After the deluge

In Boscastle, the long clean-up has just begun. Is there any hope of a return to normality? Malcolm Macalister Hall revisits Lewes, flooded four years ago
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The Independent Online

Victoria Station in London, two days ago, high summer. It's already shirt-sleeves warm by 7.30am - but there's a message in red across the train departure boards: "Inwards service delayed due to adverse weather conditions." Next to the boards, a giant screen flashes the headlines: "Clean-up begins after landslides. 57 trapped on A85 near Stirling." Boscastle has already slipped from view. On the journey south to the ancient Sussex town of Lewes, the skies suddenly darken, twice: two fierce downpours, water sluicing off the train windows. In Lewes, the sun is shining. Just as well. There are people here who are still frightened of heavy rain.

Victoria Station in London, two days ago, high summer. It's already shirt-sleeves warm by 7.30am - but there's a message in red across the train departure boards: "Inwards service delayed due to adverse weather conditions." Next to the boards, a giant screen flashes the headlines: "Clean-up begins after landslides. 57 trapped on A85 near Stirling." Boscastle has already slipped from view. On the journey south to the ancient Sussex town of Lewes, the skies suddenly darken, twice: two fierce downpours, water sluicing off the train windows. In Lewes, the sun is shining. Just as well. There are people here who are still frightened of heavy rain.

Four years ago, on 12 October, after a pounding deluge which lasted some 12 hours, the river Ouse burst its banks in Lewes and flooded 503 vehicles, 16 public buildings, 207 businesses and 613 homes. The neat semi-detached house where Andrew Sowter lives with his parents was one of them.

The floodwater rose in the living room until it was a few inches from the ceiling, and lapping at the top of the stairs. That night, Mr Sowter and his father waited upstairs in the dark, marooned. For safety, they had turned the electricity off. "What was really horrible," says Mr Sowter, 42, a bricklayer, "was listening to the fridge-freezer, full of food, floating around downstairs and banging into the walls in the dark. And you think: 'That's our stuff down there." Around 9pm, a lifeboat sailed into the cul-de-sac and rescued Mr Sowter and his father from a first-floor window. "I couldn't believe the size of it - it was like a big fishing trawler," he says.

He admits he still hasn't really got over what happened that night in 2000. "Some people might have; but every time we get bad weather I worry - that's the truth. It worries me all the time. Deep down, really, we'd like to move to a safer place. After the flood, this place wasn't fit for a dog to live in. I'd never want that to happen again."

The flood in Lewes, one of the worst in Britain in recent times, caused damage which the Environment Agency put at £88m. Everywhere there are sparkling new kitchens, replacement three-piece suites. But new soft furnishings cannot erase the memories, or the scars. Some marriages have cracked under the stress. A few people have moved away. And residents in Lewes say that after the swarm of reporters and television crews had left town, the task of reclaiming their lives and their normality from the flood was a long, difficult and traumatic process. Strangely, the early days were in some respects not the worst.

"At the time, there was a Blitz spirit - people do respond very well, in the way that you would expect, as they did in Boscastle," says John Clark, whose two long-established family jewellery shops on Cliffe High Street, right by the river, were both flooded with 5ft of water and wrecked.

"It took me a fortnight to get over the shock - we were just clearing up, and I was focused on that alone. Then a friend said: What are you going to do? - and I hadn't even thought about it. You can only concentrate on one thing at a time."

Along the road, John Tarry, a bookseller, lost 50 per cent of his stock - some 7,000 books - when the water swirled in. "They'd swollen and were jammed in the shelves. We had to crowbar them out, and dump them." The streets were lined with skips, vans, emergency vehicles, and poignant heaps of ruined possessions. "My insurance broker said it looked like a war zone. And it did," says Mr Clark.

At the far end of Cliffe High Street, Graham and Jaycee Funnell were trying to clear up their sodden 50-seat restaurant Thackerys, whose Anglo-French menu had been regarded as one of Lewes's best. They were determined to keep their spirits up. Ms Funnell was humming "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life".

Mr Funnell was sure they'd be open again soon. "I thought: 'It's just water. It'll go. We'll clean up, redecorate and reopen - but it doesn't happen like that."

Being self-employed, the couple were used to being in control and making their own decisions, quickly. "Suddenly, all these other people are controlling your life. Insurance people, surveyors, builders; they take over your life," says Mr Funnell. "You have to wait for answers from other people. And those answers might take two weeks."

