The death of Annie Hall, the former high sheriff of Derbyshire who was swept away by floodwater last Friday in Darley Dale near Matlock, was the saddest and most shocking consequence so far of the destruction wreaked across northern parts of England over the past week. While cameras in recent days have been trained on and around Doncaster, where dramatic pictures from the village of Fishlake and suburb of Bentley showed people being towed along red-brick residential streets in inflatable boats – and where the Liberal Democrat leader, Jo Swinson, paid a visit – the affected area stretches south along the course of the river Don through Rotherham and Sheffield, and on to Lincolnshire and Derbyshire, where the river Derwent burst its banks last week.
Road closures, buildings underwater so that residents who have chosen to stay are stuck upstairs, thousands more homes evacuated while gardens are turned into lakes, transport chaos (Rotherham’s railway station, for example, currently resembles a canal), volunteers ferrying neighbours and journalists around, police standing guard to ward off looters – the chaos creates a kind of spectacle while it lasts, and opportunities for generosity as well as danger. But one resident, Sue Marshall, surely spoke for many when she said that she feared becoming old news very fast. “What we need to know is that in two months’ time, the MPs will look at what has been done to stop it happening again.”
It is in the nature of an election campaign that politicians seek to capitalise on events such as the past week’s record-breaking rainfall (114mm fell in Derbyshire in 24 hours – more than a normal month’s total) to expose their opponents’ weaknesses. Boris Johnson’s decision to convene a Cobra meeting on Tuesday came after the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, suggested that floods in Surrey would have been more likely to prompt the declaration of a national emergency. But while the reaction of Doncaster council has been criticised by residents – health and safety concerns having prevented officials from joining rescue efforts – and local flood defence schemes, as well as land use and planning decisions, will rightly be scrutinised once the waters have retreated, there is no suggestion that government agencies or the emergency services failed to respond appropriately.
Spending on flood defences was cut by David Cameron, despite research showing that increased flooding is the greatest threat to the UK from global heating. In 2013 the number of officials working on national adaptation was cut from 38 to six. Since then, climate scientists’ predictions appear to have come true with the frequency of floods increasing, and the two wettest winters on record in 2013-14 and 2015-16. Funding has again been increased, and natural flood prevention schemes such as tree planting and moorland restoration are being tried – although not yet on the scale that will be needed if future disasters are to be averted.
Those residents who have seen homes and possessions destroyed, particularly those who lack insurance, deserve sympathy and assistance. But, as with the catastrophic fires currently raging in Australia, the only rational response to these floods is to redouble every effort to treat increasing climate chaos as the global emergency it is.