Storm Desmond leaves its watery mark in Cumbria

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Posted on December 16, 2015


The floods over the weekend of the 5th December were hard hitting. The rain lashed down and wind howled. The rain kept on, and kept on, until rivers across Cumbria burst their banks, roads were mangled or swept away, and the foundations of bridges crumbled. Boulders were shifted, cars submerged and thousands of houses and businesses were filled with murky brown water. Small becks, usually trickles, transformed into roaring torrents. Stone walls were forced down and fields flooded, driving sheep to isolated grassy banks, panicking cows. Across the county people started dealing with the rising water, abandoning the roads, fleeing ground floors for first floors, seeking safety with friends and neighbours or in town halls, village halls, supermarkets and pubs.

From inside a building, the sound of rain on the roof was like gravel falling from the sky. The wind’s roar was ceaseless. Outside, the wind was strong enough to knock you down. In our small hamlet, a usually dry road was transformed into a torrent that could easily sweep you off your feet. We spent hours helping neighbours bail out their back yards, their basements, fighting against a sense of futility, as if trying to empty out an ocean with a thimble. For a time we felt like machines, bending, scooping, bailing, lifting buckets, filling, emptying, filling, emptying; at times our own rage rose, although hurling that at the fury of the storm was utterly useless. After several hours, we collectively gave up. It became obvious that the water was coming quicker than we could remove it, and in some houses, the river had settled in – risen more than 15 feet to come right inside. There is no stopping that kind of deluge.  

kendalfloods.jpgTen days after the waters have gone the aftermath of the flood is still very visible across Kendal

The 341mm of rain (almost 14 inches) that fell in 24 hours is the highest ever rainfall recorded in the UK. To get an idea of just how much rain this is, it’s more than twice as much as what is usually expected in the entire month of December.

Storm Desmond’s rain fell on land already soaked after weeks of (more normal) rain. It eased off, then a few days later, there was more torrential rain, coupled with a fierce cold wind. Many places felt the full force of the storm again. Glenridding got hit for a second time, with Ullswater Beck once again rising over its banks and entering shops, houses and pubs – the devastation there was perhaps the most widely covered on the news, but many other places felt the impact and thousands of householders spent their weekend stacking up sandbags, bailing out, or leaving, and then facing the aftermath with a dulled and tired sense of disbelief. Glennridding - and many in the wider county - were in shock.

There have been discussions about the connection between this rainfall event and climate change, and what could be done, if anything, to slow the rate that the fells release water into becks and lakes. The discussions will continue together with proposed measures to reduce risk in the future. Last week, while Cumbria was in the midst of a clean-up, heads were being knocked together in Paris in a quest to come up with some kind of plan to keep pollution levels down.

Whatever the outcome of these wider discussions and any action that might arise from them, here on the ground post-flood the immediate issues are deeply personal. People are displaced and streets are lined with discarded carpets, furniture, possessions, washing machines, mattresses. This may be just 'stuff' but such possessions are the stuff of life for many. In a sheltered housing scheme in Kendal some of the ground floor flats felt the full force of the River Kent as it roared seawards, bearing trees and other debris. It smashed riverside railings normally several feet above the water level and entered flats. I stood with a couple in their late seventies last week as all their possessions were taken and loaded into a skip by council workers. There was one tea trolley that the woman's mother was given decades before, their oldest item, a family  heirloom, but even this had to be thrown away in case of polluting contamination from the flood waters - because, she said to me, repeating the words of advice given by the council workers, 'you never know what's in it'.

 duvetinatree.jpgDown river from Kendal, trees have been ripped up by their roots and lie down now, strewn with debris from the flood. A duvet, plastic, bin lids, clothes. 

The impact of a change in climate is being felt across the world. And while we see images on TV screens and on the internet all the time, the reality of this change is really driven home if you’re the one struggling to stand up in a river that was once a road, bailing out your house, watching a river sweep through shops, or needing a boat to get down a busy street. Early daffodils or unusually wet summers are one thing, but being in the middle of a severe and very dramatic climatic event is probably the most effective way to truly appreciate the reality of change. Sadly, it does seem that a 'once in a hundred year' rainfall/storm could happen again within a decade, if not within five years, given the recent floods of 2009 and 2005, both of them following what were then record levels of rainfall.

There are many questions to be answered about how we deal with the changes we are experiencing across the planet, and how this country and the wider global community can take meaningful action to slow down the damaging impact of human activity. With the immense pressure of a huge global population with a need for food and power, and the intercontinental movement of goods, the task seems insurmountable: as impossible to stem as a river in full force. Yet the issue of a changing climate cannot any longer be ignored. Unlike the severe rain that inundated Cumbria’s rivers, it is not going to go away. The brokering of a ‘deal’ in Paris holds no certain promises, that's true, and some are sceptical about its value. But at least one thing was achieved: people from many nations came together to talk and, you would hope, to listen. This may bode well for the future.

wildmanstreet.jpgSandbags offered little protection against the waters that spilled over from the River Kent into Wildman Street

A week after Storm Desmond dumped its heavy rain on Cumbria there was a day of sunshine. Pictures on Facebook showed smiling walkers and climbers with the stunning backdrop of snowy hills in a low winter sun. We walked by a river that flowed innocently, tame, and if it weren’t for muddied clothes strung in branches, we might not have guessed at the levels the water reached just a week ago. The riverbanks hold the story much more subtly than the streets of towns and villages, where flood-damaged possessions are still piled high. Away from towns and villages across Cumbria, the land will adapt quickly, even if some features will look slightly different; in the personal lives of the thousands of people whose homes and businesses have been affected the impact will be felt for many, many months, if not longer.

Figures for rainfall are taken from Met Office readings at a rain gauge at Honister in the Lake District, which showed a UK record 341mm of rain in 24 hours. The average rainfall for Cumbria for the entire month of December is 146.1mm.

Scientists from Oxford University are among a group of experts who have affirmed that Storm Desmond can be directly attributed to the rise in global temperature

A discussion of the outcome of COP21 can be found on the BBC Website

To make a donation to help people meet the costs of recovery and replacement, go to Cumbria Community Foundation's Cumbria Flood Appeal

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