The flood

The Flood – 26/27th October 2019 Hereford. Part 1

Where to begin?

The flood alert phone call I suppose. The call that always comes when it rains in Wales. The call that directs you to the flood alert website that used to have accurate information with precise predictions of river heights and times at the measuring stations along the Wye. But they hadn’t been the same flood alerts recently. Over the past couple of years they had become rambling, woolly narrative works of fiction that no longer looked like they were the words of an expert at the Environment Agency but a story concocted by an intern. No heights, no times, no information after the event to keep on record. The flood alerts that had become so useless that it hardly seemed worth looking. But living right on the banks of the River Wye, I’d always have to check. And on 26th October 2019, there are measurements again and times. They look big but no bigger than previous years and thanks to the information I feel safe and able to take appropriate action.  

Or did it start when the phone rang again early evening, the alert changing to a warning? Stupidly not really aware of the difference between an alert and a warning I checked the levels on the website again. Still big (I can’t remember the exact numbers but peaking on Sunday morning). The flood warden arrived minutes later. ‘It’s going to be as big as ‘98’ he said. ‘Ring me if you need me’ and left his number. As big as 1998 meant nothing, we moved in in 2011. I’ve got no point of reference and been given no instructions to do anything specific. Later, I realised we should have moved the car to high ground and got out anyone vulnerable but we had no idea and no guidance. There is no flood drill. We aren’t prepared. And, as we later discover you can’t prepare for this.

We haul out the flood defences. Find the bolts. Put them in place. There is still no sense of danger. It just feels routine. Every October and December, on go the defences and we watch the water come nowhere near the house.

Or did it start at 2.30 am? Waking up, watching a computer screen and realising that the levels up stream at Hay and Bredwardine haven’t peaked but are still rising. Waking my husband, wading out into the cold water to check the defences. We run a B and B. Anxious guests asking to borrow wellies to move a car. Still no sense of danger. We have defences. They are in place.

Our house is ‘back to front’ with a very large front garden with the house backing onto the river. While the river level looks ok, its odd to realise that the front garden is a lake and the house is getting cut off from the road. But it’s 4am and we are so cold and tired. And the water is peaking in the morning and we’ll be ok.

Waking again at 6.45. Some electrics gone and the river is rushing by. Peeping out you can only see water but it’s still nowhere near the house or the flood defences and it’s peaking this morning. When it starts coming up through the kitchen floor we don’t panic. We just start lifting everything low to table tops and onto sofas. It’ll be over soon. We’ll be ok.

But it doesn’t stop, it just keeps rising. We evacuate our B and B guests feeling very embarrassed. ‘Sorry we can’t do breakfast ‘ I say ‘We’ve got no electricity’. It never occurs to evacuate ourselves. It’s peaking this morning after all. One socket in the house is still working so we keep the mobiles charged and have coffee.

We moved our disabled dog upstairs and try to distract the springer spaniel who is staying with us. The cat exits through an upstairs window and balances along the fence and we wait on the first- floor landing for the water to peak ‘this morning’.

Yes it has definitely started.

And it will end soon because it’s going to peak this morning that’s what the experts say and no one has told us anything else. We wait. But it just keeps coming, inching up through all the floors in all the rooms. And nothing feels stable anymore. It’s all moving. Solid floors shifting under my feet. Like when you stand at the shor line and the retreating tide takes the ground away. But this isn’t retreating, the floor is rising. Imperceptibly slowly but logs from the fireplace are floating and the summerhouse doors have been forced open and our possessions are floating round outside. The wheelie bins have turned over and are banging against the house.  Outside the water is moving towards the river. It’s not the river flooding it’s the ground water trying to escape to the river. Inside the house it’s the same, the rising water is flowing towards the river and is trapped inside by the flood defences. The water can’t get out and now it’s rising faster.

We ring 999. They say there’s a fire engine in the road. That someone will come. When they do we are politely asked ‘would you like to be evacuated?’ Still no real sense of emergency. They say it’s a bit tricky and they’ll need a boat. They come back with an inflatable canoe as our gate is too narrow for the boat. It must be 10.30 and the water is still rising. We ask them to take down a fence panel and bring the boat in.

When will it end? At this point I relinquished control. It takes two trips to get the family and the dogs out. But there’s no plan. ‘Where are you evacuating us to?’ I ask. ‘The top of the road’ they say. For them it ends there. At the top of the road. Officials in high vis; a yellow line against the brown flood water. A new river where our road used to be.

By some miracle a good friend arrives she sweeps us up bundles us into her car. Another friend says we can stay at her house for the night. It’ll be over soon.

There was no onward plan. No community centre for us to go to, no makeshift shelter, no cup of tea, no collection of names and contact numbers for follow up. Just a hand down from a boat and it is over. A press pack snapping shots.

It doesn’t end. It didn’t end. Later we discover that the water kept rising and peaking late afternoon. It raised up all the floors, entered the sockets, crept up the furniture, knocked a radiator valve open, distorted and damaged everything and everywhere. We think of water as something cleansing but this water contaminates everything it touches leaves a filthy, dangerous residue as it recedes.  Even after the flood retreated the damp keeps rising, up the walls, up the curtains, into the books, threatening the pictures and the contamination remains. The devastation is unconscionable. Fortunately, you don’t realise this when you first return and take and look inside.

8 weeks on, I now realise that this is where it began.

What began? The fight, the desperation the trauma. The feeling of being totally abandoned, swept aside, washed downstream with the flood. A phone call to the insurer triggers a deluge of actions required. No idea what order things need doing in, no concept that we can’t return or that each time we do return the panic will trigger and the floors will seem to move under our feet.  Only the dawning realisation that we have lost all our income and don’t know what to do.

No contact from the authorities, no guidance, no help or way markers of how to cope. An overwhelming feeling of sadness, of desperation of everyone offering help but no way to process what help is required.

No national news coverage, outside the vicinity no one knows it happened and it gets forgotten quickly. Moving from house to house, one day here, five days there becomes ten days, two weeks in another. Loss adjustors shake their heads, suck their teeth use words like ‘enormous’ and ‘uninhabitable’. Despite wide-spread flooding in Herefordshire the incumbent MP is not visible too busy championing his own impending campaign, I guess.

Another flood in Yorkshire weeks later but now political pressure sees a national emergency spoken of, grants for future flood resilience promised (but not for forgotten wHerefordshire, our floods too early, too easy to forget). Unless you are a victim of the flood. You don’t forget. Kind words come ‘hope you’ll be home soon’, ‘keep dry’ and ‘chin up’. ‘I won’t be home for nine months’ you say, ‘my entire life has either been washed away or packed into boxes’. There is no longer ‘home’.

And so now with the house emptied and the driers installed the recovery can commence. All we can think of is that what the insurers are promising (we’ll return your home to just how it was), is a pointless project. It will never be the same. The ground moved under our feet.