WHEN Storm Barra struck the south-west coast with ferocious force a month sago today, one West Cork town in particular was bracing itself for an anxious night.
The region is no stranger to flooding, with Bandon, Skibbereen and Clonakilty all experiencing damaging floods in recent years.
For those towns, however, the worst of the flooding now seems to be under control since they have all seen major flood prevention schemes completed in recent years.
Not so for Bantry, where significant flood defences are planned, but work is yet to begin.
Nestled in the natural bowl of Bantry Bay, the town faces the full force of south-westerly Atlantic storms when they reach the Irish coast, and Storm Barra was no exception.
With winds hitting 156kmh at the Fastnet Rock and 113kmh at Sherkin Island, Bantry was the first major town to face Barra’s onslaught.
As fishing boats limped into the nearest available harbours to find some shelter, there was no way for the town to avoid a direct hit as winds roared straight up the bay.
Across West Cork, power lines came down, trees blocked roads and huge waves crashed into the shore. In Bantry, council workers and fire service personnel were on duty, sand bagging and manning pumps to try to avoid the worst, but they couldn’t stop the one metre storm surge that breached the sea wall and rushed through the town’s central culvert.
Undaunted, the defenders fought on as business owners salvaged what they could.
In the end, this storm flooded 23 properties, but it could have been a lot worse if it wasn’t for the efforts of the council and fire crews.
When the storm had passed, grateful businesses provided hot drinks and free meals for those who had fought on through the night, but with the dawn also came the grim reality that Bantry had flooded yet again.
A few miles away Skibbereen, Clonakilty and Bandon all escaped the worst, their flood defences doing their job, but in Bantry the call for something to be done is growing louder.
“This time, 23 businesses were flooded and it’s a nightmare for them every time it happens,” says local councillor Danny Collins, owner of the Boston Bar in the town.
“ I can remember Bantry flooding in the 1980s; it’s a problem that has never been properly addressed and now it’s getting worse
“The last few floods, the remedial measures put in by the council have definitely helped, but even with all the hard work of council staff and the fire service, it’s just not possible to prevent flooding completely.
“That’s why we really need a proper flood relief scheme in place as soon as possible.”
If you talk to anyone in Bantry about the flooding, they will tell you about August, 2020. That was the big one, when it really hit home just how serious the situation is becoming.
Over the course of the 24th and 25th of that month, a combination of high tides and very heavy rain saw the main storm culvert completely overwhelmed, sending water back up through drains and junctions and causing serious flooding, with 50 properties affected.
Danielle Delaney, chair of the Bantry Business Association and manager of the Brick Oven restaurant that faces the central square, remembers it well. “I’ve never seen anything like we had in August that year and the situation seems to be getting worse,” she said.
“It’s happening more and more often and it’s getting more severe as well.”
At government level, there does seem to be an awareness of just how urgent the situation in Bantry is becoming, and following Storm Barra, Minister of State for the OPW, Patrick O’Donovan, made his second visit to the town in the past 18 months.
He said that €140,000 had been approved to progress interim flood prevention works, pending works on the culvert and the main Bantry Flood Relief Scheme.
He added: “The OPW is working closely with Cork County Council, providing technical advice and funding to progress the design and construction of the Bantry Flood Relief Scheme to protect some 198 properties.
“The scheme will include both river and tidal defences.
“I believe engineering and environmental consultants are expected to be appointed in the coming weeks so that the scheme design can commence in consultation with statutory and non-statutory bodies as well as the public.”
Emergency funding has also been made available for affected businesses, none of whom can now get insurance following the repeated floods.
Under the scheme, up to €5,000 is available for small businesses to make good any damage incurred, and in the event of significant damages businesses can apply for support, following an assessment by the Irish Red Cross capped at €20,000.
The progress is welcomed locally, but the sense of urgency is palpable when you speak to those on the front line.
“When the Minister was here, we asked him to tell us when we would see shovels in the ground on this project and we couldn’t get an answer,” said Cllr Collins.
“It will be with the consultants this month and if everything goes to plan and there are no objections, I think we are looking at 2026 or 2027 at the earliest before we will see work start on this scheme.
Danielle Delaney added: “I think people are resigned to the fact that this is going to keep happening and it’s going to happen more and more. We are as prepared as we can be at this stage, but that doesn’t make it any easier.
“Nobody can get insurance and the stress and worry this causes is very real.
“I think people have just accepted that Bantry is going to flood and it won’t stop until we get the flood relief scheme in place.”