Cumbria, also known as The Lake District, is a small county in the north of England, situated just below the borders of Scotland. Apart from the attraction of its beautiful hills and lakes, it also has the dubious reputation of being the wettest place in England. Despite this, nothing could have prepared Cumbria for the devastating floods that brought death and destruction in November 2009.
The weather had been atrocious since the beginning of November with widespread rainfall affecting the whole of the UK. With the ground already saturated, a severe weather warning issued by the Environment Agency on November 18 was unwelcome news. Cumbria in particular was told to prepare for further heavy downpours.
Continuing rain meant that by lunchtime, water was beginning to spill over from the River Eden, one of the major rivers in the area, causing partial flooding. Cumbria was again warned of more heavy rain to follow that afternoon with the entire county being placed under a flood watch alert.
By 9am on the morning of November 19, Seathwaite in Cumbria recorded 9.3 inches of rainfall having fallen in the past 24 hours. Cumbria was now issued with six severe weather warnings and many people were forced to evacuate their homes as the flood waters began to rise.
As predicted, the rain continued to fall and cause havoc with water rising to hazardous levels. The town of Cockermouth saw flood levels reach 8.2ft with the Met Office declaring that some parts of the county had seen the heaviest recorded rainfall ever while the Environment Agency described the floods as ‘unprecedented’.
November 20 saw the tragic loss of 44-year-old police constable, Bill Barker. Pc Barker was standing on the flood-damaged Northside Bridge during the early hours of the morning while directing traffic away from the bridge. The extreme force of the water caused the bridge to collapse and the heroic policeman was swept away by torrential floods into the River Derwent. His body was found a few hours later swept up onto a nearby beach.
By November 21, hundreds of homes were evacuated and over 500 Cumbrian residents were forced to spend the night in alternative accommodation or emergency shelters. In all, more than 1,300 homes were affected by the flooding and at one stage at least 5,000 properties were left without power.
The town of Workington became divided by the River Derwent as its last standing bridge was closed over safety concerns. Six bridges collapsed with all 1,800 bridges in Cumbria requiring an urgent safety review to assess the extent of the damage caused by the flood waters. Sixteen bridges were closed, as well as 25 roads and 18 schools with many businesses cut off completely.
On the morning of the 22nd, around 20,000 flood defence bags were handed out to residents in the worst affected areas of Cockermouth and Keswick. However, by this time, many hundreds of homes were already badly damaged by floodwater as well as several of Cumbria’s historical attractions. According to the Association of British Insurers (ABI), insurance claims for flood damage were likely to be in the region of £50-100 million.
After the worst was over, the Environment Secretary Mr Benn, said that recently strengthened flood defences, which were put in place after previous heavy flooding in 2005, were only built to withstand a 'one-in-100-years flood'. However, what Cumbria experienced was probably more like a one-in-1000 years flood. The Environment Agency said that a record amount of 12.3 inches of rain fell in the 24 hours from November 19 to 20.
November 2009 proved to be the wettest on record for the whole of the UK since 1914 with Cumbria one of the worst places affected. Nearly every area of the country recorded rainfall significantly higher than average with some places suffering from more than twice their normal rainfall.
While we can always learn from hindsight, and indeed Cumbria thought it was well prepared after suffering from previous floods, it seems nothing can safeguard us against the devastating forces of nature when she wreaks her full fury on us. The residents of Cumbria may well hope that the flood of 2009 was their one-in-1000 years flood and that they won't have to endure such destruction again during their lifetime.