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Flood, sweat and tears
Local Government Chronicle – 19 November 2004

It is not every day one of your villages is washed away. North Cornwall DC's David Brown tells Mark Smulian about the clean-up - and the underwear shortage

It was early evening and North Cornwall DC chief executive David Brown was sitting at home enjoying a pre-dinner drink, after an uneventful return to work following a holiday.

There had been reports of heavy rain, but that was nothing unusual in the summer of 2004. Then on television he saw Boscastle - a picturesque village on the district's coast - being washed away by a torrential flood.

Twenty miles from Boscastle at council headquarters, bathed in dry, sunny weather, finance director David Pooley was called by police and told to open the council's emergency room because of a flood.

Fortunately, no one was killed or injured at Boscastle, as rescue helicopters were quickly able to save stranded residents. But for Mr Brown, the first dramatic hours were just the start of weeks of gruelling work. Much of the council's activity "ground to a halt", he says, as staff left their normal jobs to cope with the aftermath.

Boscastle lies at the foot of a gorge where the rivers Jordan and Valency converge and flow through a twisting inner harbour to the sea.

The wet summer had left the ground above the village waterlogged, so when a heavy storm discharged the equivalent of a month's rain in one evening, the water poured down the gorge. This acted as a giant funnel, sweeping away houses and businesses and filling those left standing to ground-floor ceiling height with mud and the contents of a ruptured sewer.

When disaster strikes, councils and emergency services set up 'bronze' control at the disaster site, 'silver' near enough to co-ordinate relief efforts and 'gold' at police headquarters. Mr Brown found 'silver' was not at Mr Pooley's emergency room at council headquarters as expected, but crammed into a doctor's surgery in the upper part of Boscastle.

Why the police chose this site remains unclear, but his first act was to shift 'silver' into a village hall that allowed adequate room. His second was to open a sports centre a few miles away to provide emergency accommodation for stranded holidaymakers, many of whom had seen their cars washed away.

Even at this difficult stage, Boscastle's community spirit was evident.

"None of the residents presented themselves to us needing emergency accommodation," Mr Brown recalls. "They sorted themselves out, taking each other into homes in the undamaged area."

During the next day the police pulled out, leaving Mr Brown in charge of the recovery of a shattered village with no power or water supply.

This was not only a matter of co-ordinating physical restoration work - he had a lot of shocked, vulnerable and dispossessed residents to handle.

"I had to set up a cordon to prevent residents going into the flooded area because it was unsafe, even if theirs was among the undamaged houses, and then employ security guards since there was no lighting down there and residents were afraid of looting," he says.

Council building control and environmental health staff began checks on whether buildings were safe and also to remove any putrefying food.

"It was not easy for them clearing out 10ft of mud and worse from houses, only to see a chest freezer toppling towards them," he says.

Mr Brown moved his headquarters to a community centre in the relatively undamaged upper area and held twice daily briefing for residents so they knew what was going on. He says his main lesson for others handling disasters is the importance of communication.

"I probably spent three hours a day with residents, both in meetings and individually, because it was essential they knew what we were doing," he says.

North Cornwall's role shows "the justification for having a local authority responsible for things once the initial rescue is over and the police and emergency services have pulled out," he adds.

"We were here day in, day out. The residents knew us and relied on us to respond to their concerns.

"It was local government in the role it has always talked about, providing community leadership."

Mr Brown recalls that when, after a week of round-the-clock work at Boscastle he took a 'sleep day' at home, residents sought assurances that he would return.

This phase saw council officers taking some unusual jobs. Leisure centre manager Steve Bland drove the 'dirty' bus provided for mud-caked workers clearing debris, while a 'clean' bus ran the long diverted route to reach the far side of the harbour where the flood had damaged the bridge. Staff from the benefits outreach team ran the community centre, senior offers helped direct the clean-up and Mr Pooley at one point found himself on local radio appealing for underwear, since donors had sent only warm outer clothing.

"I never expected to be on radio saying, 'Send us knickers'," he recalls.

The council had never rehearsed its response to a flood in Boscastle, or anywhere else. Mr Brown says: "You cannot apply ready made plans, you rely on your judgment and what you find. Only two of us have emergency planning in our job description but everyone has a role and ended up doing something that was not their day job.

"Our staff said, 'Right, there is a job to be done', and they were absolutely brilliant. Walk round Boscastle with a council jacket on and people will still come to greet you."

The flood came at the end of a testing year for staff, with almost continuous inspections which culminated in an 'excellent' comprehensive performance assessment.

Another issue for Mr Brown was the presence of the media. "They were there for a story, which was fair enough, but I did not want them all over the village," he says.

He settled into a demanding schedule of media briefings, including a daily local radio appearance, and set up a vantage point above the flooded harbour for cameras.

The disaster attracted wide attention. Deputy prime minister John Prescott phoned on the night of the flood to say he would be travelling down on the overnight sleeper, and later Prince Charles visited victims.

"Mr Prescott did not make any promises about financial help, but his regional office has been very helpful in the preparation of our bid," Mr Brown says.

The council faces a huge bill for the clear-up and restoration. Its objective is to have Boscastle back to normal for next Easter's economically vital tourist season.

Under the Treasury's Bellwin scheme for disaster compensation, councils must meet the equivalent of an insurance excess, after which 85% of the bill is paid by central government.

Mr Pooley thinks the council's eligible bill will be 800,000, so it would receive some 660,000. But on top of that it has lost 60,000 in revenue from a destroyed car park and must spend some 250,000 on new public toilets and replace a tourist information centre, "so in all, the cost to us is more than 1m," he says.

Working out the Bellwin claim is not straightforward. It does not cover insurable risks, so the council has had to trace the insurers of the 70 cars salvaged from the harbour, one from beneath 8ft of mud, to recover the costs of that work.

In addition, Cornwall CC faces a 1m bill for highways damaged as the flood stripped the road surface and partly demolished the bridge.

The Environment Agency also faces large bills for works to restore the rivers, culverts and harbour.

The county's deputy emergency planning manager, John James, says: "You try to steer away from planning for specifics because if you plan for a flood you will have a fire or a chemical release, so you try to have a generic response."

He also cites communication as the difference between success and failure.

"The vital thing was that we had an early conference call to establish what was happening," Mr James says.

Boscastle is slowly returning to normal, and though there are still damaged buildings, there are not, as Mr Brown notes, "trees sticking out of people's windows".

With 24 listed buildings and an economy dependent on its attractive setting, replacement buildings must be in keeping and a steering group is drawing up a regeneration plan.

The council has installed broadband and set up a centre for local businesses, many of which had their premises damaged or destroyed.

Owners of the local hotels, craft shops and the unusual witchcraft museum are working on restoration while homeowners negotiate with insurers.

But the council's work has some way to run. "People still say to me, 'Don't leave us', and we won't," Mr Brown says.