Staying afloat: Life after Britain's great flood

The summer floods of 2007 were the worst natural disaster to strike Britain in a generation. Thousands were evacuated – and thousands saw their houses and possessions washed away. It's been four months since the waters receded. Are they home and dry?
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The Independent Online

The Pensioners

June Green, 73, and her husband Douglas, 72, are retired and live in Cottingham, Humberside.

"It was my husband who saw the water first. He was in the bathroom and called out that there was water coming through the floor. We started trying to move things out the way but puddles started appearing in the corners of the flat where the water was coming through. The young man in the flat upstairs was wonderful – he came to tell us our car was nearly underwater, and he moved it out of danger for us, thank goodness, because so many cars were written off.

"We didn't have time to move all the big furniture; we just moved the smaller things and our record collection. Our son, David, took us home with him and we stayed there for three or four days but, because he's got two growing boys, it was a bit overcrowded. A good neighbour of ours who lives on her own invited us to stay and we're still there now. We're hoping to start the restoration in a couple of weeks. I mean, it isn't as horrific story as a lot of other people have had, but we've been out of our flat for about 14 weeks now. I think it's going to be after Christmas before we get back.

"It has been an ordeal, but there are a lot of other people in the same boat as us. One thing we've said between ourselves is that when the event goes away from the television screens people who are not involved forget about it. I mean, we've done the same. It's not being selfish, it's just that if it's not in your face, you don't think about it. But months on, people like us are still struggling."

The Support Worker

Jill Steels (47) lives in Hartpury, Gloucestershire. She is a support worker for Gloucester County Council.

"I got caught out in the flooding – I couldn't get home for two nights. I had to stay with one of my clients. There had been flash flooding. There were abandoned cars and caravans floating everywhere.

"I was lucky – my house wasn't flooded. I went back to work as soon as I could because I felt guilty sitting at home. None of my clients were flooded but they didn't have any water as it was cut off. It was difficult for one gentleman in particular. He lives on his own, he has dementia and it was hard for him to understand. I had to go to the bowsers to get water.

"In my job you do a lot of personal care for people. It took forever to get everything done, by the time you've boiled the water and heated it up. But it was an experience."

The Rescue Team

Kevin Chappuis, 60, centre, lives in Mill Hill, London, and works in logistics for St John Ambulance.

"During the floods, I got a phone call from St John Ambulance head office asking me to mobilise a team and a boat to Oxford to assist. Since 7 July we have tightened up our marine service and it works really well.

"A few years ago, when the Silk Stream in Colindale burst its banks, my wife and I were affected and it was horrible. People tend to get back injuries and strains during flooding from trying to get things upstairs away from the water. You also get old people caring more about their pets than themselves.

"We have to be cautious rescuing people by boat. It's also dangerous to paddle without foot protection because your feet get cold and there's a danger of cuts and infection.

"Since the floods it has been business as usual but we have increased the time we spend on awareness. We were at the Thames Festival and the Rat Race [a kayak race on the Thames]. We're waiting for money from the government to buy more equipment like floating pontoons and Zodiac boats for rescuing people. I think the floods have increased awareness in terms of property insurance, but I'm not so sure about health."

The Primary School Head

Jill Northwood (who never tells people her age) is the head teacher at Toll Bar primary school in Doncaster.

"When the school was flooded it was an awful surprise that I hope never to experience again. It has been devastating for everyone – myself, the staff and for the families who've lost everything here.

"The heavy rain started on the Monday and the drains were blocked, so children were sent home. The next day the authorities warned us that the dam might burst, so we told the children not to come in. An hour after that, the school started flooding. One of my teaching assistants and I rowed down the main road to the school on a boat, due to the height of the water. Inside, the water levels ranged from 2ft to 5ft. I got text messages from staff telling me they were flooded; some of them are still living in caravans. Our children were out of school for five days.

"When we realised how bad the situation was, we arranged for our pupils to be taught at neighbouring schools. Some of us tracked down families who were affected by the flooding and tried to help. Luckily, I had a file containing pupils' details and we found everybody. Transport was organised for the children to school but it was a logistical nightmare. We tried to laugh about it. We even took the Year Six pupils on a weekend trip to a water park – it had been organised before the flooding and it was wonderful for the parents to stop worrying about their children for a while. It helped to take our minds off the floods, too.

"At the moment we're in a portable building in a field, using caravans for admin rooms. We wanted to come back to the community as it was important for the children. It has been hard for them. The nights are drawing in, so we're putting on after-school activities. The children worry when it rains, but I'm confident that it will never happen again. Hopefully we'll be back in the old school building next summer."

