Whaley Bridge residents gather at makeshift evacuation centre after dam collapse: ‘Everything we’ve ever worked for is at risk’

Villagers tell The Independent they fear dam collapse will see their homes disappear in the blink of an eye

Colin Drury
Chapel-en-le-Frith
Saturday 03 August 2019 08:49
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Whaley Bridge: Derbyshire town evacuated as Toddbrook Reservoir dam wall collapses

For the residents of Whaley Bridge the first sign that something was wrong came on Wednesday night.

Water from Toddbrook Reservoir, which sits above the Peak District village, had topped the overflow wall after two days of heavy storms and was gushing into the River Goyt below.

“Loads of us went up to have a look,” Anja Humpert told The Independent on Thursday evening. “The rain had stopped and no one thought there would really be a problem because the water was all just going into the river. It just felt like a spectacle to see.”

A little over 12 hours later, the village of 6,500 people had been largely evacuated. The force of that water had caused a section of the 19th-century reservoir’s supporting spillway wall to collapse.

Derbyshire Police, fearing the entire structure would go – releasing 280 million gallons of water down onto the village – ordered everyone onto higher ground around 2pm on Thursday. They told residents to get pets and enough medicine for three days and leave everything else.

“We were given about five minutes to get our stuff and get out,” said Peter Willis at a makeshift evacuation centre, set up at Chapel High School in the neighbouring village of Chapel-en-le-Frith. “I had about enough time to get my false teeth and toothbrush, and that was it. But what can you do? If there’s a risk to life, better they get us out than to do nothing and hope the wall holds.”

The 72-year-old retired publican glanced round the room. “Here, we’re safe, we’re warm, we have coffee,” he added. “It’s not ideal but it could be worse.”

It was the kind of rueful spirit that was much in evidence as some 150 residents – those with nowhere else to go – turned up at the school.

They sat around, worried but in relative good humour, keeping one eye on the TV – “that’s my house!” – and one eye on windows, and the gathering clouds outside.

A rumour swirled around that engineers working to secure the reservoir by pumping water out had said if the weather held, so would the wall. But if it didn’t? There may not be homes to go back to in the morning. The village could be washed away.

“I’m trying not to think about that,” said Mr Woolis looking out as heavy rain started again. “Let’s have faith. Until I hear there are fish swimming through my house, I’m working on the assumption that this is all a precaution.”

Ms Humpert, a software developer, was also keeping her fingers crossed.

“We live in a Victorian house,” the software engineer said of the home she and her partner bought just last year. “Ironically, we always worried about the roof leaking. We never even considered the reservoir might come at us through the walls.”

Do you have flood insurance a neighbour at the same table asked. “I don’t know,” came the reply. “The paperwork would probably get washed away anyway.”

Paul Nash, 37, and Jennifer Williams, 43, had not seen the reservoir topping its walls but their garden backs onto the River Goyt.

“The waterline is normally about 20 foot below the wall,” he said. “But when we looked out at it on Wednesday night, it was about three foot below. It was scary. We have a neighbour who’s lived here all his life and he was saying he’d never seen it like that before.”

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They went to work on Thursday morning – the pair are self-employed painters and decorators – but heard about the evacuation on radio in the early afternoon.

“We went home to get some stuff but our street was blocked by police,” he said. “They said I could walk to the house to grab some essentials, but we weren’t allowed to take the car. We have no idea what’s happening now. You just think of everything that’s in your home – all the things you treasure in there – and they could all just disappear. It’s heart-breaking.”

As a camp table of food was set up by the local parish council – biscuits, fruit, urns of tea – many of the temporary refugees started to filter out, most having arranged places to stay for the night.

But Sharon Burns and 13-year-old daughter Freya – as well as dog Rufus – stayed longer than most, waiting for the rest of the family, dad Rob and son Fin.

“It’s a nightmare,” she Ms Burns, who works at a village nutritional company. “We have no idea where we’re going to spend tonight. We have friends but can they accommodate four of us. I won’t get any sleep anyway. I’ll be worrying all night about our home. We only had it decorated last year. You can’t believe that in the space of a day everything you ever worked for can suddenly be all put at risk.”

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