Summit bid to tackle flooding crisis in Northern Ireland
A flood summit will be held in Cookstown today as Stormont ministers, council chiefs and a host of agencies desperately search for a solution to Northern Ireland's rising water levels.
Business owners and residents have slammed the Executive for what they describe as a totally inadequate response to the flooding, which has seen some firms lose tens of thousands of pounds.
Agriculture Minister Michelle O'Neill and Regional Development Minister Michelle McIlveen will jointly host an "urgent ministerial meeting" to discuss the response.
Also invited are Environment Minister Mark H Durkan, NI Water, Transport NI and the Rivers Agency.
Meanwhile, the Rivers Agency has insisted the sluice gates at Toome on Lough Neagh - which is at a 30-year high - have been open for weeks after householders besieged by floodwater called for urgent action.
Farmer Glen Allen, who has warned that his cattle shed will be two feet deep in floodwater if the sandbags are breached, said he does not believe the sluice gates are fully open, otherwise the level would be going down.
His brother, Stephen, said the Upper Bann needed to be dredged from Bannfoot to Portadown, after the Birches area was transformed into a lake.
Vegetable grower Pat Smith of Derrykeeran Nurseries said he was going to have to walk away from the land that he farms as it is now effectively part of Lough Neagh. He said it was possible to walk over part of the Bann in summer because it was so silted.
"We've never had flooding like this before," he added. "Unless the DoE get their finger out and do something about the lough, we will just have to abandon it.
"Holland is two-thirds below sea level, but they don't have this. It is total incompetence on the part of the DoE and Rivers Agency that is causing this."
Benjamin Dunlop said the water in his lane was so deep that he has to roll up his trousers and go barefoot to reach the shed where the tractor is kept.
"I have been here for 30 years and I've never seen anything like this in my time," he added.
"I kept hoping that the next day the water was going to be a bit lower, but it kept rising."
His sheep have been moved to the last strip of land in the middle of a field that is above water, but Mr Dunlop was worried last night's rain could be the final straw.
"The sheep will not be able to stick these conditions much longer," he said. "It's the rain tonight that is going to be a problem. I would have thought with the technology, they would have known the storm was coming for a few days ahead, so they should have lowered the lough. I think the problem is down at Toome at the sluice gates."
Ulster Unionist councillor Alderman Arnold Hatch called for compensation to be provided for farmers and rural people hit by the floods and said the Upper Bann had not been dredged since the 1960s.
"When the river level drops, it is down to a stream in the middle, with the rest of it silted up," he added. "There is not enough capacity to hold the river even before it breaks its banks."
Margaret McCann, who works at South Shore in Kinnego Marina, said the premises were recently renovated but were now a couple of inches deep in water.
Yesterday, the water was knee deep at the marina, where four businesses employ 20 people.
Manus Lappin, owner of Evolution Motorworks, said the flood had come at the busiest time of year for him.
"We've had to close the business for the foreseeable future," he added. "We've had to put two projects on hold and that is going to have an impact on our business moving forward.
"The lough level is about three-and-a-half feet above the highest winter average and I think it's caught everybody unawares."
A Rivers Agency spokesman said: "The Lough Neagh and Lower Bann basins drain approximately 43% of the surface area of Northern Ireland.
"The Rivers Agency has a statutory obligation to regulate and control, as far as climatic conditions permit, the level of Lough Neagh within the range 12.45m to 12.60m Ordnance Datum Belfast. This system of operating levels has been developed to minimise fluctuations of water levels outside of the control range and satisfy, as far as reasonably practicable, the aspirations of the various stakeholders with interests on Lough Neagh and the Lower Bann River.
"However, it is not always possible to control water levels in Lough Neagh within these statutory opening levels, as the inflow to Lough Neagh can exceed by up to five times the maximum possible outflow in the Lower Bann River. In these circumstances, the water level will continue to rise until it steadies and then falls to the target level.
"When Toome gates are opened, there are adjustments to be made at Portna and the Cutts to expedite the flow through the gates at those locations. All gates at Toome have been fully open since November 10, 2015."
The Met Office predicted up to 40mm of rain last night, with a risk of local flooding and possible transport disruption. It said icy surfaces could develop this morning as temperatures drop.
The Weather Channel, meanwhile, predicted colder conditions next week, with Arctic winds bringing coastal hail, sleet and snow showers and temperatures as low as -10C at night.