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Flood victims in an Offaly village feel forgotten and 'never really considered in the first place'

Paddy Towey hasn’t lived in his house since the last major flood in 2015. He wants the government to come and talk with him.

Image: Gráinne Ní Aodha/TheJournal.ie

AT SHANNON HARBOUR, a small Offaly village located along the Grand Canal just before it joins the River Shannon, two local farmers huddle outside a jeep, both wearing wellies, waterproof trousers and raincoats.

Paddy Towey hasn’t lived in his house for four years, since the Shannon overflowed and flooded his home in December 2015. He’s living in rented accommodation paid for by the State, which he says has cost over €30,000.  

“They disconnected the yard, and I’ve been four years working there with no lights,” Paddy says.

Tom, Paddy’s neighbour, isn’t as close to the flooded area as Paddy, and so after briefly moving out in 2015, he’s back living in his home. But he’s expecting the water to rise in the next two days – he’s bought sandbags for the front door, and plans to prop all the furniture inside onto pallets. 

“It rose four inches on Saturday, two on Sunday and four again today,” he says, adding that the weather is meant to get worse over the course of this week, with sleet and snow expected tomorrow. The back of his house is already completely flooded.

Speaking to TheJournal.ie and the Midland Tribune yesterday, the pair explain that the flooding hasn’t been this bad since 2015 – but every year there’s a fear that it will be. They knew it would get this bad again eventually.

“We’re worse off today than when we were in 2016,” Paddy says, referencing working in his yard without electricity.

20200224_130732 The Grand Canal in Offaly, outside Paddy Towey's house. Source: Gráinne Ní Aodha

TheJournal.ie visited Shannon Harbour, a 15-minute drive from Birr, and the surrounding area yesterday afternoon as concerns about the worsening flood risk increased over the weekend. A number of local roads were marked as closed because of flooding, with some major roads and farmlands flooded due to bad weather. 

Areas along the Shannon basin area – stretching from Carrick-on-Shannon, Athlone, west Galway, south Clare, all the way along to Limerick – have been affected by major flooding threats this weekend.

In 2009, thousands of acres of farmland were flooded and families living in affected areas were forced to leave their homes because of the threat of increasing river levels. These areas were hit again in 2015; with the threat of being struck by another major flood looming over families and farmers every year. 

When asked how they feel about facing major floods again, Tom simply says “forgotten”.

“Ten years. Three floodings. The question we’re asking is: will they get it right sometime?”

After a few minutes, Ruth and her father splash through a giant pool of water to join the rest. They live down the road directly across from Paddy and Tom’s homes.

“I wouldn’t say we were forgotten because we were never even considered in the first place, that’s my honest answer,” Ruth says.

I went €40,000 over my budget for work on the house and it’s still not completely flood-proof. If it keeps going the way it’s going I mightn’t be safe.

 When asked why they think the government hasn’t done anything to help them, Paddy says “There’s only three of us in it.”

Offaly councillor John Leahy has been raising the case of these three locals. He says that Tom was “living out of a suitcase” between two hotels the last time it flooded badly, in 2015, and had to move into his flood-risk home. Ruth had “taken matters into her own hands” and carried out works on her own home herself. 

“I had insurance in 2015 lucky enough, but I couldn’t actually claim anything from the State, because I had insurance.

I had basically hired somebody to move all my furniture out of the house to put it somewhere dry. I did everything I could to save it and I mean I claimed off my insurance but there was very little to claim, because I had protected it myself.

In a café-pub outside Cloghan, locals talk about flooding in houses around the area. “There must be three foot of water in the back garden,” one man says. “They’re completely surrounded by water,” another says. “If this was any other country in the world…”

Local Social Democrats councillor Clare Claffey says that residents in Portovolla estate have also had flooding problems; yesterday, they raised concerns about sewage rising up because of the flooding.

Claffey believes that the main problem is that too many separate groups have responsibility for the Shannon (the Office of Public Works, the ESB, Waterways Ireland); instead it should be one authority to assess whether it needs to be dredged, to control the water levels, and to assess whether compensation for flooding is needed.

She says that although it may seem like a small group that are affected in Offaly, flooding affects those that live along the Shannon “all the way up, and down to Limerick”. 

“There are a lot more people nationally [who are affected by flooding]. We know it will keep happening, there’s nothing we can do to stop it from flooding, but we need to be putting a plan in place to before it happens.” 

She says that flooding this bad used to happen “once in 100 years”.

So why the change? “Climate change,” she says. 

Farming

Farmers have been warning about the deteriorating situation for days before the situation reached a peak this weekend – they can tell how bad the floods will be based on how saturated their land is. 

On the roads to Banagher, Cloghan, and Shannon Harbour, huge pools of water have gathered in a significant number of fields, turning some into what look like small lakes.

The president of the Irish Farmers’ Association Tim Cullinan said in a statement that doing something to help farmers now, after the fields have flooded, had an element of trying “to close the stable door after the horse had bolted”.

“We need an immediate assessment of damage to determine losses and a financial aid package. The fact that insufficient action has been taken to manage the River Shannon is a contributory factor in the current flooding crisis.

“I met farmers in Longford in the last week and they raised the problem of the levels in the River Shannon. With better monitoring, we could avoid some of the problems we have now,” he said.

Claffey suggests that compensating farmers for keeping these pools of water on their land and letting it sink into the ground slowly should be considered.

Solutions

Leahy says that he remembers that Simon Coveney, who was housing minister in 2015, with responsibility for flood defences, promised that no one would be left behind.

A maximum of €200,000 had been offered to all three Shannon Harbour residents to relocate, but Paddy and Tom were farmers, and Ruth and her father are locals, so “how could you relocate them?”

“Paddy can’t relocate and bring your stock up the road.” 

The locals asked engineering consultants to look at the three houses, and decided that if the floors were raised that this would stop the floodwater getting inside at a cost of €150,000-€200,000 in total.

But they haven’t heard anything back from the government on this suggestion.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar visited areas affected by the flooding yesterday, travelling first to Athlone and then to Carrick-on-Shannon.

Speaking in Athlone, Varadkar defended the government’s flood defence plans that were put in place after major floods in 2009 and 2015.

“There is a lot of investment going into flood relief works, about 100 different projects are now underway across the country which will protect a lot of people from floods in the future,” he said, adding that “what we are doing here is emergency management”.

Minister of State for the Office of Public Works Kevin ‘Boxer’ Moran says that the flooding has been a “tough challenge” for local people, but says that he hoped the defence plan would work again:

We are seeing rising flood levels and from talking to people up and down this area, while they are concerned, they are not alarming… The plans put in place by local authorities have worked in the past and we hope they will work again.

Leahy and the three locals at Shannon Harbour ask why Varadkar went to Shannonbridge, as there is a flood-defence wall there, whereas there are no defences at Shannon Harbour.

When asked what’s been done since 2015 to protect against future floods, Paddy says “nothing”. At the moment, they’re trying to source a water pump to alleviate the problem before it gets worse.

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