Concerns over UK flood defenses after record rainfall

Kitty Logan in Chesterfield

Storm Babet was forecast well in advance, but residents and business owners in the town of Chesterfield were surprised by its ferocity. No-one expected two relatively small rivers to burst their banks, sending muddy floodwater suddenly surging along the busy Chatsworth Road, turning it into a river. 

Anne-Marie White, whose high-end clothing store, Blanc, is on the Chatsworth Road, says muddy floodwater seeped into her showroom within 20 minutes, leaving little time to salvage stock. Shaken, she sifts through bin bags filled with soiled hats, shoes, and clothing. 

"These fascinators, these would have been on display, they just were literally floating in the water," she says to CGTN Europe. "Leather boots, just absolutely still wet through – saturated." The shop, still damp, is now temporarily closed.


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The floodwater quickly spilled onto side streets, sweeping away personal possessions and ruining hundreds of homes in its path. Emergency services hastily evacuated where they could, but sadly, an elderly woman was discovered drowned in her home. 

Now, many are displaced. Paul Hollingworth, the Senior Pastor at the nearby Lifehouse Church, helped host a hub to support his devastated community with tea, coffee, food and cleaning products. The church has launched the Chesterfield Flood Victims appeal, raising funds for those affected. But divided up among hundreds of affected homes and businesses, the donations are only a small comfort. 

"It's definitely a three-to-six-month project for some people," says Paul Hollingworth. "And when you consider Christmas is on its way, the winter is on its way, it's a difficult time of year at the best of times. It is a real challenge for some of these people going forward.”

Anne-Marie White cleaning up her high-end clothing store Blanc after devastating floods. /CGTN
Anne-Marie White cleaning up her high-end clothing store Blanc after devastating floods. /CGTN

Anne-Marie White cleaning up her high-end clothing store Blanc after devastating floods. /CGTN

‌The UK Environment Agency says it protected many properties during Storm Babet with water pumps and sandbags, as well using a warning system to alert around 300,000 people of impending flooding. But residents in Chesterfield say those warnings came too late. 

"Those notifications didn't come until apparently some minutes after the walls had been breached with water, so there wasn't much preparation in time, there was no plan in place. For us a local organization, I think even the local authorities, people were just making it up, minute by minute, hour by hour, really," says Hollingworth.

‌At the end of one residential road, a section of wall protecting properties from the river lies in ruins, broken by the power of the water. Meteorologists are warning we need to be better prepared for even stronger storms to come. 

"With climate change we're going to see worse flooding. So, if we're not prepared now, we're certainly not prepared for the future," says Professor Hannah Cloke, Professor of Hydrology, University of Reading. "We really have to think quite differently about how we prepare for floods. Just installing flood defences is not going to be adequate. 

"We will see more serious floods in future that will overtop existing defences. We need to change the way we're living with flooding, make more space for floodwater where we can. We may have to think of really serious solutions, like moving people out of the way of danger.”

The post-flooding clear-up will take months. /CGTN
The post-flooding clear-up will take months. /CGTN

The post-flooding clear-up will take months. /CGTN

The nearby town of Matlock has always been prone to flooding, with water draining from nearby hills towards shops and homes. But during Storm Babet, the raging river was successfully contained by a new flood defense, recently completed at a cost of £10 million ($12 million USD). But while the new structure proved effective in protecting the town, the huge level of investment cannot be replicated everywhere. 

"As members of the public, as scientists, as governments, we all have to come together, because this is a bigger problem," says Professor Cloke. "We cannot build flood defenses everywhere, we cannot keep everybody safe from flooding all of the time. So, we have to make alternative arrangements.”

‌Extreme flooding can put food security at risk too. On farmland in the neighbouring country of Lincolnshire, next year's crop is rotting in rain-soaked fields, barely visibly under the layers of mud. British farmers, frustrated by losses, are calling for stronger measures to protect food production from flooding. The government says it is putting more flood barriers in place, in addition to existing structure, but many feel it is not enough. 

"We're not really prepared anywhere in Europe," says Cloke. "There's been very serious flooding in various parts and people lose their lives from this. So, it's a wider issue and of course it's an issue around the world as well.”

‌The community in Chesterfield has started to clean up and rebuild. Some shops have improvised a reopening, while they await repairs. But the recovery is long, costly process, overshadowed by uncertainty. "I think it's sent a real shockwave through the community. It's just left this feeling of whenever it rains, is this going to happen again," says Hollingworth. "It's a horrible feeling for people to live with, especially as they're trying to rebuild their lives back up.”

Concerns over UK flood defenses after record rainfall

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