Didsbury flood alert: From lockdown river haven to major evacuations

By Tom Mullen
BBC News

image copyrightPA Media
image captionHeavy rain turned to snow as the evacuations began throughout Wednesday night

People in Didsbury don't often face upheavals like major flooding evacuations.

It's a peaceful, leafy suburb of Manchester in which life has slowed to an even sleepier pace during England's latest Covid lockdown.

Ironically, the River Mersey has been a blessing throughout the pandemic - its many miles of scenic twists and turns providing a haven for walkers, and a beautiful contrast to the often gloomy news.

On Wednesday night the same river rose and plunged thousands of residents into new depths of stress and confusion, coming just centimetres from breaching flood defences.

There have been flood warnings here before, of course, but nothing on this scale in recent memory.

Certainly nothing that would see emergency services declare a major incident and evacuate more than 2,000 homes in and around this area in the south of the city.

And while the defences worked as they should - preventing homes from being deluged - the alert caused widespread bewilderment as residents now accustomed to stay-at-home messaging were suddenly ordered to leave.

As the night wore on the driving rain turned to thick snow, coating the streets in white and adding an even more surreal backdrop to the drama.

image captionThe River Mersey saw water levels rise dramatically into Wednesday night
image captionTerry Sheldon has lived at the same home close to the riverbank all his life

Life-long Didsbury resident Terry Sheldon lives in the house he was born in 69 years ago, in Darley Avenue, just metres from the river.

"The whole thing has been staggering," he said. "I've never seen it like this here in my lifetime.

"It's been wonderful to have the river so close. If you go down there every day you start to see the same people and make friendships. I started running as well.

"But yesterday just turned into the most crazy day. My wife is American and we were watching Joe Biden on the news. So there was the pandemic, Biden, and then more major news on our doorsteps here in Didsbury."

image copyrightPA Media
image captionSeveral roads were closed during the deluge
image captionRichard Kilpatrick helped alert neighbours in his street about the flood warning

Many residents spent the night with family or friends, with Covid-19 restrictions allowing a reprieve for anybody facing danger.

Some were evacuated to The Forum Leisure Centre in nearby Wythenshawe, while others went to Didsbury Mosque.

Didsbury West councillor Richard Kilpatrick went to the mosque after being forced to abandon his own home.

"I was in a bit of a bizarre situation as I actually found myself evacuating myself," he said.

"As the flood warnings changed, I went to check the river levels. And then police were just about to tell people in my street they had to leave, so I didn't go back home.

"I went round knocking on doors to help inform people. They were very anxious. You have a situation where, for the last year, people have been repeatedly told to stay at home for their safety suddenly getting this conflicting advice.

"I think the last time there were warnings on this sort of scale was back in the 1950s. So hardly in living memory really."

image captionThe River Mersey, pictured in summer 2020, is popular with walkers and joggers
image captionDidsbury resident Ian Carrington spent the night with friends after being forced to leave his home

Tracey Pook, the mosque's community engagement coordinator, said: "I'm 49 and from south Manchester and I've never experienced anything like this with the river. We've all heard of it swelling but not to these levels.

"There were some very anxious people. There was one woman who didn't have anywhere else to go, probably in her late 20s.

"The thing was, you want to be human and be close to people. I think this woman could've done with a hug. But you of course have to abide by the Covid rules."

image copyrightTerry Sheldon
image captionWalkways along the river bank were left completely impassable

Ian Carrington, who had to leave his home in Broad Oak Lane, which backs on to the river, said: "It was incredibly surreal. At the moment of the evacuation the blizzard started coming down and that just added another level of treachery.

"There's a sense that we have this wonderful resource close to us in the river, but also something that is incredibly dangerous.

"But I think today the overriding feeling is one of relief. Nobody was harmed and the flood defences worked.

"Perhaps, actually, we were a shining example of how something like this should've been dealt with."

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