Spring 2012 began with Britain in drought, warnings of desperately low water tables and hosepipe bans in force across the country...and then the heavens opened.
With Christmas looming, hundreds of thousands of homeowners and businesses are still counting the multi-million pound cost of a year of record-breaking rainfall and severe flooding.
Heather Shepherd is a Community and Recovery Support Specialist for the National Flood Forum, a charity supporting and representing flood risk communities. Here she tells how she witnessed April, traditionally a month of showers, dramatically turn a drought into a very different disaster...
I began working for the National Flood Forum after it gave invaluable support and advice to my family when we were flooded out several times at our home in Shropshire, once having to spend more than a year in a cramped caravan in the garden.
I know how traumatic it can be when your warm place and private space is suddenly taken away from you and how enormous the stress can be and how vulnerable you feel in a recovery process that can stretch out for 18 months or longer. Your head is full of cotton wool. You can’t retain any information. It’s something you never get over.
April was the beginning of a terrible year for floods. I carry out home visits and saw many heartbreaking sights in devastated areas from West Sussex to Yorkshire – so many wrecked homes. Someone living in a car, someone still sleeping on a flooded mattress with nowhere else to go – both in a state of tremendous shock.
The fact that there was a drought with hosepipe bans in force around the country made it all seem illogical. I remember seeing a water company van driving around in a flood area with a 'Save Water – We’re In A Drought' warning on it. Sometimes in all the trauma you have to smile.
But the drought did ironically contribute to the flooding at times – especially flash flooding in areas like Lancashire and West Yorkshire where the ground was so dry and impacted that it couldn’t soak up the water.
Then there are rivers bursting banks and water coming up from the drains. This record wet summer has been a nightmare for so many people in flood risk areas as we saw almost constantly on the television.
But the National Flood Forum is there for the victims when they are forgotten long after the cameras have gone and the sun is shining, offering them emotional support and helping them pick up the pieces of their lives. Giving them advice on how to protect their homes, where to get financial help and how to be prepared for any further flooding in their lives.
We also help them with insurance claim issues and we are working with the insurance industry and the Government to ensure there is going to be affordable and accessible flood cover for people in risk areas. People are accepting policies now without flood cover and that really concerns us.
What happened in April and the months that followed has only served to strengthen my resolve to help people who have been through what I went through.
I only have to remember spending Christmas with the children in a caravan outside our wrecked home and also celebrating my son’s 18th birthday in there. I remember the heartbreak of visiting a couple in their 80s flooded to the second floor which had toadstools and grass growing out of the carpet and curtains.
The National Flood Forum was a light in the darkness and devastation of my family’s life when it happened to us. It is only a tiny charity fighting to survive, the only one dedicated to flooding alone. But we are there for people, many of whom still won’t be in their homes this Christmas.
I look at my work as my vocation now. I still live in my own flooded home and, yes, we worry in my rural community every time the rain comes. But my experience helps me bring some logic to other victims’ lives. I feel very honoured to be doing this work."
Heather Shepherd was talking to Mickey Burke. Flood victims can contact the National Flood Forum on 01299 403055 or visit www.floodforum.co.uk