How Carlisle has changed 10 years since devastating floods

By Alison Freeman
Look North, Newcastle

image captionCumbria Fire and Rescue Service used boats to rescue the stranded residents from their homes

No-one had been prepared for the devastation caused by the floods in Carlisle in 2005.

The extreme weather event saw the amount of rain that would usually fall in two months fall in just one night on to already saturated ground.

The Environment Agency described the chances of it happening in this city where three rivers meet as "once in two hundred years".

Existing flood defences were breached, and water gushed over the mounds and walls that had been built around the rivers to protect surrounding homes.

Craig Cowperthwaite, from the agency, said: "The old flood defence system was good, it didn't fail, it was just the sheer amount of water that overwhelmed our defences. I don't think anyone thought that would happen."

The fire service was also caught unprepared, having never been faced with flooding on this scale before.

'Dirt and slurry'

Cumbria Fire and Rescue's Bruce Wilson was on duty in Carlisle that night.

He said: "It was quite a traumatic time for us in the fire service. As duty shift based in Carlisle, we weren't prepared weather-wise and we didn't have the equipment to deal with multiple rescues and what we had to deal with that night and the coming days afterwards.

"We didn't have any dry suits, all we had was a couple of slurry suits for using on farms in dirt and slurry.

"And we didn't even have time to put them on that night because we were travelling from one job to another trying to carry out rescues of elderly people in flooded homes, so it really was a traumatic night. Along with the wind, the rain, everything was against us."

media captionThe extreme weather event in 2005 saw the amount of rain that would usually fall in two months, fall in just one night.

Without the right equipment, firefighters had to make do with borrowed wooden boats to rescue people from their homes. A dinghy was finally brought in by the coastguard.

And while the brigade tried to help others, they themselves were battling the flood water at their town centre station.

"We came back to the fire station and the water started flooding into the rear - it was like something out of the Bible.

"A lot of us were already shattered and the nightmare scenario just continued - you just couldn't write the script."

The terrible damage caused to almost 2,000 homes caught the attention of the national media.

The Environment Agency had already been looking at improving the defences for the city but a huge £38m was spent ensuring this level of flooding could not take hold of Carlisle again.

image captionDamage was caused to almost 2,000 homes

More than 30 flood gates and 10km (6.2m) of raised flood defences were installed to contain flood water.

In some parts of the city, water became trapped behind the defences and in people's homes so drains were installed to stop that happening again.

Carlisle's Willowholme sewage works were also flooded. High river levels meant water from the drains got backed up into the plant, and sewage was sent into people's homes.

United Utilities spent £13m replacing 4km (2.49 miles) of Victorian drains and a new pumping system that can force water away, even when the rivers are high.

The fire service is also now far better prepared. Ten years on and the borrowed wooden rowing boats have been replaced by the correct equipment.

image copyrightJohn Giles/PA
image captionMany of the resident's furniture and possessions were ruined in the flood

The firefighters are well-trained in swift water rescue techniques and have dry suits.

Mr Cowperthwaite said the new flood defences had been tested by "extreme weather" on three occasions since they were installed.

He added: "That amounts to about £180m of flood damage avoided, so money well spent.

"You can never say never to flooding happening, but what we can say is Carlisle is a well protected city.

"The flood defences we have put in place would accommodate and defend against the flooding of 2005. The city would be safe from flooding."

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