“Under my Umbrella”

My first impressions, when I saw the pictures on the TV, of scenes of floodwaters along The Wicker in Sheffield, took me back to the hurricane and floods of New Orleans and the Tsunami.  June has been our month of monsoon.

New Prime Minister, Car Bombs, Bomb alerts, Terrorism, War and the Smoking Ban have been in the news but our focus has been on our local reality.

When the big rains came, the volume of water and the routes it took, surprised everyone.  This was a flood of Biblical proportions.  The extremely heavy rains of June have broken all records.  Where was the ark to save us?  There were 3000 emergency calls in Doncaster alone between Mon 24 and Fri 28 June.  The Fire Service answered a call every 30 seconds.  The RNLI came from coastal regions to assist in the rescue efforts in South Yorkshire.

Sheffield’s floods exposed some important truths about our city. 

First, our City is divided into two by the River Don.  When the river swelled up and flooded, one of the greatest causes of concern was that people were prevented from crossing the river by road.  This was the cause of some of the most serious traffic jams and delays.  Many people were stranded away from home on the other side of the Don to where they lived.  Members of family were stranded in different parts of the City and separated.  Many people couldn’t get home from Day Service Centres, Hospitals, Schools, Work and Shopping Centres.  Nurses and other staff couldn’t get in to work to start their shift and relieve colleagues.

Second, the past five or six years have seen tremendous property development and investment along the River Don.  Luxury apartments have been built along the river banks and sold at astronomical prices.  At the same time, houses have been demolished, for example, on Wincobank and Woodside.  These are areas of considerable beauty that are considered to be “less desirable” for living or investing in.  Furthermore, the eating houses providing Caribbean, Kurdish and Pakistani cuisine along the Wicker were all flooded and are now closed awaiting refurbishment.  There has been investment for the wealthy, but not protection for the vulnerable businesses.

Third, the aged infrastructure in parts of Sheffield along the River Don has proved to be inadequate.  Nature has reclaimed the River Don since the Steel Industry has declined.  The tropical temperature of the waters has disappeared.  Fish have returned.  It’s good to see kingfishers and even cormorants.  Fig Trees abound along the river banks.  But the new pollution is the rubbish people throw into the River.  This along with fallen trees helped to block water routes in the river.  We cannot simply shift blame for the floods on to nature, or just ask “how could God allow such disasters”.  We also have to acknowledge the consequences of our own lifestyle.

Fourth, Pop song “Under my Umbrella” sums up the real sense of community spirit that has been evidenced among us.  The Major Incident Plan, and the Emergency Services went into action and deserve thanks from us all.  But they were assisted by countless acts of love and sacrifice from ordinary people.  Extra shelter was provided for those stranded, or suddenly bereft of their homes, by schools, superstores, the Royal Mail and hospitals.  Stories of hatred and terrorist activities have created fear in communities.  People transcended this and offered hospitality.  Many welcomed complete strangers into their homes and gave them shelter.  Radio Sheffield’s Good Neighbour scheme has been an excellent idea.  
Plans to prevent floods in the future will require attention around river banks, flood plains, architecture and design of buildings, roads and railways.  We must all consider our own lifestyles also, and reduce the amount of waste we create and throw away.  Throwing rubbish into the rivers and dykes must end, and the Council must take greater care of our rivers, river banks and river beds.

Our own floods will help us to empathise even more with people in other parts of the world who are victims of extreme weather and disasters.  Floods in Afghanistan, Pakistan and India over the same period in June killed six hundred people, and a total of 1.2 million have been affected by the storms. We have learnt from the Tsunami and the situation in New Orleans’ floods that our care strategy is judged by how we respond to the needs of the poorest and the most vulnerable among us.

1st July 2007

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