A defining image of the aftermath of Storm Desmond was looking out over the Lyth Valley from the limestone escarpment above it, the next day. The sun shone and there was an unnatural sense of calm. For most of November unusually heavy rain had fallen on the Northwest. Then, on 5 December, on a single day, 15 trillion litres of rain poured down on Cumbria. I saw flood water filling the entire valley, the lower lying lands south of it and merging with the sea in Morecambe Bay in one unbroken sheet of water. Farm buildings were more than halfway up to their roofs in water, and in the valley’s woodlands, just the crowns of mature trees were visible.
Soon afterwards, stories began to circulate; a friend from Levens village told me of a man who had taken his fibreglass boat out to help rescue sheep. Together with a farmer neighbour they motored over sunken hedgerows and barbed-wire fences. Passing between a pair of gateposts they saw insects swarming over the remaining top few inches of wood – beetles climbing over each other to escape the rising water. They found 130 sheep that had drowned and more too cold and waterlogged to survive. They took just one away in the boat, a sheep with a mouse on its back – hitching a ride to safety. In its re-telling, the nature of the floods became biblical.
“It was the speed of it that was so shocking. Between 4pm and 5pm the water was rising at an inch a minute. By 5pm we were up to our chests”
The leader of the Liberal Democrats, MP Tim Farron, was himself stuck south of Levens village; anyone travelling anywhere that day was taking an unprecedented risk. In Kendal, the Twitter-feed showed bridges collapsing, parapets being washed away one after another across the whole county. As the storm-force River Kent inundated flood defences by its outfall into Morecambe Bay, the water circled back and moved inland to places never previously flooded.
At 3.30 in the afternoon, just south of the Lyth valley, Chris and Bev White began to ferry dogs from Bev’s boarding kennels through the rising flood water up to Levens village. ‘People just turned up, formed a convoy.’ Chris said to me, ‘Word got out and they just kept turning up to take in the dogs. Bev was making lists about which dogs had gone where.’ Had the dogs remained in their single-story kennels, they would otherwise have drowned. Shortly afterwards the dual carriageway into west Cumbria and Furness, the A590, became unpassable. At 4pm, flood water begun to enter the White’s home, just as the light was failing.
‘It was the speed of it,’ Chris said, ‘that was so shocking. Between 4pm and 5pm the water was rising at an inch a minute. By 5pm we were up to our chests.’
There were horses to move to higher ground. ‘It was pitch black and we were just shouting at each other to see where everyone was.’ The next day, when swimming the horses to safety one of the neighbour’s horses panicked. ‘It was swept away and drowned,’ Bev told me. They showed me photographs from the day and the aftermath – beds and sofas strewn as if by a typhoon, wooden floors lifted, the inevitable filth, the shocking height of and extent of the water – the inundated kennels.
Elsewhere in the valley, a barn full of calves drowned. A group of cows was swept 15 miles away - and survived. In its panic a bullock was caught by the hoof in a cattle grid below Levens village and had to be destroyed, but no-one had time to remove it, so the carcass remained; a brutalist symbol of the forces at work that day.
I knew that many of those affected by the trauma of flooding felt unable to talk in the immediate aftermath. A number of months later, I met David Martin, a dairy farmer from the Lyth Valley. David’s farm stands on slightly elevated ground, but was surrounded by flood water. Together with his wife Louise and two small children, they were unable to get out, or to communicate for four days. There was no phone, no internet or TV, and at best a fluctuating mobile signal.
David described waking up in the early morning and hearing water lapping against the sides of the house. He continued milking – what else to do – pour it away and add gallons of milk to the mess of floodwater? So he continued milking – by torch-light, knee-deep, the cows over their ankles in water, and after two days he drove his tractor down the subsumed lane to guide the milk wagon in. But the hedges could not be seen, so David had to drive by instinct. Both men were shaking by the time they reached the farm. It was eight days before they could drive a car away.
Across Cumbria, 1,029 businesses were flooded that day: of these, 76 per cent are operational again, while 24 per cent remain closed. 200 roads or bridges have yet to be fully repaired, though most are in use again. Five miles north of Kendal, the village of Staveley remains divided since the storm took out the bridge on the main street.
Cumbria County Council – who contracted out most of the highway and bridge repairs within the county, told villagers that because of timescales and priorities, repairs to their bridge could not begin until two years later, in December 2017. At that point local businesses led by David Brockbank and Graham Livesey started a campaign - ‘Build Bridges Not Walls’. ‘The council had the money to carry out essential repairs through central government’s Belshaw Fund,’ Brockbank told me, ‘so the proposed two-year timescale to the commencement of work was completely unacceptable.’
Graham, who runs the village newsagents and Post Office lost 25 per cent of his turnover as a direct result and had to lose two members of staff. The village grocery shop was £30,000 down in turnover. Then the council stopped talking. At that point Brockbank brought in his own team of surveyors, engineers and contractors and told the council they would commission the work themselves. The council then began talking again and it was agreed that work will begin next Easter. ‘We got an acceptable result,’ Brockbank said. ‘We’re pleased with how the council eventually took us seriously, and got on board.’
