Storm Arwen: Births and deaths by torchlight as power cuts continue into seventh day

A full week after power went off, residents around Northumberland town of Wooler say they can’t cope much longer

Colin Drury
North of England Correspondent
Thursday 02 December 2021 18:36
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Residents had been without power in the remote Northumberland town of Wooler for two days when one ran into the Angel Inn – a pub doubling up as a relief hub – and asked for an ambulance to be called.

Her friend had just gone into labour, she said. The baby was on its way.

“It’s an hour to the nearest hospital,” explains local councillor Mark Mather. “She ended up giving birth by torchlight. We got a gas fire to them from the pub. A light was taken off a fire engine and put in the house until medics arrived. Just the community doing what it could.”

Mother and baby are both now well in hospital.

Yet this moment of high drama on Sunday night encapsulates the hardship being faced by communities across the north of England and Scotland that have been left without power for what is now approaching seven full days.

Some 16,000 homes still have neither electricity nor gas following the devastation caused by Storm Arwen last Friday. At least one person has died from the cold in the Rothbury area, according to Mather’s Northumberland Council colleague Steven Bridgett.

And, in the borderland hamlets and villages surrounding Wooler itself, there is a growing feeling that they cannot cope much longer without such basics as heat, light and hot water.

“It’s been a long time and it’s now getting pretty miserable,” says Mather, a Conservative and, by profession, a farmer. “People have kept in good spirits – you know, we will survive – but they are on an emotional roller-coaster and we are now so far down the line that I think those spirits are starting to get broken...

The stories beginning to emerge here, indeed, show just how desperate people are feeling: families sleeping in the same bed under mountains of blankets just to defy sub-zero temperatures; mothers unable to heat food or baths for babies; and a woman, Alfreda Hindmarsh, who spent her 75th birthday huddled up in the dark.

Mather himself speaks of one resident arriving at The Angel four days into the outage. “We gave her a cup of tea,” he says. “And she started crying – she hadn’t had a hot drink in all that time. It overwhelmed her.”

There is, to some extent, a sense of abandonment among people here. “I think the lack of national support – people feel forgotten about,” says Mather. “And the lack of information from the power companies about when we might get back on, it’s grinding people down. They are cold and disheartened.”

He doesn’t understand why this hasn’t been treated as a national emergency: “it’s thousands of people without access to the most basic of necessities.”

More generators should have been delivered and the army deployed, he reckons. Vocal pressure should have been put on the power companies – including Scottish and Southern Energy Networks and Northern Powergrid – to fix things with greater haste.

As it is, effected communities – residents, local councils, local emergency services – have largely been left to fend for themselves.

In Wooler, a generator was delivered to the Angel Inn - hence, why it became a relief hub. Mountain rescue teams and firefighters have traversed the surrounding areas knocking on doors to let people know they were there. A hot food van has been doing the rounds. Yet the sheer unprecedented length of the outage has meant even that help has barely scratched the surface.

Council contractors in Northumberland remove trees felled by Storm Arwen

“Most people around here have bottled water and gas camping stoves because this happens from time to time,” says Fran Marshall, who lives in an 19th century cottage on the hills above the village of Kirknewton. “But I don’t think anyone was prepared for a full week. It has been very difficult indeed. You are thinking it can’t go on much longer – but no information is getting through.”

The 59-year-old’s power came on, as it happens, just a few hours before she spoke to The Independent.

What was the first thing she did? “Ran downstairs and put the heating on,” she says. “It was absolutely Baltic.”

For six days, the race course worker has lived in layers of clothes and cooked frozen soups on a portable gas stove. She has, she says, spent a lot of time in the Red Lion pub in nearby Milfield. Her first cup of coffee after the power came back has never tasted so good.

If it was good news for her, however, the bad news for the thousands of properties still effected across Cumbria, Northumberland and Scotland is that no date has yet been given for re-connection.

In a statement, the Energy Networks Association – which represents power companies – said that 98 per cent of homes had now been reconnected. But it admitted it would be at least the end of the week before it is back on for many others.

“In some parts of the country 25 days worth of faults have landed in just 24 hours prompting energy networks to draft in extra people, helicopters and drones from across the country,” the association said in an online statement.

“Power lines have been brought down and poles snapped in half. The energy networks have been responding to over 4,500 individual sites of damage across the country.

“Snow, freezing conditions, high winds, blocked roads and complex, labour-intensive faults are making power restoration extremely challenging.”

Yet back in Wooler - where the town centre, at least, now has electricity again - Councillor Mather is adamant that, while he appreciates the difficulties faced, the ongoing delays are unacceptable.

“People are sat shivering in their homes, they can‘t move from under blankets for the cold,” he says. “Down the line, we will see health problems as a result of what is happening now. I just hope we don’t end up finding people at home [who haven’t survived the cold]. We are doing everything possible to make sure that doesn’t happen but we now need the power companies to give us a better idea of what is going on.”

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