‘It could take years to recover’: Residents in Fishlake fear the worst after unprecedented flooding

Colin Drury

When the flood water first seeped into Pam Webb’s home, it did not, as might be expected, pour in through the door.

“There was a gurgling sound from the living room,” the 49-year-old says. “Then water started bubbling up from under the floor. It was leaking in at the skirting boards. It hadn’t even got to the front door outside yet.”

In such a situation – at 1am, with the lights and electricity already down – her mind momentarily went blank.

“I threw a towel down,” she grimaces today. “A towel! What good did I think that would do? It was up to my knees within half an hour. There were rescue boats outside!”

Thus, thick and fast, come tales from the flooding of Fishlake – the South Yorkshire village which was submerged after the River Don burst its banks last Friday and which remains much underwater today.

One man here is said to have lost £50,000 worth of antiques from his home. Another was about to leave hospital with wife and newborn baby when he got a call telling him his house was no longer habitable. In perhaps one of the grimmest scenes, a coffin briefly floated down the high street after the village undertaker was flooded.

There may be more such stories yet to come, too: with more heavy rain forecast for the weekend, the village, near Doncaster, remains a high flood risk even now.

“It’s devastating,” says Ms Webb, who runs a spa business from her home in Trundle Lane but is now staying with friends. “It could take years to recover from this. The spirit of this village is unbelievable and we will bounce back but ... Just look around.”

It is, indeed, a difficult sight to behold.

More than 800 properties across parts of England have been affected by flooding so far, with the Met Office warning of more rain on the way.

The Environment Agency said further wet weather over the next 48 hours could bring “severe” flooding to areas already affected by rising waters.

Almost 130 warnings were in place on Thursday evening across England, as well as 170 flood alerts.

The Met Office warned there could be a danger to life in parts of the East Midlands and Yorkshire as more rain is forecast to fall on the already flooded region on Thursday.

The Environment Agency said since flooding began last Thursday, around 14,400 properties had been protected by flood defences, including 5,000 in South Yorkshire.

Around 38 pumps are on site in South Yorkshire to remove 50 million litres of water per hour to protect homes and businesses.

Pumps set up around Fishlake have removed 1.25 million tonnes of water in the past 24 hours, reducing water levels from two metres to 30 centimetres, the agency said.

Many homes in the village remain at least partially submerged. Those where the water has started to subside have been left with a layer of filth covering every surface and a foul stench permeating the air. Streets are littered with debris. To add to the general sense of calamity, soldiers in khaki are everywhere – 200 of them were bussed in on Thursday – carrying sandbags and directing traffic.

“People cannot believe this is happening in our little village,” says resident Rob Awsworth, a retired lecturer whose small holding was flooded. “It’s the best place in the world to live. Or it was, until Friday.”

Flooding has not been exclusive to Fishlake, of course. Other swathes of South Yorkshire – including Sheffield and Doncaster – have seen submersions too. So too have Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire, where one woman, Annie Hall, was swept to her death as the River Derwent swelled up near Matlock.

But it is here that has perhaps been hit hardest of all.

Of 700 households in the village some 350 are estimated to have been evacuated. One 93-year-old woman had to be rescued by dinghy. She and others have been told it could be weeks before they can return. Such was the extent of the deluge that, six days after the Don initially topped its banks, the Environment Agency is still pumping a tonne of water out of the village every second.

Indeed, when Boris Johnson arrived here on Wednesday, he was apparently so struck by the hardships being encountered, he promised no villager would be left out of pocket by the incident. Whether that is a promise he keeps, of course, remains to be seen.

Pam Webb (The Independent)

“I’ve lived here 32 years and never known anything like this,” says Claire Holling, who runs the Old Butchers café, in Main Street, where off duty soldiers, along with firefighters and other volunteers, sit eating energy foods and drinking coffee.

Ms Holling’s home, too, was flooded. She watched the water on Friday night coming up the road.

“It was like something in a nightmare,” the 52-year-old mother-of-three says. “It’s coming for you and you’re helpless. We put the curtains up and moved pictures, tried to get the furniture as high as possible – but there’s nothing you can do to stop the water itself. It’s out of your control.”

She and her 13-year-old daughter decided not to immediately evacuate but wait the night upstairs. “We didn't get much sleep,” she says ruefully. “It sounds silly because what can you do anyway? But we wanted to be there.”

The 11th-century village church and the Hare and Hounds pub over the road have now become the focal point for much of the community.

In the church, St Cuthbert, the pews are filled – absolutely filled – with tinned foods, cleaning products, bottled water, teas, coffee, chocolate, toilet rolls, bedding, pillows, towels and all manner of other groceries donated to help those suddenly in need. There is – I kid you not – a fresh fruit and veg stand.

“Someone’s just donated a bag of potatoes,” says church secretary Ruth Pridham a little doubtfully. “Which is very kind, of course, although...”

She trails off, perhaps too kind to point out that a spud is not the easiest of foods to be creative with when one has no power.

Either way: “There’s such resilience being shown and such togetherness,” the 67-year-old adds. “Events like this do effect communities. It will play on the mind for years to come. It will always be there. But they also show the strength of people coming together.”

Nor is it just locals donating food and goods. One couple drove over from Calderdale in West Yorkshire with a car full of stuff. “They had been in floods themselves some years ago and wanted to show support,” says Ms Pridham, whose own home in Wood Lane narrowly escaped disaster when the waters paused at the garden gate. “It’s important. It shows people they are cared about. It gives hope.”

(Getty Images)

If the weekend can be gotten over with no more damage, she adds, eyes here will now turn to the future and, specifically, to future prevention.

There is a suggestion that flood defences built in Sheffield following the city’s 2007 floods may have caused more water to be funnelled down river resulting in the overtopping here.

But either way residents want to see lessons learned.

There remains some anger at the Environment Agency for not seeing this coming and at Doncaster Council for perceptions of an initially slow response in providing sandbags. But perhaps not as much anger as has been reported.

There is, more predominantly it feels, some recognition that even the experts were surprised by what unfolded.

Ruth Pridham (The Independent)

“The weather was unprecedented and the emerging water patterns were unpredictable,” says Phil Holmes, Doncaster Council’s director of adult health and wellbeing. “But across the town we evacuated 800 households and we got them all into good quality accommodation almost immediately. That was a success.”

The authority, he adds, is now mobilising a special payment – £500 for every resident effected – to keep them going during any initial financial hardship.

Pam Webb, now herself sat in the Old Butchers, appears to at least partially accept this.

“What needs to happen now is lessons must be learnt,” she says. “A lot of people feel this was avoidable and we were sacrificed to save Sheffield. We need to find out the facts and then we need to make sure measures are put in place to ensure this never happens again.”

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