A decade on from the flood, and we are still left high and dry awaiting a defence system

The 2009 Cork floods were included in the 2010 annual world disasters report of the International Committee of the Red Cross, alongside such global horrors as the Haiti earthquake, crop failures in Asia, and famine in parts of Africa. But, despite various plans and reports, pledges and initiatives, here we are, with the same flood ‘defences’ as we had a decade ago, so says John Dolan
A decade on from the flood, and we are still left high and dry awaiting a defence system
Flooding on Washington Street and Little Hanover Street, Cork, November 2009. Picture Denis Minihane.

TEN years ago this week, I ambled across the road from my house in mid-Cork during a break in the seemingly endless cascades of rain we had been been having in November, 2009.

We live opposite a flooded plain between Carrigadrohid and Inniscarra dams. The River Lee zigzags through its fields in the distance, as it has done since time immemorial, but the plains opposite our home used to be a farmer’s fields.

Since they were flooded as part of the dam work in the 1950s, their water level has gone up and down depending on the seasons. In the drought last year, the plains became a dust bowl, but normally they hold a fair-sized lake, popular among fishermen (yes, men, I’ve never once seen a woman fishing across from our house!).

That evening, Thursday, November 19, 2009, the lake was at its highest level I had ever seen.

We had been on the receiving end of apocalyptic rain for weeks, and I had heard that the ESB were about to open Inniscarra dam at midnight, or it would burst.

As I stood on the edge of that road that night, I shuddered. The water was like a dark, malevolent and powerful force, with a life of its own. When the wind gusted across the body of water, it lapped over its boundaries and onto my feet on the road.

I was mighty glad that the dam opening was going to reduce this vast mass of built-up water. What I didn’t realise until the next day was the devastation this water was about to wreak on Cork city...

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You may have seen some scary images depicting Cork city in 30 years’ time, which featured in an RTE programme on climate change, entitled Will Ireland Survive 2050? last week.

Well, for anyone who was in Cork city 10 years ago this week, those photos provided more a sense of deja vu than of a future apocalypse.

In November, 2009, precipitated by the opening of the dam at Inniscarra, combined with heavy rainfall and a high tide, Cork city suffered the worst flooding in its history.

Large chunks of it simply blended into the River Lee. Grand Parade was under two feet of water. For the first time in centuries, when the city’s side streets were actual waterways, people had to use boats to get around.

A flood wall near the Mercy Hospital was swept away, trees were upended and cars brought to a standstill.

An estimated 535 cubic metres of water were discharged from the dam at Inniscarra every second — to put that into perspective, a typical household uses .78 cubic metres per day — and the city simply couldn’t cope.

Mercifully, nobody died, but the damage to homes and business was put at €90-100 million.

At the time, Ireland was in the grip of the economic crash, and although Taoiseach Brian Cowen and his ministers visited Cork — and other areas nationwide which had been hit by flooding — they could offer little but platitudes.

Green Party Minister for the Environment, John Gormley, said during a visit to Cork that the Government would look “sympathetically” at the cost of the repair of damaged infrastructure, with not a word about an actual defence system being installed.

If such a response in straitened times was understandable enough, we in Cork have a right to wonder why, a full decade on from that disaster, and with warnings of future floods ringing yet more alarm bells, we are still as wide open to such episodes as we were that night when I walked from my house and saw a huge mass of water waiting to submerge our city.

So bad were the events of that night, that the Cork floods were included in the 2010 annual world disasters report of the International Committee of the Red Cross, alongside such global horrors as the Haiti earthquake, crop failures in Asia, and famine in parts of Africa,

But, despite various plans and reports, pledges and initiatives, here we are, with the same flood ‘defences’ as we had a decade ago.

Even in 2009, politicians could hardly be excused from blame for flooding incidents.

Five years earlier, in 2004, the Flood Policy Review Group poured scorn on what was described as the Government’s snail-like pace of progress on the issue, and the paltry €20 million it had spent on flood relief works. A figure of €300 million was closer to the mark, the report said.

Since 2009, the snail’s pace has continued.

It would be six years before a High Court judge ruled that the ESB was 60% responsible for the flooding in November, 2009, after an action brought by UCC, which suffered badly in the flooding.

Fast forward to 2019, and where are we?

The Lower Lee flood defence designs, which will cost an estimated €140 million, are still being discussed, and are a long way from being implemented.

And this has been during the so-called good times for the economy generally. If there is a dip in the years ahead, where will a flood defence for Cork be on our politicians’ list of priorities?

The delay in implementing what would be the most expensive flood defence system in the country’s history is partly down to various wrangles and disputes.

There have been objections, studies, plan revisions, delays, court actions, even a European Court ruling on the risks to protected habitats.

But you can bet your bottom dollar the eternal reluctance in Dublin to deliver funds for anything to do with Cork has also played a part.

In the latest twist to the flood defence saga, in June this year, the €140 million flood plan by the Office of Public Works (OPW) was condemned by a Cork expert.

Professor Anthony Beese said it was an “experiment which is likely to fail”, and feared parts of the scheme could actually increase flood risks, cause structural damage in the city centre, and adversely affect groundwater quality in the region. The OPW rejected the claims.

Meanwhile, the group Save Cork City is campaigning for a tidal barrier defence, arguing it would protect more of the city at a lower cost than the OPW’s scheme, which it has dismissed as the largest planned destruction of heritage in Ireland’s history.

However, the OPW says such a tidal barrier would cost more than €1 billion... the implication being that Cork simply isn’t worth it.

In other news this week, plans for a €500 million waste water treatment plant in north Dublin were given the go ahead by An Bord Pleanála.

How nice it must be, to feel like you’re worth it...

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