Northern Ireland's big freeze and bigger thaw

Friday 14 January 2011, 17:14

Peter Johnston Peter Johnston Director of BBC Northern Ireland

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Northern Ireland snow coverage, December 2010, courtesy of Dundee Satellite Rceiving Station

Northern Ireland with its normally mild climate is a beautiful green place thanks, in part, to an abundant supply of water but as we recently experienced this natural asset can bring with it severe weather related challenges. In the run up to Christmas, Northern Ireland was gripped by a blast of unrelenting ice and snow. Dramatic satellite pictures capture the scale of the 'white out'. On December 23, 2010 in heart of the frozen north, a small village in Co Tyrone Castlederg, dubbed 'Castleicederg' by local press hit an all time low temperature of -18.7°C.

Earlier in the year BBC Northern Ireland had appointed a new team of district journalists based in communities across NI and at a local level when the going got tough they really came in to their own. Stories emerged including a viewer's Super 8mm archive footage of past winters and a mobile phone video captured an emergency rescue on a frozen lake in Lurgan, Co Armagh. One snowbound reporter, Conor McCauley improvised by sending his report back to base in Belfast using his cameraman Eamonn Doyle's home broadband connection.

With mass disruption to services in general - hundreds of schools were to close during this period. It wasn't an option to read long lists of those affected on air so a comprehensive online service kicked in to keep parents informed to the joy of pupils eager to take advantage. Snowboarding isn't a regular sport seen in this part of the world!

The big freeze continued through to Boxing Day causing travel chaos for thousands of people on their way to or from home for Christmas. On our airwaves we featured many harrowing stories of people stranded in airports all around the world. One anxious mother called the Stephen Nolan Show on BBC Radio Ulster to recount the story of her daughter stranded in Canada facing the prospect of Christmas on the airport floor. It wasn't long before another caller rang in to offer the young girl a place to stay at her sister's house. Generosity of spirit is one of our finest community values. Later in the programme news came through she had boarded the plane…and the show was there to record the emotional reunion.

We often glibly say our services are there during times of crisis and of people turning to the BBC for news and information, but BBC Radio Ulster and BBC Radio Foyle truly does have that relationship ; a deep connection with its audience stretching back to the bad old days of the Troubles. Programmes like Good Morning Ulster, Nolan, Talkback and Evening Extra had significantly more contacts from the audience, and during a holiday period. Our audience need for up to date local news was also clear in the figures for BBC Newsline at 6.30pm on BBC One throughout the weeks of the freeze, the thaw, the burst pipes and the big water crisis. The 30% average share in December was up a quarter on the previous year.

Queing for water in Northern Ireland / Getty Images

Our weather team, Angie Phillips, Cecilia Daly and Barra Best, forecast the thaw would arrive on Boxing Day. It did and we were ready although the same can't be said for our underinvested water system. Some 40,000 homes went without and some for weeks on end. Our teams brought pictures to local screens and across the UK of people queuing for water. As water supplies ran short - so did the Dunkirk spirit. By December 28 our radio shows were bombarded by texts and calls from angry listeners.

Sensing the scale of the crisis - BBC Northern Ireland journalists, correspondents and teams on Christmas leave commendably made their way back to work without being asked. In times of crisis our role is clear - to provide timely, accurate information to our audience. But it wasn't that simple. It quickly became clear that the public body responsible did not have accurate information and their communication systems, most notably their website, were creaking at the seams. We faced a difficult editorial task but did our best in the ensuing days to balance vital information via the web, Ceefax and radio - airing listeners' views and questions; analysing what had gone wrong and what would happen next.

From personal experience - I can safely say that if you are without water for any period of time the next commodity you need is accurate information on when it might be on again and if not where to source it. The BBC NI News website provided that service with around two million page impressions across the first two days. Our audiences have made known their appreciation.

I want to thank all BBC Northern Ireland teams involved for their response and professionalism in providing a vital service to the community under difficult circumstances. Our BBC buildings across three sites stood up well to the water crisis with only one burst pipe - right above my office!

Peter Johnston is the Director of BBC Northern Ireland

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