“Looking back at a busy week, one moment stands out,” reflects Red Cross volunteer Joe Welsh on helping those affected by the devastating flooding around Doncaster and the wider South Yorkshire area over the past seven days. “It was the look on the face of a young lad whose birthday it was. He’d come into a rest centre with his brother and mum and they were all a bit bewildered and upset at having to leave home.
“Someone from the council had arranged for a prescription of the boys’ asthma inhalers – in the family’s hurry to leave they had left them at home. The Red Cross went down to the local supermarket and picked the prescription up. But, as we’d got wind it was the little lad’s birthday, we thought it’d be nice to get him a cake while we were there.
“When we came back we lit the candles and the whole centre stopped to sing Happy Birthday. The look of sheer joy on his face brightened up a day that he could have otherwise remembered only for what went wrong.”
It was just one moment of human kindness among countless others that have taken place in the past week in the wake of the appalling flooding to hit South Yorkshire and in particular the Doncaster area following a month’s worth of rain falling in 24 hours on Thursday.
While the response of those in power nationally and locally – from Boris Johnson’s refusal to call a national emergency to anger at the Environment Agency and Doncaster Council over delays in providing sandbags to communities hit by similarly-awful floods in 2007 – has come under fire, ordinary people have pulled together at a time of great adversity.
Following a meeting of the Government’s emergency Cobra committee on Tuesday as criticism of the national response grew, the Prime Minister ordered in extra members of the Armed Forces to help the recovery effort in South Yorkshire, while establishing a fund to support victims involving “recovery grants” of £500 for affected homeowners and £2,500 for businesses.
But with many of those affected saying that did not go far enough, more than £250,000 has been donated so far to the South Yorkshire Flood Disaster Relief Appeal being run by the South Yorkshire Community Foundation and supported by BBC Radio Sheffield.
Shannon Roberts, marketing and communications manager for SYCF, says the money will be used to provide an initial £100 blanket payment to affected households, with the remainder going towards funding repairs and helping with damaged homes in the longer-term. SYCF ran a similar scheme after the 2007 floods which hit South Yorkshire, with that 12-month fundraising campaign collecting £1.7m.
Separately, more than £6,000 has been raised to fund repair work at Kilnhurst Primary School in Rotherham, which is by the River Don and suffered severe water damage in classrooms and had play equipment ruined.
Roberts says the SYCF office near Meadowhall in Sheffield was itself flooded last Thursday and the team decided to start the new appeal as the extent of the flooding across the region became clear in the following hours.
“In 2007, there were around 5,000 homes affected and so far this time we think it is around 1,200,” she says. “There is a lot less damage but it is still very very bad where flooding has hit. The response has been pretty amazing.
“Even when people give a few pounds, in a way they are the donations that mean the most because it is people who can’t afford too much so it really means a lot to those who have been affected. Having people like that care means a great deal, it means those who have been flooded feel they are not alone.
“People have been really badly affected by what has happened, particularly this close to Christmas. The £100 amount might seem quite little but we have to do it on the basis of the funding coming in and we want to help everybody regardless of where they are. Long-term, we will be helping people fund repairs and deal with long-term damage. The £100 is for whatever makes sense to people – whether it is buying food or replacing clothes.”
Roberts says she understands why some people have questioned why charities have been needed to step in to offer financial support amid criticism of the Government’s response. “It is something a lot of people on social media have asked – ‘Why does it have to be you?’ But in a situation like this, there are always going to be people who want to help, regardless of the level of support from the Government. I would imagine even if the Government had provided more, there would have been the same amount of donations.”
With heavy rain continuing to fall in South Yorkshire yesterday, Roberts says the appeal will remain open for as long as necessary.
“It is going to be running for as long as it needs to be and as soon as people get back on their feet.”
But much of the help for flooding victims have been impromptu efforts from their friends and neighbours, rather then from charities or the authorities. In the village of Fishlake, one of the worst-affected places, the Hare and Hounds pub has opened up as a refuge for people to sleep and get a hot meal. Owners Angie and Scott Godfrey were praised on Twitter by former Labour leader Ed Miliband for “keeping the village going” as he visited Fishlake on Saturday.
Meanwhile, donations of food and clothes have been collected and distributed at the Old Butchers Cafe in the village, as well as at the local church.
Among the many other examples of community spirit, after major flooding hit the Parkgate shopping centre in Rotherham last Thursday night, the volunteer team at the Cancer Research shop came in to do extra shifts and managed to get the store reopened in just two days. In Tickhill near Doncaster, Chris Taylor from the Taylor’s of Tickhill grocery store started running a delivery service to bring goods from his shop to flooded residents.
In Bentley on the outskirts of Doncaster, where homes and businesses were flooded in a repeat of the 2007 floods, window and door salesman Shane Miller has turned his showroom into an ad-hoc community shelter with food, clothing and cleaning items being donated to give to those affected.
He said earlier this week: “The water came rushing through the streets – it was carnage with people running around like headless chickens trying to carry sandbags, old folk trying to drag sandbags in wheelie bins, it was horrendous.
“I knew straight away I had to do something – around here there is nowhere really where you can grab shelter – there was nobody feeding back messages to people no one supporting them so we just opened the doors.
“There’s been kids wading through the water bringing people food for those who were stuck – it’s just really nice to see. I grew up in this area and I couldn’t sit idly by.”
Meanwhile, Welsh, who is from Silsden in West Yorkshire, was part of a team of 72 Red Cross volunteers that have been helping with sandbagging properties, manning rest centres and checking door-to-door on the most vulnerable residents around Doncaster.
“Some of the stories I’ve heard have been quite shocking,” says Welsh. “One man showed me some photos of his family home. The water level was up to his chest by the time they left. They rescued what they could to put upstairs but anything downstairs is gone. I couldn’t help thinking that I’m safe and dry, my home is safe and dry but they have lost everything. You support as best you can, but it’s hard.”
But he says despite the challenges, the past few days have shown him the best of human nature.
“It might sound cheesy but that impromptu birthday party really did bring a bit of a glow to my heart. It’s at times like this that you see the best of our communities.”
Council starts distributing aid
Doncaster Council began to deliver humanitarian aid to those who had remained in the Fishlake area earlier this week while discouraging those whose homes were still flooded from returning “in the strongest possible terms”.
Residents had been asked to leave Fishlake by the council when flooding hit but many refused to go because of fear of looters, while the council said earlier in the week it was unable to send in staff because of health and safety reasons.
Damian Allen, Chief Executive of Doncaster Council, said on Wednesday: “Our services are working around the clock with the local community to ensure that our residents get the right support. Despite an encouraging reduction in flood warnings, this doesn’t mean the danger is totally gone.”
To donate to the South Yorkshire Flood Disaster Appeal, visit their JustGiving page.