Ms Funnell says she found the sense of powerlessness utterly frustrating. "It was quite weird, like being unemployed or being suddenly made redundant. We're really upbeat people, but I just found it so depressing."

Like many others in the town, she eventually sought counselling. And Mr Clark, a leading member of the Lewes Flood Action group, says that the psychological toll of the disaster should not be overlooked. "It's hugely stressful," he says. "We talk about the financial cost, but the human cost is considerable too, and something you can't measure. Some people undoubtedly suffered psychological damage."

Almost before the water had subsided, a whole flock of people - some more reputable than others - descended on the town like seagulls in search of pickings. "You've never seen so many white vans in the town in your life," says Mr Funnell. "They were all queued up along the middle of the street - builders, clearance companies, loss assessors who chase fire engines - I don't know where they all came from." Some loss assessors were aggressively touting for business, trying to persuade people to hire them to deal with insurance claims. "You're in shock, and you've got these people coming at you saying: 'We can work for you, and you pay us so much...' It was quite intimidating," he says.

At Lewes District Council, the head of environment and health, Ian Kedge, was working 90-hour weeks setting up a flood recovery programme. The chancers flocking into town were just one of the problems the council faced.

"Alongside some very good builders, we had all sorts of issues about others trying to muscle in and rip people off," he says. "Insurance "agents" were charging exorbitant fees for very little - which probably if the people had contacted their insurers themselves, they would have got anyway." Mr Kedge says the flood recovery programme ran for more than a year, dealing with everything from health issues to setting up a network of local people to act as flood wardens. "We also had people who were homeless for a long time," he says. "So we had transient populations of people living in mobile homes and so on. And some people have had tremendous problems either reinsuring or obtaining insurance. That has an effect on confidence in the property market in the town. So we set up groups to help with these issues."

Insurance was, indeed, the big issue in the days after the flood as crowds of loss adjusters inspected piles of sodden, filthy furniture and residents searched for missing receipts. At the Lewes Book Centre, Mr Tarry says his premium has since doubled, from £800 to £1,600. Others have been luckier.

However, the reality of a brand-new kitchen and living room, paid for by insurance, is not necessarily an instant source of joy. At the Victorian terrace near the river where they have lived for 32 years, Pat Dartnell, a payroll officer, and her husband, Roy, a hospital cleaner, bring out photographs of their wrecked ground floor, where the water reached halfway up the walls. The builders later stripped it to its foundations and bare brick. Seven months later, the Dartnells moved back in.

"I found it very difficult," says Ms Dartnell. "People said, 'You've got a great opportunity to get everything brand new.' But it didn't really give me any pleasure, because I wanted my home back. And it didn't feel like my home." The worst time, she says, was about a year after the flood, after they'd moved back in. "That's when the stress came out, for me," she says.

She's got used to it now - but others didn't. "A couple of marriages have broken up, and two people who lived in the road couldn't cope with it. After more than 30 years here, they've moved away."

The town has, however, bounced back. All the shops in Cliffe High Street eventually reopened. "In many cases businesses have come back stronger than they were before," says Mr Clark. "If you're wrecked and have to rebuild, it gives you the chance to make improvements. My son David and I worked hard - our business has come back much stronger than it was before. And others have done the same."

Meanwhile, the first stage of flood defence work for Lewes is due for completion before the end of the year. Pilings are being driven in along one side of the riverbank. But as spokesman for Lewes Flood Action, Mr Clark says that the flood defence plans are piecemeal, and insufficient, and still leave much of the town at risk. "What we're coming up against again and again is the Government's reluctance to fund flood defence strategy properly," he says. "We feel a lot could be done to help prevent a future flood in Lewes, if there was a proper strategic approach to flood defence. But there isn't."

There have been other changes too. Thackerys restaurant has vanished - Graham and Jaycee Funnell now run Thackerys Cookery School. "We felt we had to move on because of the flood," says Mr Funnell. "It's as if your life stops, and you're given a clean slate, then afterwards you have a different life." Ms Funnell describes the aftermath of the flood as "like being reborn".

But she still wakes up in the night if it's raining heavily. Crossing the bridge at the end of the street, they always glance at the river to see how high it is. And if it's raining hard, Roy Dartnell always nips out from the house in Morris Road, to walk up to the bridge and have a look. "Terrible, isn't it?" he smiles. "But I can't help it."

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