From disaster and damage, through trauma to recovery


A recently released report assesses Cumbria’s long-term recovery from the trauma of Storm Desmond in December 2015, providing lessons for the future but praise for the way communities came together to support each other practically and emotionally. 

The report was commissioned by Cumbria CC from Hugh Deeming of HD Research. It describes how, although Storm Desmond was Cumbria’s third extreme flood event in a decade, its impact was ‘unparalleled in many respects…in terms of record rainfall and river flows, the number of properties flooded and flood affected and also in terms of the pressure that dealing with those impacts placed on all organisations with a role in response and recovery’.

Designs of the permanent crossing at Pooley Bridge

The storm washed away part of the A591 – one of Cumbria’s central arteries – at Thirlmere just north of Grasmere, causing massive diversions and cutting off communities.

The report identifies how the road’s restoration was facilitated by the ‘extremely unusual’ instruction from ministers to Highways England to commission the repair to a road outside its network.

Key bridges were closed after being damaged by large volumes of fast flowing water, one of which – the 18th century Pooley Bridge near Ullswater – was washed away entirely.

A temporary replacement installed in March 2016 is due to be removed later this year so a permanent structure can be installed.

The review found that while ‘all stakeholders in the recovery process appear to have tried to act as efficiently and effectively as they could’, bureaucracy at local and national levels did hinder some recovery activity.

Among a total of 58 recommendations, a key theme was the call for all organisations to collaborate on a unified approach to recovery management, ‘which will standardise the processes and assist in ensuring that all those affected receive support fairly’.

The report describes how, even as people were still being rescued from their homes, Cumbria’s resilience partners began planning for the recovery challenge, which it describes as ‘a clear illustration of good practice’.

Once the response phase was concluded, responsibility for the co-ordination of recovery activities moved to the Strategic Recovery Coordination Group (SRCG), chaired by Cumbria CC, with nine sub-groups including one focused on Infrastructure.

The acute phase response has already been subjected to a review process, which generated 82 recommendations.

The report’s 58 recommendations ‘span the breadth of activities overseen by the SRCG structures’. It states: ‘If integrated effectively, both into the county’s business-as-usual processes and into wider resilience building processes across the country, those co-ordinating future recovery operations will undoubtedly benefit.’

Because the review followed recovery efforts for more than a year and a half, the report says a greater understanding was developed of restoration and reconstruction efforts such as bridge repairs and longer-term persistent challenges.

The review also identified many examples of what it calls ‘notable practice’ across all levels of coordination, including the provision by government of a block grant for infrastructure repair.

It identifies the early pledge of almost £120m for the council’s Highways Capital Programme as providing confidence to develop a comprehensive recovery programme.

Aerial photo of the A591 at Dunmail Raise north of Grasmere

It states: ‘Cumbria CC’s use of trusted contractors and innovative technologies also hastened major projects, such as the reopening the A591 at Thirlmere ahead of schedule.’

Cllr Keith Little, the council’s cabinet member for highways and transport, told Transport Network: ‘Spreading the programme over three years has avoided the extremely high level of disruption that would have occurred had the works been crammed into a shorter period.

‘It’s also meant we’ve overwhelmingly been able to use local contractors for the works, who would not have had the capacity to deliver the work in a shorter timescale, keeping millions of pounds in the county and creating around 400 jobs in the process. We’re proud of the work that is being done through this programme.

‘It’s particularly pleasing that local Cumbrian contractors have been successful in securing contracts; this has been about ensuring something positive comes out of what was a difficult and traumatic period for so many of our residents.’

On the human cost, the report notes that one issue whose visibility increased over time is the impact of being flooded on mental health. It states: ‘Some of this is due to fear of future flooding, but the psychological and emotional pressures caused by having to endure the long-term negotiations and disruptions that have become a feature of the recovery process also contribute.’

On a more positive note, the report states that pride should also be taken by communities that pulled together in concerted efforts to assist neighbours, by providing critically important social spaces and ‘single points of contact’ where people could meet to find support.

It concludes: ‘It should be clearly acknowledged that the recovery from Storm Desmond has been achieved effectively, given the genuine challenges of scale and capacity.’

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