After the floods, the clean-up operation

Residents may have to wait months before they are allowed to return to their homes / Engineers and military experts begin urgent safety review of Cumbria's 1,800 bridges

Kunal Dutta@kunaldutta
Monday 23 November 2009 01:00

It is an irony not lost on the residents of Cockermouth. Yesterday at seven o'clock should have been the moment when the BBC weather presenter Paul Mooney flicked the switch on the town's Christmas illuminations. Instead the centre remained cordoned off by police as further harsh weather hampered the clear-up effort and estimates of the financial cost of the floods rose to hundreds of millions of pounds.

Residents in the worst-affected areas of the town remained unable to return to their homes, some frustrated by the lack of clear communication.

Structural engineers and military experts began an urgent safety review of the county's 1,800 bridges as fears grew that Calva bridge in Workington was on the brink of being swept away. The town was cut off, with Friday's collapse of Northside bridge and closure of Calva bridge forcing residents and rescue teams to make lengthy detours.

As the clean-up operation continued some residents were coming to terms with the fact that it would be months before they would be able to return home.

Kathryn Gentry, 33, left her house off Main Street with her eight-year-old daughter on Thursday afternoon. "To begin with people were worried about looting. But now there's just a general sense of frustration of not being allowed to return home again," she said. "A lot of people are milling around but no one is quite clear when we might be able to return."

During the floods of 2005, Mrs Gentry had to wait 10 months before returning to her old property on Gote Road. "Neighbours who have not experienced floods before think they'll return in a few days. But in reality it's likely to be months and months."

As Gordon Brown pledged an extra £1m of government aid to help with the clean-up, opposition parties called for a quick and "concerted" return to normal life. The shadow Environment Secretary, Nick Herbert, said: "What we can't see is, as happened after the floods of 2005 and 2007, where people were out of their homes for months on end."

Structural engineers and military experts were focusing first on key bridges in the worst-affected areas, including the Calva bridge, about half a mile upstream from the Northside bridge, which collapsed on Friday, leading to the death of PC Bill Barker. A smaller footbridge between the two, known locally as the Navvies bridge, has also collapsed.

Tony Cunningham, MP for Workington, said getting to nearby Seaton had turned into a 90-mile journey. "My major concern is residents who are cut off. Things are getting desperate."

More than 60 flood warnings were in force across south-western and northern parts of England, Scotland and Wales yesterday. In South Wales a search was underway for a woman believed to have been swept into the river Usk in Brecon. On Saturday a canoeist, Chris Wheeler, 46, from Reading, died after being pulled from the river Dart at Newton Abbot in Devon.

Yesterday there was growing concern about the long-term economic impact of the floods in Cockermouth. The town is home to Wordsworth's House, one of the Lake District's most popular attractions, which is under structural review and not expected to reopen until next year.

Attention was also turning towards the town's flood defences. There were concerns about the phases of defence implemented after the floods of 2005. Yesterday the Environmental Agency insisted that works were "fully up to date". "With the onset of climate change we can expect more floods, more frequently," a spokesman said. "We need to continue to increase flood spending every year and also look at how we make our homes more flood resilient."

Elaine Bell, 55, owns an antiques shop in Main Street that has been hit by flooding, destroying some of her uninsured stock. "From an economic view this will have horrendous consequences for all of us," she said. "Most of the shops here are small businesses that simply don't have the profit margins to withstand this. Some were already struggling in a recession but many will know they will simply have to close instead."

Insurers are thought to have been inundated with as many as 1,000 individual claims. But residents have expressed concern about locals in certain areas of Cockermouth, such as estates behind Gote Road that are popular among lower-income families, the elderly and young people.

Ms Gentry, who has sought refuge with her family, said: "The second time I was flooded my premium excess went up by £2,000. One of my neighbours saw her premiums rise to £10,000. This time I'm wondering whether it's even worth claiming given the hassle I experienced last time."

Looking ahead, residents also expressed concern about the long-term effect of housing. "Even if people wanted to move, the chances of selling any property here now is about one in 50 million," Ms Bell says. "This is an iconic event, something that is likely to stick with us for years. Over time it could become like Boscastle [Cornwall], which the nation seems to mainly recall now for the iconic image of a building collapsing in the floods."

Flood damage: What you can claim

*Household and business insurance policies cover flood damage. Even if you cannot get back into your home, find out who your insurer is as soon as possible. As soon as the floods subside and it is safe to go in, a loss adjuster can go in to assess the damage.

* Arrange for temporary repairs to be carried out to stop any damage getting worse.

* Keep receipts and take photographs, as these will be needed for your insurance claim. Do not throw out damaged carpet or furniture without at least keeping samples of the damage.

* Once floodwater has receded, disinfect floors and furnishings. Where practical, leave doors, windows and cupboards open. If possible, keep rooms heated.

* Most policies will cover the cost of alternative accommodation (up to a specified limit) if you have had to move out of your home during repair stage. Keep receipts where possible.

* Comprehensive motor insurance will cover flood damage caused to vehicles.

* For those in housing association accommodation or local authority housing, contact your landlord or local authority for further assistance.


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