The Carer

Rosie Taylor, 56, from Longlevens, Gloucestershire, is a support worker for Gloucester County Council.

"My husband kept going on about the weather. He was faffing around trying to find the telephone number for the council to get some sandbags when the water started coming in.

"When the water went down, I felt awful – angry, upset and gutted. Then we got all the people in – loss adjusters, insurance company – and we stripped everything out. The place had to be sanitised. But what really hits you is when you see your stuff in the skip, ruined. We had the driers in for three weeks, and what happened? We were flooded again.

"We were on holiday at the time because we thought that there was nothing we could do while the house was being dried. The builders were taking all the plasterboard off when the waters came in the second time. Now, every time it rains I wonder whether the brook will overflow again. The council has been trying to build up the banks, but I'm just waiting to see what happens.

"It's four months on and we're still not in the house. We're living back with my parents at the moment. It's so annoying. I just want to be back in my own home. Last week I was mad – evil – because I could see all the other houses in my street being done and nothing was being done to our house. "

The Social Worker

Lisa Gadd, 28, lives in Gloucester. She works as a day-service co-ordinator.

"I was at work when I got a phone call from my partner, Alexis. We'd almost been flooded four weeks before. This time she said she thought it was going to so I'd better get home. It took me three hours when usually it takes 25 minutes, during which time Alexis was lifting furniture, trying to get everything off the floor.

"By the time I got to the house, it was awful. My partner put the sofa up on telephone books, but the water had soaked through. There was nothing we could do so we left the house at about 8 o'clock to go to a party. We just walked out of the house with a bottle of champagne, and we didn't go back until the next morning. By then, all the water had gone but it stank.

"Everything was ruined – the carpets, oven, fridge-freezer, washing machine, tumble-dryer. We had dehumidifiers in for about 10 weeks and we had to move out and stay with family because the dehumidifiers were really noisy and the smell was awful. We're back in now, but we're living upstairs.

"The only good thing about the flooding it made us get to know our neighbours better. We never spoke to them before but this happened and we all pulled together."

The Teacher

Gillian Faichney, 46, is a teaching assistant from Cottingham, Humberside.

"It had been raining for days when water started pouring into our road and towards the house. My daughter, Lucy, and I got duvets and blankets – whatever we could find – to try to block the doorways but the water came through the airbricks. We picked up as much as we could, as fast as we could, but I couldn't take it in. My initial reaction was to get a camera and take some pictures. But, when Lucy went to fetch the camera, she fell through the floorboards. They had just given way. At that point I started to panic. Later, my husband, Andrew, took Lucy and her brother, Josh, to my sister's; it's only a 10-mile trip but it took three and a half hours. That was the worst thing for me, because he'd gone with the children and I was worried for their safety.

"Once the water had gone, I thought, 'Oh, I'll take the carpets up and get it sorted'. It was after, when I saw that our walls were black, that I realised I wasn't going to be able to do anything. We cancelled our holiday, thinking that we'd stay in the house. But, with hindsight, we should have gone on holiday.

"Now when it rains, flooding is the first thing that goes through my mind. I used to think, when people said they'd been in floods, 'How on earth have they managed not to save anything quicker?' I would never think that again. Now I've seen it first-hand, I know how quickly it happens."

The Driver

Andy Ennett-Saunders, 42, from Gloucester, works for Gloucester County Council as a community officer for those with learning disabilities

"The respite unit in Cheltenham was being flooded and it was full of clients with learning disabilities, so the manager asked me to come to try to rescue them. I got about halfway but couldn't get any further because the water was so high. The fire service rescued the clients but I went back two days later and got their fish tank and fish. I've also got clients who live within the community who I had to make sure were safe. We had no water because the treatment unit in Tewkesbury was flooded, so those clients became very vulnerable as they had no drinking water.

"Trying to encourage people with learning disabilities not to drink contaminated water is difficult. I was worried about them having things to eat and drink because the shelves in the supermarkets were stripped. We made sure that they had hot food and water.

"My boss has put me up for an award. To me it wasn't a great deal. I just wanted my clients to be all right."

The Vendors

Rachel Dixon-Goodall, 35, is a teacher from Hull. She lives with her husband, Simon, 37, an airline pilot.

"When we woke up, Simon and I could see water surrounding the house, which was something that we've never experienced before. We live at the side of the river Hull, but because it has flood-barrier protection it was fine – it was the drains that were the problem, because it had been raining for weeks.

