Boxing Day flood victims reveal was life is like living in fear of heavy rain five years on

Whenever Matt Bell passes a stream while out walking his dog on the moors above Hebden Bridge he stops to throw a few branches into the water.

It is a habit borne out of the realities of living in one of the UK’s flood hotspots and one he hopes will help protect the town from the devastating waters which swept through the streets both on Boxing Day 2015 and again this year.

As well as a business owner, Matt is also a volunteer with Slow the Flow, which has recently recruited a small army of willing residents and to build a series of natural dams along the waterways around nearby Hardcastle Crags.

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The hope is that when the next deluge comes, these dams - made from logs and tree branches - will slow the water rushing from the moors and buy the town below a little more time to protect the homes and businesses in its path.

Matt watched his Flying Saucers pottery cafe devastated by flood water five years ago

“Like a lot of people around here I know more about the peak flow of the Calder River than I ever thought possible,” says Matt, who five years ago watched his Flying Saucers pottery cafe devastated by flood water.

“If you live in Hebden Bridge, you have to live with flooding. Everywhere you look there are streams and waterways, but I do believe it’s possible to minimise the damage and one reason I joined Slow the Flow is that I wanted to feel that I was doing something practical.

“Honestly, I am so convinced that these natural defences are a key part of flood prevention that I find it difficult to resist chucking in a log or two when I see a free flowing stream.”

Two years after the Boxing Day floods, Matt opened a second business in the centre of Hebden Bridge. However, with The Nightjar bar he purposefully built in flood resilience by installing an upstairs cellar and easy to clean stone-flooring.

Flooding in Hebden Bridge on Boxing Day 2015

It proved its worth when Hebden Bridge bore the brunt of Storm Ciara at the start of this year, but Matt admits that living in the shadow of flooding is not easy.

“It is energy sapping and the headache lasts long after the initial clean up,” he says. “Around here people have been quoted insurance premiums of up to £30,000. Who can afford that? No one.

“Climate change means that a flood like the one in 2015 isn’t a one in 100 year disaster. It could happen this year or next and when it does I know some people won’t have the heart to go again.”

Figures showed that Calderdale took a direct economic impact in excess of £47m in the wake of the 2015 floods. However, while estimates are easy to put on the damage to the physical infrastructure, the long-term psychological impact is harder to calculate.

The clean up operation in Hebden Bridge after flooding

Chris Howard runs the Aire Bar in the heart of Leeds city centre. Five years ago he watched more than a decade of hard work undone in hours as water swept through the popular riverside bar and while a significant amount of work has since been completed on nearby flood defences, they failed their first major test when Storm Ciara hit UK shores this March.

“The floods of 2015 took everyone by surprise,” says Chris. “It was heartbreaking, but we thought we had done all we could to prevent it happening again. Flood proof windows and doors had been installed at the cost of £10,000 and we thought we bought peace of mind.

“However, this year we found ourselves back at square one. I have been working closely with the contractors who are overseeing additional flood measures, but the truth is that we won’t know whether they will work until they are tested by another storm. If they don’t, well, I’m not sure I can continue.

“Obviously this year’s problems have been compounded by COVID. I’ve got a young family and we have had to eat into savings; if we are flooded again it would literally wipe us out. In November it was the Aire Bar’s 16th anniversary. Normally, it would have been cause for a few drinks, but this year there was no celebration.

“I have questioned whether I want a 17th or 18th anniversary because the strain of both lockdown and the prospect of flooding again is immense. Every time it rains, my anxiety levels increase and that takes its toll on your mental health.”

Calderdale Council leader Tim Swift, who oversaw a major review into flooding across the Leeds City Region following the 2015 disaster, understands the frustrations. The report highlighted 19 recommendations, including better communications systems and the use of flood wardens, and while significant progress has been made there is still work to be done.

“Sometimes the wheels of change turn slower than we would like,” admits Coun Swift. “The difficulty with flooding is that there is no quick fix.

“Yorkshire Water has done some work looking at the impact of lowering water levels on six reservoirs in the Upper Calderdale Valley to ensure they have spare capacity at times of heavy rain, but we would like this to be a permanent measure.

“We are incredibly fortunate that in this area no life has been lost in the foods, but whenever the siren goes off it causes repeated trauma for those who were caught up in them.”

It’s a feeling Michael and Serena Reakes know only too well. Returning to England after many years working in Saudi Arabia one of the reasons the couple bought a house near to the River Foss in the Huntington Road area of York was because they thought it would be safe from the floods which so often overwhelm the city’s other river, the Ouse.

“We moved in during the summer of 2015; it was our dream home,” says Michael, who is also a member of the River Foss Society. “However, even though we were reassured by the fact there hadn’t been any flooding since the installation of the Foss Barrier in 1988, as a precaution we registered our details with the Environment Agency and I even bought Serena a pair of pink Wellington boots that Christmas.”

It proved a timely present. While York has become used to dealing with floods, that Boxing Day areas which had historically remained dry were soon underwater and as evening fell the Reakes watched the water rise to unprecedented levels.

“The Foss turned from a gentle river into a raging torrent; it looked more like the Mississippi,” says Michael. “Our plan initially was to wait it out, but as the hours ticked by it became apparent that we would have to get out.

“In the end we were rowed to safety along a street which we had walked down just the day before. The water was up to 5ft deep at its peak and it made everyone realise just how vulnerable they were.”

The Reakes escaped lightly compared to some neighbouring properties, but they have since struggled to obtain house insurance and their current policy has a £5,000 excess for flood damage.

They also know that while improvements have been made to the Foss Barrier history could easily repeat itself.

“In 2015, I knew something was really wrong when I saw a rat shivering at the bottom of our garden,” says Serena. “It had obviously been flooded out of the drains, but I remember thinking he looks better placed to weather a storm like this than we do.”

Five years on, many in Yorkshire feel equally vulnerable.