Driving north on a foggy Saturday morning on the M1, the signs say “Derbyshire flooding”. It sounds like the present continuous tense, ominous and ongoing. Twenty-four hours earlier, the body of Annie Hall, a former high sheriff of the county, had been found. She had been swept away by the River Derwent at Darley Dale, not far from Matlock.
If that fatality lends a tragic note to the floods that hit the east Midlands and northern England on Friday, the streets are awash with many more mundane stories of hardship. Though the flooding has now subsided in most areas, in Doncaster people are still struggling to cope with the aftermath.
In Bentley, a low-lying neighbourhood on the north side of the River Don, forlorn terraced streets are still knee-deep in water. “You don’t have to be a hydrologist to see what’s happened,” a man named Paul tells me. “Sheffield built flood defences in 2015-16. They spent about £20m protecting the lower Don. So the water has nowhere to go than the next place, Rotherham and then Doncaster.”
In Yarborough Terrace, the whole street remains under two feet of water. “We’ve been lucky compared to the houses at the end,” says one resident, Lee Smith. “It’s come into the conservatory, but it’s what’s under the floorboards that’s the worry.”
He says that residents received a “red alert” on Thursday night that there was a risk of flooding. He phoned an emergency number and requested sandbags. He was told that the council was not going to distribute them because the River Don’s banks had not been breached.
On Friday morning, the Don had burst and the street was filling with water, but all Smith could get was an answer machine message. “They brought the sandbags maybe four or five hours after the street had been flooded,” he said, shaking his head.
There is a lot of frustration and anger in the surrounding streets about the slow response, particularly because the area flooded in 2007. The locals speak about a £15m European grant they say was awarded after that flood to build river defences. “Where did that go?” asks a woman called Eve. “Because they clearly didn’t put it into the areas that needed it.”
Some people, such as Terry Braithwaite, another inhabitant of Yarborough Terrace, say that although the council was late reacting, it was “a tremendous help” once staff arrived on the scene. Others complain that they brought far too few sandbags and left residents to handle the distribution.
Smith speaks glowingly of the efforts of the community, who all pitched in to help one another. But he makes special mention of a teacher from outside Doncaster named Mark Ibbertson, who arrived in a wetsuit with his son, Logan, and a boat, and set about rescuing people from their houses. “He needs putting up for an award,” says Smith. “He was fabulous.”
We think of floods in a different way to how we think of fires. The latter may be created through malice or negligence. But a flood we see as more of an act of God. It is no coincidence that the adjective “biblical” is often used to describe heavy rain.
However, in 21st-century Britain, scene of summer droughts and hosepipe bans, it does seem a little hard to credit that major towns are still vulnerable to floods, and that the system waits for an event to take place before implementing a strategy to limit its effect.
What is clear is that many people in flooded areas are hit twice: first by the flood and then by insurance companies unwilling to insure them. A couple of loss adjusters going door to door tell me that insurance companies put their premiums prohibitively high to discourage people from seeking cover. No one I speak to in Bentley has insurance. One resident tells me that £1,200 a year was the lowest quote he got for insurance after the 2007 flood. “You do the maths,” he says. “That’s over £14,000. That’s more than I’ve lost in this one.”
I go into Tina Wallett’s bare council house in Wrightson Terrace. She is a single mother of three and she has been up since 5am removing ruined carpets and carrying her furniture and belongings upstairs. “The neighbours were amazing,” she says. “It was the council that were shit, to be fair with you. We didn’t get sandbags until after the water was in the house.”
The police, too, come in for some criticism for their lack of active involvement. I see a number of officers standing around, but they seem to be protecting the police tape that has been put up to block off the roads.
“I’ve got an 18-year-old son who was paddling up here all day yesterday getting sandbags for people,” says Gary Davison on Conyers Road. “And the police accused him of pinching sandbags! The police were just stood about. I didn’t see them carrying or helping anyone.”
Davison’s garden, bequeathed by his late father, was destroyed, causing “thousands of pounds of damage”. “I’m on UC [universal credit],” he says. “I couldn’t afford insurance.”
A few streets away, word goes out that the floodwater is rising again on Frank Road. Sure enough, the road is submerged and the water level is rising up to the raised doorways. “This is now no longer nature doing this,” says Steven McDoughall, watching his street, which was dry in the morning, succumb to the threat of flooding once more.
The residents say the Environment Agency has pumped water from another village into a ditch that runs behind Frank Road and that ditch is now overflowing. No one is sure what is going to happen. Someone says she has phoned the council and they don’t believe there is water in the street.
It’s not biblical. It’s not dramatic. It may not even be a consequence of the climate crisis. But the flood that hit England last week has made life a lot more difficult for many people who didn’t have it easy in the first place.