"We went outside and realised how deep it was and I just knew it was going to get in if the rain continued at this rate. Simon had to go to work so I was left to try to push as much of the water down the drains as I could, but they were full. To be honest, once I saw the water lapping against the side of my kitchen units, I felt relieved because there was nothing more I could do. Luckily, someone on my road, who I'd never met before, invited me in, and let me stay until midnight, when Simon came home.

"Since then, we've been living in a rented apartment, even though our house has been dry for weeks. It has been such a long process, what with waiting for the insurance company, then locating a builder who wasn't busy, but we're hoping to be in by Christmas. The worst thing about it is that we'd just sold our house, but after we were flooded the purchasers changed their minds. So we've got to go through it again. We're going to have to wait for people to forget about it before we try again."

The Family

Phil Garland, 35, a surveyor, lives with his wife, Liz, 30, a dog groomer, and their twin sons in East Yorkshire.

"I was in the office when my wife rang me to say, 'Can you come home? The bay window's leaking!' I told her to make sure that none of the water got on the wood floor. Little did I know... As I left the drains were bubbling, with water surging up through them – it was clear that something wasn't right. By 4pm, our house was flooded. We saved as much as we could – things like pictures and photographs – but you can't get a kitchen table up the stairs, can you? My wife and I just sat at the top of the stairs, crying.

"People are animals, aren't they? And our homes are our nests. We'd just lost our nest and we had a great sense of loss and emptiness. It's like a death. Anyway, we had to get our twins, who are toddlers, round the corner to my in-laws. We put them on our shoulders above the water but they couldn't understand what was going on. At first it was a bit of an adventure, but we caught Eliot sleepwalking at three o'clock in the morning trying to get out of the front door.

"We live in constant fear of another flood. As soon as it rains we panic. It's understandable – moving house is stressful enough and we've moved three times in the last two weeks. We've got to do it all again in a few months when the house is finished. But while I wouldn't say the flooding has been a blessing in disguise, I have started to do a lot of work with the National Flood Forum. We've set up a local committee in the village to lobby the Environment Agency and Yorkshire Water to get things going, and things are starting to happen a bit more. We can't change the past, but we can alter the future."

The Absentees

Marjorie Hustwayte 62, lives with her husband, Anthony, in Nottingham.

"We were away on holiday in Ireland. We had been planning to be there for about three weeks but after five days, we had a call from our son saying that the house was flooded. It was very strange. He was saying: 'I'm walking into your drive. The water's just gone over the top of my wellies.'

"By the time we got home the water had gone down and the house was full of mud. I spent the next week with some friends, clearing the kitchen cupboards and throwing things out. My husband spent the next week interviewing local authorities, insurance representatives, the Environment Agency – you name it...

"What's really noticeable are the different attitudes, and levels of efficiency, of the different insurance companies. Ours have been brilliant. They had somebody here to take up the carpets the next day, they ring us up to see how are we getting on; we can't fault them. Our next door neighbour still hasn't had his plaster chopped off.

"The reason we were flooded, I think, is that we've got a dyke next to the house that hasn't been cleared since we moved in 20 years ago. My husband and I hired a digger ourselves and started some work, and some very ecologically-minded person, a neighbour of ours, came beetling across the field. "You can't do both banks," they said. "You might disturb the water voles."

"We weren't too worried about the water voles. Perhaps we ought to get ourselves made an endangered species. Then the Environment Agency might take more notice of us."

The Farmer

Martin Voase, 57, is a farmer from Brandesburton.

"There'd been quite a lot of rain prior to 25 June so, when we got the deluge, the land didn't soak a lot up. The water levels at the farm rose by about three inches a day for the next 10 days. Although I didn't suffer any problems with the house, the farmland bore the brunt. One hundred and fifty acres flooded and the water level didn't start to go down for three weeks, so the effect on all the crops was dramatic.

"The potato crop is the one that has been worst hit – I had 55 acres of potatoes, and I think I've harvested about five. I'd invested a lot of money in that crop, and, of course, I've lost that money and any income I would have had from it. I'm not going to grow potatoes any more because I can't justify the investment in a crop that's at risk. But I've moved forward and I've kept going.

"When you're in farming losses occur. I never rely on anything until I've got the crops sold and the cheques in the bank. I was talking to one of the lads who works for the Environment Agency. He told me that this flood had been 35 years waiting to happen because of a lack of maintenance in the drainage system. We've had too many conservationists wanting to use the main drainage outfalls as areas of conservation for wildlife. That's been quite a big factor in my opinion; we've got away from the fact that these channels were cut for a reason.

"I think we're all basically wildlife lovers here – we're in the country and we're among it all the time. But we see the practical implications of not doing the maintenance properly. I think the Environment Agency have used conservation as an excuse to not do their job as well as they should."