In the weeks following Storm Desmond, flood-restoration teams poured into Kendal. The streets were lined with vans, skips, tables, chairs, mattresses, wardrobes, carpets, fridges, washing machines, kitchen cabinets and all the other domestic items that could not be salvaged because of the toxic mix of flood water and chemicals from flooded industrial estates north of Kendal, together with sewage. 2,150 homes in Kendal became uninhabitable on that day. Within weeks, the vans had gone – the work of stripping out of plaster and floorboards done. The houses were left to dry out, but the skips and furniture remained on the streets for months. One in five households across Cumbria are yet to return home.
I volunteered to help in the aftermath. I imagined I’d be asked to help clean out homes, but along with a small army of others I was given the task of dealing with another kind of flood – that of clothing, bedding and prams, shoes and boots, baby equipment and cleaning products donated by local people. But most households did not lose clothing or bedding, and so the mountain remained – another problem to solve. It was one of the lessons that the beleaguered town was to learn. But what else to do in the face of such losses in your own community; people wanted to give something.
The main road through the Lakes, the A591, took over six months to repair. John Butcher of United Utilities told me that repairing the carriageway was the least of it; first they had to shore up the mountain above because of accumulated and unstable quantities of rocks and earth.
The term flood resilience is now in common usage. South Lakeland District Council offered £500 emergency hardship grants, and flood resilience grants of £5,000 are still available for the installation of flood gates, waterproof plaster and cement flooring, though David Sykes, Director of South Lakeland District Council, told me that take up of the grants has been very slow. ‘The filling out of forms can itself be a barrier, and many people are disinclined to ask for what represents to them a handout,’ he said. The authority simplified the process and worked with volunteers from the Red Cross and Churches Together in Kendal to assist people with the process. There is a flood resilience shop in the centre of town, yet despite this, thousands of pounds’ worth of grant money remains unspent.
“I had watched as not rain, but sheets of silver-grey water slid from the surrounding fells like watery, perpetual avalanches”
Twelve months on, many households remain unable to find a builder who has availability to carry out repair work. One local firm told me that since December they have had 660 enquiries for work; in a more usual year, that figure would be a third or a half of that.
With efforts co-ordinated to assist the largest centres of population, no-one called at the White’s home. Instead of stripping out and re-instating, they had decided to rebuild, planning a complete re-design ensuring that their property was future-proofed. Living accommodation would be above ground floor level - one of the first buildings in South Cumbria specifically designed with extreme weather in mind. Then planners and The Environment Agency told them that post Storm Desmond, the location had been raised to red status, and was no longer considered suitable for habitation.
Meanwhile in Kendal, a new supermarket development was granted planning permission earlier in 2015. Upriver from the town centre, it will be constructed on the town’s rugby club grounds – on flood plain - next to the River Kent. To access this specific site, the developer, Morbaine, is also developing a new site for the rugby club, on land across the road, adjacent to the River Mint. I asked planners about the development in the light of the extreme nature of the floods. Anything on this scale must include attenuation – or underground water-storage tanks, to offset the effects of the development. They told me that in the future, there was no doubt that attenuation allowances would have to be increased.
In September, at a debate on the banning of driven grouse shooting, panellist and former leader of the Green Party, Natalie Bennett, talked about the drying out of intensively managed grouse moors as the direct cause of extreme run-off that devastated the town of Hebden Bridge on Boxing Day 2015.
Having been a witness to Storm Desmond, I continue to ask myself if anything could ameliorate the effects of such extreme rainfall. I had watched as not rain, but sheets of silver-grey water slid from the surrounding fells like watery, perpetual avalanches, overwhelming the three rivers that merge just north of Kendal, and pushing the Kent to levels unseen in human history. The word ‘rain’ was made redundant that day.
In the light of Storm Desmond and the predicted rise of extreme weather events, re-thinking the management of upstream landscapes is a key part of Environment Agency planning. Whether this extends to the higher fells or not – as practiced in Haweswater and Swindale in a partnership between United Utilities and the RSPB – remains to be seen. There, extensive tree planting came from EU directives to improve water quality at source, preventing pollution through extreme run-off. Some of the Cumbrian farmers whose sheep are traditionally ‘hefted’ to those fells, say that the plantings compromise the hefts – their traditional way of farming. But post Desmond, a set of alternative land-uses needs urgently to be deployed in the hills. As David Sykes said to me, ‘concessions will have to be made upstream to aid the safety of the larger communities downstream.’
The Environment Agency says ‘Storms Desmond, Eva and Frank have changed the way we look at managing flood risk. We are focussing more on whole river catchments, identifying how we can combine hard flood defences with slowing the flow of water upstream. We are working closer than ever with local communities and partner organisations so we can combine our knowledge and resources.’ It is spending £72million of government funding across Cumbria ‘to better protect at least 4,300 Cumbrian homes from flooding. Up to £58million of this is new funding [that has been] agreed since December 2015.’
A few weeks ago I talked again to farmer David Martin; he and his family had only just moved back into their house after over ten months of living in a caravan beside the milking parlour. Below the Lyth valley, the Whites are finally rebuilding their home. Planners and The Environment Agency finally passed the new plans a number of weeks ago; the fight to rebuild had been ongoing since March. The house has subsequently been knocked down, and work on the footings has begun. Even with the arrival of a mercifully icy winter in Cumbria and early snow on the mountains, with the imminent anniversary of Storm Desmond, there is a communal holding of breath whenever heavy rain comes.