It was at 4pm on Thursday 19 November that Chief Constable Craig Mackey chaired the first full multi-agency strategic co-ordination group ‘gold’ meeting at police HQ in Penrith – the nerve centre of the emergency response.
Gathered round the table were representatives of all the local responding agencies. They listened solemnly to accounts of how the heavy rains in recent weeks had raised water levels and left the countryside saturated. Weather forecasters and the Environment Agency were pessimistic. The watching brief adopted over the preceding days was over. The county was now on high alert.
Many of the faces gathered around the table were familiar to each other. Exercises to test Cumbria’s ability to respond to emergencies are regular occurrences – and many of those present had gathered just weeks before in a realistic exercise checking the county’s ability to respond to a nuclear emergency at the Sellafield reprocessing plant. This time the emergency was real, and plans were to be put into practice in the most testing circumstances.
Familiarity between the responding agencies within the Cumbria Resilience Forum was an important bedrock upon which lives were saved and an even more serious disaster averted.
The roll call of agencies who responded so ably to the crisis is extensive. The operation was led by Cumbria Constabulary who chaired the strategic co-ordination group at Penrith and mobilised all their available resources across the county to respond to the incident. In the hardest hit areas, operations were hampered by the loss of critical infrastructure – the basic command unit headquarters at Workington and the police station at Cockermouth – requiring makeshift facilities to be deployed through the height of the flood, and in the aftermath.
Tragically the police service suffered the hugely traumatic impact of the loss of a fellow officer at the height of the floods.
Assistance during the incident was provided by the Civil Nuclear and British Transport Police Services.
The Environment Agency played a crucial role through the incident – monitoring flood defences, rainfall levels and the state of rivers, dams and lakes to issue flood warnings ahead of the flooding. Flood warnings were continually updated throughout the incident. The Environment Agency was able to provide accurate predictions of potential flood inundation – an essential source of information to assist strategic and tactical decision making. They also provided boats and staff to assist with the rescue in Cockermouth.
Cumbria Fire and Rescue Service responded to calls for assistance to rescue, evacuate and support members of the community. In one 24 hour period they received over 400 calls. The main focus of activity was in Cockermouth where they were part of the multi-agency response providing the skilled personnel and specialist equipment required to carry out high risk rescues from the unpredictable flood conditions. Asset protection at key sites such as electricity sub-stations was carried out using high volume pumping appliances. In particular this helped ensure that flood protection in Carlisle was effective. Crews from eleven other fire and rescue services provided support with high volume pumps and specialist water rescue teams.
The Cockermouth rescue was a multi-agency effort. Mountain Rescue teams from across Cumbria and outside the county were deployed from start to finish throughout the acute phase of the incident. The teams, on foot, in 4x4 vehicles and in rescue boats, rescued many individuals from cars and properties, and provided support to many other agencies. They identified properties where people were at risk and directed RAF winchmen to these locations, acting as swift water rescue teams. They evacuated over a thousand properties, provided essential four wheel drive support to medical and other specialists, and helped the RSPCA to rescue animals.
RAF helicopters from the UK SAR Force, together with logistical support from the Army, were another vital part of the rescue effort. At the height of the flooding in Cockermouth, helicopter rescue was the only way to evacuate many trapped residents from immediate danger and pilots and winchmen showed considerable bravery and skill to achieve this.
Also involved in the acute rescue operation were the RNLI, Inshore Rescue, Coastguard, Red Cross, International Rescue and the Environment Agency. Many of those deployed on the ground were volunteers.
North West Ambulance Service drafted in additional emergency crews and planned care resources from across the North West to augment the local staff who were under increasing pressure to negotiate the disrupted road network to reach patients. The NWAS Hazardous Area Response and Urban Search and Rescue Teams were mobilised and established a forward base at Cockermouth. All ambulance staff worked tirelessly to maintain emergency and routine cover during the worst part of the storms, despite some of the local crews having suffered damage to their own homes.
NWAS were also able to assist in the welfare of other rescuers by setting up equipment normally used for chemical decontamination to provide a cleaning facility for those exposed to contaminated floodwaters. By working closely with partners, ambulance vehicles were able to meet rescue boats and transport evacuees to rest centres for medical and welfare support.
NHS Cumbria played a key role in helping co-ordinate the emergency response, and on the ground GPs worked alongside mountain rescue teams to assist the public in Cockermouth and Keswick. Concerns about the possible spread of disease led to a localised vaccination programme being carried out in Cockermouth. Community hospitals in Keswick and Penrith were able to accommodate elderly residents evacuated from a county council residential home in Keswick. Flooded GPs’ surgeries in Cockermouth were rapidly relocated to the Cockermouth Community Hospital. And in north Workington essential health services were quickly put in place for the isolated community.
The Health Protection Agency used laboratory resources in Cumbria and Lancashire to assess potential threats from contaminated water and also assessed risks relating to carbon monoxide, infection control and general hygiene.
United Utilities provided their emergency response vehicle and deployed a large radio mast to maintain telecommunications when cabling had been washed away. Their staff also provided bottled water and support when the water supply was cut in the Lorton area.
As the district authority most significantly affected by the flooding, Allerdale Borough Council responded by opening reception centres in Keswick, Cockermouth and Workington. Housing teams were deployed to assist people made homeless by the floods, and building control teams were quick to assess the structural safety of buildings in flooded areas. Thousands of sandbags were distributed to help protect flood threatened homes.
Likewise, South Lakeland District Council distributed sandbags and opened a reception centre in Ulverston, with another in Kendal put on standby.
Derwent and Solway Housing Association, the major landlord in the Allerdale district, took early measures by evacuating vulnerable residents from sheltered schemes and other properties at risk of flooding. It also began securing high-capacity drying equipment, which meant that some residents were able to return to their properties within three weeks of being flooded.
Cumbria CountyCouncil’s highways teams responded on the ground helping manage road closures and monitoring the impact of floodwaters on the county’s road and bridge infrastructure. Traffic management plans were put in place as the impact of bridge and road closures became apparent. Adult Social Care Service staff helped ensure that vulnerable people were identified and received the support they needed. Children’s Services co-ordinated a school closure programme and supported vulnerable young people. County council staff assisted at reception centres and the council’s catering unit provided food for rescuers and rescued alike. Throughout the acute phase, the county council began preparation for leading the recovery effort – assessing the impact of the floods and identifying the consequences for a return to normality.
Government Office North West played their role in intelligence gathering and reporting to Whitehall which reduced the number of enquiries to the districts and county council. They also subsequently supported the recovery sub-groups and helped make the case for financial support.
There is little doubt that the responding agencies fulfilled their roles and responsibilities incredibly well during the emergency phase of the Cumbrian floods. But the truly remarkable outcome was the way in which the community responded to the crisis, rallying around to help each other and volunteering in times of need. In a leader column entitled “In praise of Cumbrian Spirit” The Guardian newspaper summed it up well:
“An exemplary expression of civic virtue has followed November’s floods …The strength of the response has been partly a matter of efficiency by all the agencies involved, but it owes more to Cumbrians’ priorities. They drew on their own strength first …. Shallow obituarists of broken Britain should visit the county to learn these wholesome lessons. The county council’s motto “Ad montes oculos levavi” strictly means “I shall lift up mine eyes to the hills”. It might be better translated as “looking out for one another”.