Getting things back to normal
A LITTLE more than a year ago, Wentworth MP John Healey was in Westminster carrying out typical business for a Monday morning during the early summer. However, as the day wore on he began to field an ever-increasing number of calls from friends, relatives and his office informing him of a dire situation back in his constituency. Flash floods caught many of his constituents off guard, devastating their homes and businesses and leaving them with a clear-up operation that would drag on for months -
IN THE days following the deluge, John Healey was put in charge of the government's response to the floods and returned home to observe the devastation first hand.
He said: "As soon as I got home that week I went to visit some of those in Wath that had been hit, the businesses like Subaqua and that row of businesses down Station Road and some of the householders that had been hit.
"And what I think shocks us all is the damage that water can do to a house or to a business, because it ruins everything and then what is such a shock is how long it can take to dry out properly and then get the repair work done.
"I think the thing that shocked us all was that much of the flooding last summer wasn't about rivers, coasts, what we'd been used to. The rain was so heavy it was simply the drainage systems were swamped, so it was flash floods and surface run-off.
"We had never seen rain like this in Britain before. It was the wettest May, June and July there had ever been on record for 250 years. Some areas got two months' rainfall in 12 hours."
Following Gordon Brown's ascendancy to Prime Minister a year ago, Mr Healey was given the role of local government minister in a government reshuffle. During his first full day in his new position, Mr Healey was approached by the PM and asked to co-ordinate the flood recovery effort.
Since that time he says that he has become the only minister actively working himself out of a job due to his desire to get things back to normal as soon as possible.
He said: "I want to reach the point when I can say people are back, businesses are as straight as they can be, the recovery from last summer's flood is now done.
"My job as government floods recovery minister has been for this long haul to get through the recovery period, but the problems that people have had do not disappear with the flood waters or the camera crews after last summer."
Heading the flood relief, Mr Healey has overseen the distribution of funds to local authorities to help offset costs that have arisen due to the events of last year. Doncaster Council has received more than 5.5m, Barnsley more than 1.5m and Rotherham more than 2m, and Mr Healey says that more is on the way.
He said: "I'm looking at the moment to divide up nearly 31m which will be extra help to those councils that were hardest hit last summer."
Much of the work to prevent flooding on a similar scale to last year has focused on cleaning out and restoring drainage channels throughout South Yorkshire and Mr Healey says that a long term programme is in place to deal with the flash points in the system.
He said: "We need to invest more in the prevention of flooding in the future and we are doing that. The amount of money the government is investing in flood defences is at record levels already and rising rightly over the next few years too, we’ve got to do that.”
The Environment Agency will be put in overall charge of flooding, including surface water, after last year’s events suggested one organisation was required to deal with risk and response. Also, local councils will be given responsibility over drainage systems in their area to ensure they are properly maintained in the future.
Mr Healey added: “Although you can never say never again and with the unprecedented levels of rain we had I think it’s true to say no system of surface drains could have coped.
“We have to do more to prepare ourselves and plan in advance if we ever face that situation again and all of us as householders need to take certain steps too.
“So we need to make sure we have insurance, we need to make sure that we’re signed up to the free flood warning service available and we need to make sure that we know there are certain basic practical steps we can take to make the house more flood proof for the future.”
Issues surrounding insurance cover have been regularly raised in the aftermath of the floods as victims struggle to find premiums that they can afford. It’s an issue that Mr Healey has made a high priority: “We have a long standing agreement with the insurance industry that with the government putting in the right levels of investment in flood defences, the insurance industry will continue to make insurance available to people in all the areas that it is available at the moment. The government is determined to keep its side of the bargain and we expect the insurance industry to do the same.”
Mr Healey praised the fire service for their response to a monumental amount of calls in just 24 hours but stressed that the government will work towards ensuring crews are better equipped and trained to deal with any future flooding.
But his biggest praise was reserved for the victims and surrounding communities effected last year.
He said: “What we saw was the strength and the resilience of the people, we saw the strength and resilience of the communities they’re part of as well. What happened in the Dearne is that people pulled together.
“I’ve met those who carried their elderly neighbour waist-high in water to dry ground through the worst of the flood. I’ve met youngsters who would have otherwise been hanging around on street corners who’d queued up, got bottled water and taken it to elderly people who could not get out of their own homes but needed that water.
“And people have basically been there for each other and tried to help out whenever they can. There were just some incredible, amazing stories of people both pulling together and determined for themselves to sort their lives out, their houses out and sort their business as soon as possible.
“It brought out some of that strength of spirit that you find in our area in South Yorkshire, but actually it is there in Litchfield, in Worksop, there in Tewksbury, there in Worcester, it was there in Beverley and parts of the East Riding. It’s a British spirit.”
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Weather for South Yorkshire
Thursday 23 May 2013
Temperature: 5 C to 11 C
Wind Speed: 21 mph
Wind direction: North west
Temperature: 5 C to 11 C
Wind Speed: 25 mph
Wind direction: North east