In depth – How Storm Ciara brought devastation to a corner of West Yorkshire on a scale the locals thought was impossible

0
Have your say

The road through Mytholmroyd has been split down the middle for three years – and as they waited in line behind the temporary traffic lights each morning, its residents reassured themselves that the inconvenience would at least bring long-term benefits.

Last weekend it did the opposite.

Lorraine Mitchell cleans up after the flood at the Picture House, Hebden Bridge

Lorraine Mitchell cleans up after the flood at the Picture House, Hebden Bridge

The flood barrier wall whose construction has reduced the main road through the village to a single lane, is due to be completed this summer. When the rains came last Sunday, it was punctuated by gaping holes.

“It takes me nearly an hour to get to Brighouse every morning,” said Mandy Kazmierski, a nurse whose 12-mile commute from Hebden Bridge takes her through the centre of Mytholmroyd.

“We’ve had three years of sitting on that traffic, thinking, ‘Well, at least it’s going to be worth it. We won’t have to go through the trauma of 2015 again’.”

It was on Boxing Day that year that the River Calder rose to its highest recorded level. Hundreds of homes and businesses were flooded. Part of a row of shops north of County Bridge collapsed into the river. It was only three-and-a-half years after the previous deluge.

Sandbags on Burnley Road, Mytholmroyd

Sandbags on Burnley Road, Mytholmroyd

Watching helplessly as it happened again last weekend was “just heartbreaking”, Ms Kazmierski said. “We just stood there. I just thought, ‘Oh my God – not again, not again’.”

Three days later, in Wellington boots and rubber gloves, she was helping her friend, Karen Smith, try to clean away the silt left by the 3ft of water that had engulfed her little terrace backing on to the river, along Burnley Road.

The shock at the sheer force of it remained, but the overwhelming emotion was one of anger.

“This should not have happened,” said Ms Smith, emphasising the word ‘not’ and pointing to the gap in the flood wall a few yards from her back door.

Burnley Road, Mytholmroyd. Picture by Simon Hulme

Burnley Road, Mytholmroyd. Picture by Simon Hulme

It was supposed to have been made 2ft higher by last November, she said. Instead, part of it had been removed completely.

“They took down this wall here when they knew we had a flood coming. They only took it down last week.

“They came back on Saturday morning for a very short while, put a few big sandbags down and b*****ed off. They didn’t even put them down properly.”

“They” are the contractors hired by the Government’s Environment Agency to build the 6ft wall between the river and the village, a project that is costing £10m.

Karen Smith with her cat Raj in her house in Mytholmroyd

Karen Smith with her cat Raj in her house in Mytholmroyd

When the plan for it was unveiled, five months after the last floods, the Agency said there was “a need to move at pace” to protect the village.

It was a requirement not communicated to the workers on the ground, Ms Smith suggested.

“They sit around doing nothing all day,” she said. “The managers have been bloody condescending. They don’t want to hear anything anybody’s got to say.

“The contractors are all in and out of each other’s pockets – that’s where all the money’s going.”

In the aftermath of last weekend, the air was thick with contrition, she said.

“One of the lads was almost in tears. He just looked at me and said, ‘It’s our fault’. And it was.

Rebekah Fozard with the ruined seats at the the Picture House, Hebden Bridge

Rebekah Fozard with the ruined seats at the the Picture House, Hebden Bridge

“Everyone is absolutely furious. People are saying that heads are going to have to roll over this. We’re talking about suing them.”

Water engulfed Ms Smith’s cottage from both the front and back. It came through another gap in the wall opposite the fire station, a little further up Burnley Road. Then it came back the other way.

“It came back this way so fast that our bins which were at the back of the house ended up outside the front door. The river was at road level,” Ms Smith said.

The yard outside her back door is now a trench. This time last week it was a landscaped garden dotted with 400 bulbs.

“I saw two contractors walking past on Tuesday morning and I said, ‘Where are you going? You need to come out here and shovel all that muck out of the back, and take it back to the river where it came from’. And they did.

“It was the worst job ever. But who else did they think was going to do it?”

On Sunday afternoon, her conservatory, kitchen and lounge were waist deep in water.

“I had branches and everything in here,” she said, surveying what is left of the kitchen. “Next door, they had a blooming railway sleeper, and we’re not even anywhere near the railway.”

Ms Smith also thought Mytholmroyd had been relatively forgotten, compared to last time.

Outside the Co-op, a lone caravan put there by Lloyds Bank was offering advice to those claimants who had been able to get insurance in the first place.

But Mrs Smith had noticed few other officials on the streets.

“Last time you couldn’t move for people,” she said.

At the Blue Teapot cafe, across the road from the parish church and where Cragg Brook flows into the Calder, Lisa Thwaites was also in her waterproofs. She was expecting to be serving home-made vegetarian cakes, but instead she was helping strip off the ruined wooden cladding from her walls, revealing the bare, damp brickwork beneath.

The damage had been done, she said, by water given free passage by the gap in the wall opposite the fire station.

“There were some big bags of aggregate there at the weekend but they didn’t have a hope,” she said. “They’d been put there out of desperation.

“They didn’t appreciate the amount of water we got and how much came down the hillside.

“I’ve seen photographs of where the river was lower than the water on the road, and the only place that water could have come from was the hole in the wall. It was a massive contributor.”

Ms Thwaites has had the cafe for six months and had been told by her landlord’s insurer that she would be out of business for two to three months while the walls dried out.

“We’ve decided we can’t want that long, so we’re going to do the work ourselves,” she said. As it is, she will lose three weeks’ business. Her insurance will cover only a third of her losses.

“There is anger in the village,” she said. “But at the moment, people are focused on helping each other and just getting through. The full force of that anger will come later on.”

Asked whether it would be directed at the Environment Agency, the contractors or the Government generally, she said: “All three.”

• Inside the Hebden Bridge Picture House, which backs on to the River Calder, every seat in the stalls had been replaced after the Boxing Day floods of 2015.

This week, the first seven rows had been ripped out again. By Wednesday morning, they were in a skip outside.

“They’re not washable,” said the manager, Rebekah Fozard. “The water was contaminated by the sewage works a mile-and-a-half upstream. They stink, the plywood is swollen, and the fire-retardant foam is compromised when it’s wet.

“They’re like sponges when you pick them up – there’s no way you can re-use them.”

But after what happened last time, the show had to go on.

The 99-year-old cinema is owned by the town council and doesn’t need to make a profit, but it can’t afford to lose money. It was closed for only five days during the Christmas holiday of 2015, but the 11 screenings it lost blew a hole in its budget.

“It’s taken four years to claw back from that awful year when we made a huge loss,” Ms Fozard said. “Until Sunday, I was confident we would break even this year. I feel a bit disheartened that it’s happened with eight weeks before the end of the financial year.”

As she spoke, a team of staff and volunteers was mopping the floor for the fourth time to make the building sufficiently hygienic for Wednesday evening’s screening of The Personal History of David Copperfield.

But Ms Fozard’s worry was the speed at which word would spread that the business was back open.

“Last time, we ended up doing a big flyer campaign six or seven months after the flood, because of the real noticeable drop in audience members,” she said. “Loads of people said they had no idea that we weren’t still closed.”

She also feared that TV coverage of the flooding would put people off visiting other parts of the town. “The last thing we want is for people to believe that Hebden Bridge is tainted by this,” she said.

“Businesses here are incredibly resilient. They will bounce back and ready to serve customers.

“I just hope the customers get the message this time.”