How can we stop our village flooding again?

A statuette of Peter Rabbit in a flooded gardenImage source, Getty Images

Two months ago, as flood water descended on the village of Fishlake, near Doncaster, Peter Trimingham battled through the night to help neighbours to safety. The experience has left him thinking hard about what can be done to prevent this happening again, reports the BBC's Sue Mitchell.

When Peter Trimingham volunteered to become a flood warden in the village where he's lived since childhood, he hadn't imagined it would lead to the toughest challenge of his life.

He and his four fellow flood wardens, all over 60, started hastily bagging sand on the night of 8 November, but quickly ran out. The village was cut off by water, so it took hours for fresh supplies to get through.

The scale of the disaster took everyone by surprise, because the village hadn't flooded since 1947. The memory of past floods had faded as new generations had moved in. Only grainy photographs remained.

"There's a gorgeous photograph in the village of past flooding. The flood water used to shoot down the main street, and the locals had it cracked. They've got barrels of beer positioned carefully from the step to the pub and raised up by about five feet and they've got barrels in the road and planks that run from the door of the pub across to the higher ground at the other side of the road. They'd be walking across it to get their beer. And that's in 1923," says Peter.

Image source, Fishlake History Society
Image caption,
A plank bridge provides access to the pub in 1923

According to Prof Ian Rotherham, an ecologist and environmental historian from Sheffield Hallam University, Fishlake was caught in a pincer movement between two rivers, the Don and Ea Beck. Both burst their banks into an area of drained fenland that was already sodden from rain over a period of weeks.

"I've been studying the history of the area and was talking to community groups down the river Don and various people were saying, 'Well my grandad used to have a boat and we didn't know why,'" he says.

"All the way from Sheffield right down to Doncaster, the communities had boats because they knew they got flooded five, six times a year, and you just had the boat. Like the guys with the barrels of beer, you were prepared. But then from the 1950s, we've engineered the solutions and people then forget that they ever needed that, and [now they say], 'Oh yeah, we thought my grandad was bonkers, but aha, that explains it!"

Image source, Fishlake History Society
Image caption,
Percy Smith the postman in the flood of 1932, with David Duckitt

Peter Trimingham and the other flood wardens accept that a degree of complacency had crept in but believe that some of the problems in Fishlake have their roots in flood defence systems introduced a decade ago in Sheffield. In 2007, floods in the city led to two deaths and hundreds of evacuations. After that, £20m was spent on a flood-defence scheme in the Don Valley near the city, which Ian Rotherham agrees contributed to Fishlake's problems.

"In Sheffield, the main factories and other areas affected in 2007 are now protected. However, if you are keeping the water out there, then you are moving it faster downstream, and Fishlake bore the brunt of this. You're not holding the water in the upper catchment - defending those businesses and premises means you're moving the water downstream faster. It's going to hit sooner, harder and deeper."

Peter and the other flood wardens were powerless when this water poured in, flooding more than half of the 250 homes in the village.

People were working in the dark with freezing cold water pouring through every crack and hole and rising quickly.

"It's pretty traumatic. You've not got vision; you've got darkness and floodwater - two very, very dangerous combinations," Peter says.

"You have no concept of time. You can't see and my phone was destroyed in the flood water anyway. You feel so small and insignificant and useless: something much more powerful than you can't be imagined unless you've been in it."

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For many in Fishlake the loss can't be quantified: it includes everything from photos, treasured possessions and mementos to cars and furniture.

The community came together in the immediate aftermath of the disaster. Farmers used their tractors to help get people to safety. One, Greg Mawson, describes how he battled to save others, only to return to find his farmyard under up to eight feet of water and thousands of tonnes of straw lost.

The local church, St Cuthbert's, provided space for people to sleep on the night of the floods and has acted as a storage hub for hundreds of donations of food, clothing, children's toys and cleaning products, from mops to vats of disinfectant.

