Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 23 September 2014

Sharon Owens: Why my holiday at home plan is down the drain, unlike the floods

Going nowhere — a Belfast sightseeing tour bus grinds to a halt in the mud and floodwater during Saturday’s torrential rain

I had to eat my words last Saturday (after recommending we all holiday at home this year) as the country was finally drenched in a monsoon-style deluge. Which was all the more disastrous, coming as it did, in the wake of several weeks of sustained rainfall. Usually I don't notice, or care, about the weather.

But even I was sitting, elbows on the windowsill, sighing with despair as the sky turned black and the heavens opened. It was raining on Saturday morning as we set off into town to do some back-to-school shopping, and it was still coming down in sheets as night fell over Belfast.

My own neighbourhood lies, thankfully, high above the city. But I knew there'd be some flooding nearer the city centre. However, nothing prepared me for the sight of the new Broadway underpass filled to the brim with muddy brown water. Abandoned cars floating down dismal, saturated roads. And once again, hundreds of house-proud homeowners faced with the destruction of their properties. Wooden floors and carpets ruined, kitchens contaminated with dirty water, gardens swept away and electrical goods destroyed. Some homeowners have been flooded for the fourth or fifth time in as many years.

Of course, questions will be asked. Was enough warning given? Were the drains cleared out in time? Indeed, why are the drains so easily blocked by, say, leaves or litter? Were there sandbags available to residents who needed them? And why were some roads not sealed off in order to stop the traffic from pushing floodwater into people’s homes?

Could we do more to absorb the rain by preserving the green spaces in our city and planting more trees? And banning the laying of patios and cobbles in areas close to rivers? I wonder how much worse the flooding would have been if the Broadway underpass had not been there to contain it? Perhaps we should build a few skateboard parks in the areas most affected, so they can act as temporary reservoirs the next time we have a torrential downpour like the one on Saturday?

And though it's bad for the environment, I wouldn't blame anybody for going straight to the airport and catching the next flight to some exotic, sunny place in the sun. There's only so much of this miserable weather we can put up with. The Ulster Grand Prix cancelled, several flower shows called off, livestock stranded in the fields. It's August, for heaven's sake, yet we have to have the central heating on for a few hours each day.

I pity those poor souls who suffer from SAD. Because we've now had two non-summers in a row, and things can only get worse as we begin the long descent into winter.

In fact, we'll see no more sunny days now until about May next year. Someone should have told the designers of the Garden of Remembrance in Omagh, that we barely get a couple of days of sunshine in Northern Ireland each year. So it may be some time before we see the crystal heart inside the obelisk light up the way it's supposed to.

So yes, pack your bags and jet off wherever you fancy, with my blessing. No one will blame you for wanting to feel the warmth of the sun on your face. No one will blame you for wanting to leave the gridlock traffic and the soaking wet city of Belfast behind for a little while.

But something must be done to help the victims of this latest flooding. Or else we will have to abandon entire neighbourhoods to the elements. Storm drains will have to be widened. Special teams of monitors will have to be appointed to maintain them, and builders will have to stop building on, and paving over, already crowded streets. My heart goes out to the residents who are shovelling mud and debris out of their homes again this week. The £1,000 compensation they've been promised won't make a dent in the total cost of the damage. In fact, some of our citizens are still waiting to be compensated after the last bout of flooding. And there's always the heartbreaking knowledge it could all happen again.

I just hope that when the rain stops falling this time, some lessons really will have been learned. Otherwise we'll see a lot of people at their wits' end. And a lot of people travelling from Belfast to Barbados. They'll probably be having a singsong on the plane, starting off with the Travis classic: Why Does It Always Rain On Me? Followed by, I Can't Stand the Rain, by Tina Turner. And so on

I suggest Belfast City Council cancels all junkets, banquets and perks for the next 12 months, and channels the money into improving the city's various water systems.

I'm sure the money they save on those fact-finding trips abroad could clear the leaves out of a right few gutters.

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