi-agency response paid tribute to all of |those involved in the success of the Northern Ireland-wide operation.

Assistant Chief Constable Stephen Martin said: “I am pleased with how quickly agencies across Northern Ireland reacted to the emergency situation. 

“This truly was a multi-agency operation and we relied on a number of organisations to make sure that we had the right information, expertise and experience to minimise any risk and impact from the flooding.

“An example of this is that, over the course of this operation, we have used 45,000 sandbags to bolster defences, protect key infrastructure sites and help to secure homes.”

‘We’d moved everything upstairs, I am just so relieved’

Days of preparation and fear reached their climax as nervous homeowners and mesmerised children gathered to watch the Connswater River.

Elizabeth Welsh (60) sat anxiously in her Sydenham home with her valuables safely stored upstairs and her sofa raised to prevent damage.

“It’s been terrible,” she said. “Even with all the sandbags I still felt so worried.”

Many front doors were barricaded by sandbags. Residents were seen climbing over them to get in and out of their properties.

Gareth Beattie (32) said: “Everything in my house has been moved upstairs and even in the garage the freezer is on beams and Christmas presents have been moved.”

Philip Patton (47) and son Philip (10) watched nervously as they waited for the surge which never came.

“We have all our chairs upstairs,” Philip snr said. “We have even been using a broken table as a barrier in the garden.”

The moment everyone was dreading was 2.44pm, when high tide reached its peak.

And every tick of the clock saw more people gather, cameras-in-hand, at the bank of the river, while others anxiously peered out from the windows of their houses.

But when the moment came, it was over in a flash. The fast-flowing river rose only slightly before dropping again.

Tracey Stewart (37) and children Megan (9) and Lewis (11) were overjoyed as they looked on in their wellie boots.

“Now I can get my house back to normal,” said Tracey. “This community has really pulled together.”

Behind a wall of sandbags Tracey Harrison (47) and brother Hugh (53) beamed huge smiles when the floods failed to materialise.

“I was up at 2.30 this morning and couldn’t sleep,” Tracey said. “We have had everything upstairs since Friday. I am so relieved.”

Frances Allen (26) was also over the Moon at the news. “My dad is disabled so it would have been a nightmare to get him out of the house. I am so relieved.”

‘Tide can be treacherous, but God looked after us’

For many it was a day of holding your breath, preparing for the worst and hoping for the best, but in Portaferry many of the locals already knew the worst had passed them by last week.

On Friday the high tide brought the sea water right to the doors of many homes and businesses on the seafront.

However, only a few residents said the water managed to enter their properties, and in those cases any damage was relatively minor.

The worst of the tidal surge was expected to hit parts of Co Down and in particular Portaferry yesterday. Emergency fire crews, RNLI personnel, the Red Cross and the police patrolled the town throughout the day and elsewhere on the Ards Peninsula.

A number of roads had to close because of flooding, or because the waves had damaged the sea walls.

In Portaferry's town square scores of people dropped by during the day to collect sandbags.

John Murray, who has lived on the town’s seafront for most of his 77 years and captained the town's ferry service for six decades, told this paper the chances of serious flooding were small.

“You get to know when to expect the worst and there isn't the winds to bring the water up like we had on Friday,” said the veteran seafarer.

“But you can't take the chance and the whole community has really helped provide for everyone in the town. The police, local councillors, the RNLI, everyone, has made a real effort to ensure that if the worst occurs we are well protected.”

Mary Murray, whose family-run newsagents Blayney's has been operating for almost 100 years, added: “The tide can be treacherous and people underestimate its dangers, but God has looked after us all through this.”

The high tide hit at just after 4.30pm and although the tide breached the sea wall, there was no major flooding. The ferry service was suspended for a time.

Marco Petric, manager at the Portaferry Hotel and crew member of the town's lifeboat, said nothing had been left to chance. “There was a whole squad of people in the town ready for the worst, and thankfully we escaped it.”

Further reading

Siren sounds as storms batter coast

Relief over tidal surges defence

Call to protect Culmore area of Derry from future storms 

High tide shuts coastal roads - but Belfast escapes flooding again

30,000 sandbags laid in Northern Ireland: tidal surge feared to be worst in years

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