Counting the cost of the storm surge

After last week’s horrific weather, Lucy Oates looks at the effects being felt in rural communities.

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A week on from the violent storm surge that wreaked havoc up and down the east coast, thousands of acres of farmland remain under water and rural communities have been left counting the cost.

Farms, homes and businesses in several tiny villages and hamlets located close to the tidal River Ouse near Howden and Goole were inundated when water poured over the top of the riverbank, creating powerful waves.

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Despite a round-the-clock effort to pumps millions of gallons of floodwater away, roads leading into the villages of Yokefleet and Saltmarshe were still impassable this week. The surrounding farmland resembles a vast lake; livestock has been lost and business premises left in chaos.

Margaret and John Sweeting, who live just outside the village of Saltmarshe and farm the surrounding land, are among those affected. The couple’s home flooded, along with one of their self-catering holiday cottages. They’re now being forced to live in their other holiday let and are unable to run the B&B business that they operated from their home.

Margaret said: “I can’t do B&B and I’ve lost all my Christmas bookings for the cottages. No-one died, but it was devastating and it happened so fast –in the space of 10 or 15 minutes your whole life is tipped upside down. We managed to save some of the furniture, but I’ve lost six sofas, oak flooring, and all my curtains and carpets. My kitchen is just awful, things were just floating about in there.”

John was away in Scotland on the night of the storm surge, but Margaret was supported by close family members. Together, they closely monitored the rising river levels and were just beginning to hope that they might have escaped unscathed when they realised that the riverbank had been breached more than a mile upstream and a torrent of water was rushing across the fields and heading straight for their property.

Margaret explained: “The bank reinforcements here at Saltmarshe actually held, but the water came over the top further down where the bank is lower. My nephew went to check what was happening further up the river and it was then that we realised that water was coming our way very quickly, all the way across the fields.”

John, who dashed back from Scotland when he became aware of the situation, revealed that around 500 acres of his family’s farmland was flooded, along with several hundreds of acres belonging to neighbouring farms. Although the Environment Agency has put pumps in place, much of the land was still under water a week on.

John said: “We have no idea what the long-term impact will be. The river has brought a lot of debris with it – tyres, gas cylinders and all sorts. The land will be so soft when the water is finally gone that we may not be able to get on to clear it up. We probably won’t know what the full impact is until April or May, or even June if it’s a wet spring.”

Water and mud poured into farm buildings where wheat and peas were stored, although the Sweeting family saved as much as they could and moved it elsewhere. Another local farmer who rented the surrounding parkland from the Sweetings for his sheep to graze, was unable to free the animals in time. This week, the whole area was still under water and it’s believed that the entire flock was lost.

Mr Sweeting said: “The water was so fast and powerful that they would have been pushed into the fence and drowned; it’s still three or four feet deep in places.”

He expressed concern that, although the Environment Agency had carried out food defence work at Saltmarshe, the banks had not been lifted further along the river, explaining: “Some of the bank hasn’t been lifted since the 1950s, so the water came over at the lowest points. It would be better if they did it little and often. All the way between Saltmarshe and Blacktoft, there are areas where it’s still not high enough.”

Villagers in Faxfleet, Blacktoft and Yokefleet, which are all on the north bank of the Ouse, have similar stories to tell and, on the opposite side of the river, Reedness bore the brunt. A spokesman for East Riding of Yorkshire Council said that, in East Yorkshire alone, 163 properties were flooded. This figure includes homes and business premises in Bridlington and elsewhere along the east coast, as well as villages alongside the River Humber and Ouse.

The manager of the Half Moon Inn at Reedness, Andrew Barras, said: “Most homes in the village were flooded. Some people in bungalows lost everything, and there were elderly people stranded.

“We’ve only been here for about seven months, but we were overwhelmed by the community spirit. Farmers in tractors came down to help people out as there was 3ft or 4ft of water in the village in places. We kept the pub open for 36 hours after the flooding so people had somewhere warm to come to get a coffee.”

He added: “The pub is the highest point in the village, so we were very lucky. Although a supply of sandbags didn’t arrive until five hours after the flooding, we managed to keep the water out of the pub...Our outbuildings and cellars flooded though, so we lost a lot of stock and equipment.”

Alerts issued ‘as soon as possible’

Responding to concerns expressed by residents, Oliver Harmar, flood risk manager at the Environment Agency, said: “Our flood warning officers were monitoring water levels around the clock in the lead up to the high spring tides, using the latest forecasting information available. In Reedness, the Environment Agency issued flood warnings to properties just before 7.30pm on Thursday. This warning followed the issue of a flood alert the previous day. Both the alert and the warning were issued as soon as the latest forecasting information showed that properties were at risk.”