Belfast Telegraph

MLA David McNarry wants Cobra-style agency to fight floods as clean-up operation gets under way

By Adrian Rutherford and Michelle Smyth

A Cobra-style emergency committee is needed to tackle future flooding incidents in Northern Ireland, it has been claimed.

The call came as a clean-up operation got under way after torrential rain caused misery for homeowners and businesses.

Streets were left submerged in up to three feet of floodwater after the heavens opened on Thursday evening. Counties Armagh and Down were particularly affected, with Newry worst hit.

A fresh weather warning was in place yesterday following further rain.

The previous night's deluge brought a multi-agency response, involving officials from the Department of Environment, which co-ordinates emergency payments for people affected by flooding; the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, which oversees rivers; and the Department for Regional Development, which deals with clearing up the roads.

However, the latest flooding has led to renewed calls for a single agency to take responsibility for the issue.

Strangford MLA David McNarry said he favoured a body similar to the government's Cobra committee. Also known as the Civil Contingencies Committee, Cobra is the government's national emergencies committee and is usually chaired by the Prime Minister. It co-ordinated the government's response to the flooding which swamped much of southern England earlier this year.

Mr McNarry, a member of the Assembly's regional development committee, said a similar agency was needed here. "A Northern Ireland version of Cobra for these emergency issues would mean an immediate action team, ready to spring into action under one command, when there is a flood risk," he said. "We can't have a passing of the buck between agencies because all that does is leave vulnerable people in the lurch."

Mr McNarry questioned why we were still caught out by flooding, despite warnings that heavy rain was on the way. He said the same thing had happened when downpours hit in previous years.

"We are experts at talking about things, but it's time the talking stopped and action was taken," he added. "I don't understand how, as a country, we can't seem to cope with a drop of rain."

South Down MLA John McCallister said people in his constituency had problems getting sandbags to protect their homes. "It seems to me that little or nothing has been learned from the last few years about what a co-ordinated government approach should be," he said.

"There were weather warnings in place for days, so I would like to know why there wasn't a more efficient, co-ordinated emergency information plan in place."

Mr McCallister said he was alarmed at the apparent lack of information available to those worst affected. "It's fine to have a flood-line but a central information point is essential so people know who to contact and where they can go for help," he added.

Thursday's downpours caused widespread flooding, with the fire service tasked to incidents in Belfast, Lisburn, Cushendall and Dromore, Co Down.

In Newry people were forced to evacuate their homes while at one point police advised people to avoid the city.

The Department for Employment and Learning's temporary offices in Clarence Court in Belfast were also hit by flooding.

Staff in the Department for Regional Development, who shared an office with DEL in Clarence Court, also had to leave.

Amid the chaos, a row broke out between the UUP and Sinn Fein with Newry and Armagh MLA Mickey Brady accusing Regional Development Minister Danny Kennedy of not putting enough resources in place.

"Danny Kennedy made cuts to flood prevention measures such as cleaning gullies and drains and keeping them free from leaves," he said. "He must look again at how he is managing his budget."

However, Mr Kennedy denied this, saying: "It is absolutely clear that this is not a matter of my budget, or indeed welfare reform, or indeed the cleaning of gullies.

"What has happened in Newry has been the result of high tides."

Editor's viewpoint: Time for a co-ordinated response to ease our floods agony

Flash floods swamp Northern Ireland following four-hour deluge 

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