The former merchant town of Morpeth in Northumberland was worst affected by the torrential rains over the weekend. A month of rain fell over the area in a single day, causing the Wansbeck River to overflow and engulf the town in two feet of dirty water.
Yesterday, the floodwaters had almost calmed down as residents began cleaning up, reflecting on how the foaming waters of the Wansbeck could have caused such devastation to around 1,000 properties.
It wasn’t the first time that Morpeth had been inundated. Serious damage was caused to 500 homes and businesses by a flood in 1963. But the fact that new homes were built on the Wansbeck floodplain, combined with the severe storm and the loopholes in the flood defenses of the town, succeeded in causing Morpeth’s worst flooding in a century.
Location of accommodation
Morpeth, the county town of Northumberland, is a 20 minute drive north of Newcastle and has been a significant settlement since Norman times, with its weekly market established for over 800 years.
Several houses along the banks of the Wansbeck date back to the 14th century, but many buildings near the town’s main thoroughfare, Bridge Street, were built in the 1970s and 1980s, after the town was devastated by a flood in 1963.
The Environment Agency strongly opposes construction on flood plains, which puts properties at constant risk of flooding. Building in these areas can also damage a river’s natural drainage and push floodwaters further downstream.
Of the 1,062 properties located in the floodplain, only 62 escaped the destruction inflicted by the rise of Wansbeck this weekend.
Building permits for new constructions have been tightened considerably over the past two years and the concerns of the Environment Agency are being considered much more carefully by local authorities. But this more cautious approach came far too late for the people of Morpeth.
Morpeth has some flood protection built after the events of 1963. But these were only designed to deal with river levels reaching the same height as in 1963. When the Wansbeck swelled over the weekend, the floodwaters simply flowed over the defenses, which were not high enough to hold the volume of water.
Computer models now allow engineers to take into account the impact of floods of varying severity when designing flood defenses and set the height of new barriers accordingly. Morpeth has upped the Environment Agency’s priority list for new defenses, but unfortunately for those who have lost valuable vehicles and goods, work is not expected to start until 2010 at the earliest.
A month of rain fell on the city in 24 hours. The intensity of the downpour that hit north-east England on Friday and Saturday led John Healey, the flood recovery minister, to admit that Britain was experiencing much more intense and severe weather conditions than previous generations. However, the London meteorological office said climate change could not yet be blamed for the severe storms over the weekend, as the consequences of global warming would not become clear for several years.
Last night, the people of Morpeth braced for more bad weather as forecasters predicted the area could be hit by a second flood today.
Reaction of the authorities
Some residents have complained that Castle Morpeth Borough Council has been slow to get recovery efforts started. Households complained that special pillows the council gave them to absorb water simply floated away from their doors.
Councilor Nic Best admitted, âPeople here are very angry and it’s no surprise they’re looking for someone to blame, whether it’s the municipality or their insurance company. Our contingency plan went very well but that does not stop the events of the weekend being a disaster for those who saw their homes flooded. “
Mr Healey, who visited the town yesterday to assess the damage, said the government would provide emergency assistance to cover the costs of the cleanup.
* River Ouse: in Newport Pagnell
* Trent River: Between Yoxall and Drakelow
* River Severn: to Shrewsbury, Worcester to Tewkesbury, Tewkesbury to Gloucester, Buildwas to Coalport, Bevere to Powick
* Derwent River: at Buttercrambe Mill and Stamford Bridge
* Rooster Beck: To Stutton
* River Ouse: to Acaster Selby, Fulford, Kelfield, Naburn Lock and across York, pictured
* River Swale: at Helperby, Kirby Wiske and Myton on Swale
* River Wye: at Monmouth
* Lower Dee Valley: from Llangollen to Chester