Image source, Getty Images

But people are getting back to normal at different speeds. Some of those who were evacuated are still unable to return. Many homes hum and drone with heaters, dehumidifiers and fans.

Those whose home insurance doesn't cover flood insurance, or who have yet to receive insurance payouts, have received two recovery grants of about £700 in total from Doncaster Council and a local charity, South Yorkshire Community Foundation. According to Peter Trimingham, the response from insurers has been mixed; some people have been paid quickly and have been able to get on with rebuilding, while others have been left arguing about what is covered and what needs to be done.

"It's incredibly stressful because you go from coming downstairs to a flooded house - or worse, you're in a flooded bungalow and left with just the clothes you're stood in. Some people have to wait because the insurance companies are slow - that means you don't get the house cleared, you don't get the dehumidifiers in," he says.

"That's the experience people are going through now. So a natural disaster is followed by a human disaster and that is the point where people are really, really low."

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Fishlake, still partially submerged on 12 November

It was Day 21 before Peter's home was fully equipped with dehumidifiers, beginning a process that took weeks. He, his wife Fiona, and their son, Paddy, have just started sleeping there again but the downstairs is a wreck - all the soft furnishings had to go in the skip - and it's not clear when they'll get the final go-ahead from insurers to begin rebuilding.

This feeling of helplessness is leading residents to demand more input in designing solutions. They don't want to see a situation in which Fishlake is safeguarded at the expense of other communities.

"I think we're reactive to flooding and given what's happening we need to become more proactive," says Alison Slack, from Fishlake Cricket Club.

"Putting in a flood defences only means you're going to move a problem somewhere else and I seriously would not want anybody going through what the village has gone through."

Image caption,
Chief flood warden and parish council chairman, John Waite, checking on the pumps used to reduce flood levels

One scheme that has caught Peter Trimingham's eye is being piloted in Hull and overseen by Dr Liz Sharp, from the University of Sheffield. It involves rainwater harvesting using water butts in flood areas.

"The project is just finishing now and so far we've just looked at which people will be willing to take water butts for this purpose and a few simple calculations on what impact it would have," says Dr Sharp.

"What we also found is that quite a few of the people we talked to actually said, 'Well, if they were to text us and tell us when to empty our water out, we would empty it to create more capacity.' And people were really willing to do that because they know that they're vulnerable to flooding. They know it's a horrible experience and they want to help other people and prevent that problem."

Image source, Getty Images

The element of community engagement in this scheme strongly appeals to Peter Trimingham.

"It's this feeling that you're doing something and that you're contributing to the public good as well as your own good. We just need more ideas like that, that are so simple and that have so much impact for so little cost," he says.

"People can feel they're actually doing something as opposed to the way that we felt in Fishlake. We were flooded and we felt lacking in power. This empowers ordinary people to do something brilliant."

Another scheme he's interested in has taken root in Sheffield, and unlike earlier flood defence measures it could actually slow down the speed at which run-off enters the Don and bears down on Fishlake. It's a project to transform semi-redundant roads into a network of flower meadows and wetlands, and also footpaths to increase access to the riverside district.

At Porter Brook, in the heart of the city, river plants are now blooming in a small section of the waterway, where a "pocket park" has been created.

Image source, Zac Tudor / Sheffield City Council

"In the event of the floods this space will hold the water," says Ian Rotherham. He pays tribute to "enlightened" city council planners and developers.

"It's created a gorgeous little spot. You can come here in spring, you can hear birds singing, you will see kingfishers, we have got trout back in the river. We've got salmon spawning this year, in the upper reaches of the River Don. That's brilliant."

These projects give Peter Trimingham hope that something good can come out of what's happened to his community. He wants more coherent government planning on water management, rather than a series of reactions to individual crises.

"It's got to start in Westminster. We make decisions about planning, we make decisions about water, and we've got to stop treating it as the enemy that comes over the bank," he says.

"It needs to be the friend and we need to look after it."

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