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Friday 1 December 2023 Dublin: -2°C
Sasko Lazarov An overall view of the River Shannon flowing into Athlone Town.

Drafting in the army to tackle the flood waters shows lessons have been learned from past disasters

The weather conditions are predicted to persist in the coming days, but we are a lot better off than we were back in 2009 and 2010.

IN THE MAJOR flooding and freezing snow conditions of 2009 and 2010, the government dithered and failed to react in time.

The Green Party’s Minister for the Environment, John Gormley announced that he was not ‘the Minister for snow’.  In short, the then Taoiseach, Brian Cowen along with his advisors and spokespersons failed to declare the floods and freezing conditions an ‘Emergency’ situation.

This lack of emergency preparedness led to a great deal more suffering among ordinary citizens than was necessary.

Major emergencies 

This was ironic given that the previous year, the government had issued a booklet, ‘Preparing for Major Emergencies’ to every household in the Republic.

The booklet contained a definition in the introduction of ‘What is a major emergency?’  It simply states:

A major emergency is an event which… causes or threatens serious injury or death, or serious disruption of essential services.  It may also cause damage to property, the environment or infrastructure beyond the normal capabilities of the principal emergency services.

10/12/2015. Emergency Coordination Centre. Picture Sam Boal Sam Boal

The prime example of an emergency given in the government’s own handbook was ‘flooding’.  The government departments with responsibility for declaring an emergency and then leading and coordinating the response is identified in government policy as the Department of the Taoiseach along with  Environment, Health, Justice and Defence.

It turns out that the Minister for the Environment is indeed the Minister for snow – and flooding and high winds and all other severe weather events.

Lessons learned from previous failures 

Five years later, the current government appear to have acted on some of the lessons learned from our previous experience of flooding and severe weather.

To begin with, the National Emergency Coordination Group – chaired by Sean Hogan – has been convened early to deal with the crisis. Meeting daily at the National Emergency Coordination Centre (NECC) in Kildare Street, Dublin, the current emergency response has been managed and directed very effectively.

All of the major stakeholders are involved in face to face daily meetings. As chairman, Sean Hogan has brought together senior leaders from Local Authorities, the Office of Public Works, the HSE, an Garda Siochana and the Defence Forces to coordinate and manage a coherent response. This has led to a rare case in Ireland of joined up thinking at local and national level.

10/12/2015 Ballinasloe Floods. The town of Ballina Eamonn Farrell / Photocall Ireland The town of Ballinasloe in County Galway Eamonn Farrell / Photocall Ireland / Photocall Ireland

Thanks to the government’s proactive response, the right assets have been mobilised at the right time to meet the crisis. By declaring the crisis an ‘Aid to the Civil Authority’ or ACA Operation, the assets and human capital of the Defence Forces have been placed at the disposal of local authorities across the state by Minister Simon Coveney in order to assist in flood prevention and flood relief measures where needed.

Troops from Finner Camp in Donegal, Custume Barracks, Athlone and soldiers from Galway, Limerick and Cork have been mobilised all along the length of the River Shannon to assist the local authorities in the fight against rising floodwaters.

The challenges have been severe. Water normally flows through the Parteen Weir on the Shannon at 40,000 liters per second. After Storm Desmond and recent prolonged rainfall, that volume has increased almost ten-fold to 375,000 liters per second.

In this context, while it is impossible to prevent flooding, the local authorities and army have been able to engage in a major damage limitation operation. The Defence Forces have used hundreds of high axle Scania 6×6 and Daf 4×4 all terrain trucks to move people and assets into and out of flooded areas. Across the Western and Southern Brigade areas, standby platoons of men and women are on 24 hour duty, distributing and filling sandbags.

Many of these soldiers, just back from duty in Syria, are members of the communities worst affected by the deluge.

9/12/2015. Flooding Athlone. A Red Cross team arri Eamonn Farrell A Red Cross team arrives at the Park Estate, under threat from a flooding River Shannon in Athlone Town. Eamonn Farrell

Flood waters

The Air Corps are providing constant overhead cover for emergency ambulance missions and also air reconnaissance for the Office of Public Works in order to identify those areas most acutely in need of engineering and other support to pump and divert flood water from vulnerable homes and businesses.

Tragically, there has already been some loss of life associated with the current crisis.

There may be more as the weather conditions are predicted to persist in the coming days. Sean Hogan’s emergency planning office highlights the dangers posed by even moderate flooding – pointing out that even 6 inches, or 500mm of flood water can knock an adult off their feet. The elderly and children are particularly vulnerable in the current conditions.

As the country braces itself for more severe weather in the coming days, many will be – rightly – appreciative of the prompt response of Ministers Alan Kelly and Simon Coveney to the crisis.

In the aftermath, however, the focus will shift to prevention and questions will be asked about the chronic lack of investment in flood defence infrastructure and engineering projects on Enda Kenny’s watch.

Hopefully, knowing that history will repeat itself – perhaps this lesson too will have been learned.

Dr Tom Clonan is a former Captain in the Irish armed forces. He is a security analyst and academic, lecturing in the School of Media in DIT. He is also an Independent candidate for Senate-TCD Panel. You can follow him on Twitter here

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