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Monday, 18 October, 1999, 15:00 GMT
The big mop-up: One year on
Many people stayed away from their homes for weeks
When torrential rains hit the Midlands and East Anglia in Easter 1998, thousands of people were forced to confront the trauma of flooding.

Twelve months on, BBC News Online's Jane Harbidge followed up the story.

Good Friday, early hours of the morning. Silence as around Britain the population sleeps. In one Northamptonshire home, the phone rings.

"We're going to need boats, as many as we can lay our hands on. Where do we start?"

That call was just the beginning of a traumatic and exhausting week for county emergency planning officer Cliff Snelling.

Emergency services helped rescue stranded people
When torrential rains hit the Midlands and East Anglia last Easter, five people died and about 2,500 homes in Northamptonshire alone were flooded with filthy sewage water.

About 7,500 people had to find emergency accommodation as homes were evacuated, leaving behind the stinking waters to wreak their havoc on gas and electricity supplies, valuable possessions, furniture, carpets and treasured belongings.

The council's contingency plans swung into action, ranging from co-ordinating mass shelter and providing food and drink to clearing debris from the streets.

Council chiefs also launched an appeal fund and set up a one-stop centre giving information on the utilities, health, education and housing.

Lessons learned

It was a highly stressful time for Mr Snelling, and most others in Northampton. He estimates that more than half of all households had no contents insurance. Instead they relied on help from friends, family, the local authority, the appeal fund and benefits agency.

Essential services were reconnected to homes within a week and slowly, people returned.

Cars wrecked by the floods
But it was a long time before any semblance of normality was resumed. Even now, some homes still stand abandoned.

Inevitably, lessons were learned.

"We are still working on improving our plans. There's no single lesson in terms of contingency planning, but the effects were unbelievable. You can never test plans full-scale, such as evacuation, but we need to look at everything we did to improve on it," says Mr Snelling.

"It cost an awful lot in resources - the borough council lost over 30 vehicles, for example, which could have been used in the clean-up."

Streets of debris

After rivers burst their banks, boats were borrowed from the armed services and private owners to help rescue stranded people.

"The biggest problem was the trauma. Imagine going into your home full of sewer water - it takes plaster off the walls, destroys the central heating appliances, and ruins personal, sentimental things like photographs which are irreplaceable. For many elderly people, that's their last link with their families."

Many threw ruined furniture and belongings straight into the street, contributing to the clean-up which lasted several weeks.

Valuable equipment lost
Before that was over, builders and decorators moved in en masse. With them came lorries, building materials, skips and portable toilets.

"The area was characterised by piles of debris," says Mr Snelling. "At night, when the work stopped, an air of gloom and depression came over the area. In the first couple of months, only about 50% of people had moved back in.

The stress of losing so much took its toll on people's health, with some elderly people staying in residential care.

A few families have never been able to face going back, selling their homes after thousands of pounds were slashed from the price overnight.

A year of trauma

"People aren't going to forget this, especially coming up to the anniversary. It has been a very traumatic year," says Mr Snelling.

"It's still having a significant effect on people now - every time it rains they go to look at the river level because they're worried.

"For others in that situation, there's a long way to go, and a lot of heartache.

Long clean-up operation
"The physical damage is easy to see and assess but the traumatic damage is harder and in some cases in never leaves people."

Social services launched a flood response team, which was called on to offer practical and emotional support over the following six months.

Children who showed signs at school of being particularly badly affected by the trauma were referred to the Child Family Guidance unit.

Assistant Director of Social Care and Health, Sally Bresnahan, says: "For me, the most distressing thing was seeing the contents of homes in black bags and skips. Anything that was wet had to be thrown away.

"To the people in Yorkshire, I would say the more quickly you can clear that up, as opposed to having it around as a reminder, the better."

Counting the cost

The flood disaster cost insurance companies 130m, according to the Association of British Insurers.

The less severe damage in Yorkshire is likely to run to tens of millions, the ABI estimates.

Although claims for weather damage to British homes rose by 76% last year, association spokesman Malcolm Tarling denies that either the Northamptonshire or Yorkshire floods alone would put up insurance premiums.

"Insurers know they are going to be hit by a number of weather-related claims each year and prepare for that. Only a cumulative effect could put up claims," he says.

The Environment Agency was heavily criticised for not giving enough warnings of last Easter's torrential rains.

Five MPs called for the resignation of the agency's chairman, Lord de Ramsey.

Agency chiefs admitted their work had not been up to standard, and seven months after the disaster, they announced an annual 7m action plan to speed up flood warning systems.

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