It was Saturday afternoon and the rain was pouring down as it has been for at least the last month or so almost non-stop. Some colleagues at work living in rural areas in the Lune Valley could not come in due to being “flooded in”. You can’t believe it until you see it.
The water level of the river began to rise quickly on Saturday, and the vast area of the Lune Valley from Tebay to Lancaster was flooded. The river had burst its banks into the surrounding fields, roads, homes, and businesses on the outskirts of Lancaster. This was bad, but nobody had any idea how bad it was going to get.
As I left for home at 06:00pm over the bridge back to Heysham, the water level looked high, but no higher than usual at high tide. The radio and the lights were on at home, flickering occasionally, as they do in bad weather. Around 10:30pm there was a click and everything went off, as if somebody had just unplugged the house. With the light of the fire and the torch on my phone, I looked for the switch box to find all the switches as they should be. Confusingly, I tried all sorts of different electrical appliances, including the landline, none of which worked.
I looked outside to find a sea of darkness. At the top of a hill, my usual evening view is a picturesque landscape of the lights in Lancaster, and Ashton Memorial in one direction, and in the other, the lights of Heysham. This time, there was nothing, no street lights, no traffic lights, not one light on in any house nearby, absolutely nothing.
This was when things became serious. During the evening friends had sent me photos of the overflowing river, flooding parts of the city centre, the one-way system and the A6. I heard some roads had been closed in the afternoon and people were being advised to go home, or stay at home.
After being sat there for so long reading with a candle I decided to call it a night and go to bed. Fingers crossed somebody would have some sort of grasp of things in the morning.
I awoke at 6am, and looked out of the window, still in darkness. Still no power. This is really bad.
First things first, I needed a cup of coffee to try and work out what has happened.
Flick on the kettle, but of course nothing materialised. And the same with the shower. One electric shower, and one shower which worked, but no hot water as of course electricity is needed to power the boiler! The cold boiler sat at 10 degrees, what would you do?
Thank God for gas! I finally got to use the Le Creuset kettle on the gas hob. I filled the cafetière and I used up the little battery I had left on my phone to try and find some answers.
Things had improved in the Lune valley. Fields, some roads and homes close to the river were still flooded, but much of the water had been pumped out or retreated back to the river. The same was for Lancaster. Although this took longer, and by Sunday morning nobody really knew what was happening.
My first thought was to visit Heysham Power Station, and Heysham Port to see how the water level was there, where the estuary meets the sea. It was the highest I have seen it before, but not worrying and there was no chance of it spilling over the side. However, the wind picked up and the tide was heading in…
What happens when the tide is coming in up the estuary but water is rushing out from the valley? Well, the current from the valley was stronger than the low tide, so the flooding continued to reduce.
I made my way up alongside the estuary until I reached the three bridges in the city. There was no flooding in the usual tidal areas, like Sunderland Point, (although there had been after all the debris still on the roads) but the water was flowing extremely fast.
At the main three bridges the water was level with the lune path where it had flooded as high as the buildings on the quay, but it was steadily dropping and flowing out to sea.
Now, if there is one thing Lancaster is short of, it is cross-river connections. The one-way system splits over Skerton Bridge and Greyhound bridge, the two main roads over the river. Both of these bridges, and the Millennium footbridge were closed due to shipping containers floating in the water and hitting the bridges overnight. The damage was unknown until a structural engineer could assess them once the water level had dropped.
Fortunately, on Monday morning there was no damage found and they were cleared and re-opened by the afternoon, and the two areas were connected once again.
The only way across the river at this point was over Carlisle Bridge, a viaduct on the main west coast railway, or a long diversion over the M6. All other bridges up the valley: Halton bridge, Gressingham bridge, Denny Beck, were either demolished by the water and floating debris, or closed as well.
My next trip was to see if any supermarkets were open. By this point there was no internet or 3G. All shops were closed, but bigger stores were giving away milk and bread at the doors as essential food.
There were no street lights, traffic lights, no fuel pumps working, which meant most people were being extra cautious on the roads. The odd thing was, cash machines were still working and with queues forming to use them, they were either going to run out of power eventually, or going to run out of cash.
The local radio station went off air the night before when the power went off. Being located on the quay, they were one of the first to be flooded, and didn’t manage to get back on air until around 11am on Sunday with only a microphone, and one phone. No internet, no music or anything. For the last two days more and more of the team have got to the office to help with the broadcasting of information. People have been phoning in (on one phone) asking questions to which somebody else will phone up with the answer, as well as school closures, businesses closures and so on…
As the phone signal and 3G went down on Sunday, the only source of news updates was through the radio, if you had a battery powered one or it on in the car. Contacting friends and family to check on people was almost impossible as a lot of landlines didn’t work either. The radio mentioned certain places in the area for signal and 3G hotspots. Social media was quiet as the 3G was down, until the signal strength grew on Monday and is now back-up and running.
— ElectricityNorthWest (@ElectricityNW) December 18, 2015
Electricity North West were sending out dozens of temporary generators in Lancaster and Morecambe and surrounding areas to give the 60,000 powerless homes temporary electricity. Some of the thousands of homes in Cumbria weren’t so lucky. As the water level hadn’t dropped, sending out generators was difficult, and as the sub station was still flooded, they were the last to get electricity.
Different areas came back on a different times through the early hours of Monday morning, and the whole area was noisy with house alarms.
There was a rumour circulating that generators only last for 10 hours, but Electricity North West announced that this is not true and generators will be filled up with fuel where possible. People were advised to use the energy sparingly and keep things like Christmas tree lights off as too much could trip the generators out and waste the power. However, low and behold 11 hours after it came on, at 4pm we were in darkness once again, and spent the next 12 hours in darkness too.
Nobody could ever plan for a situation like this so of course there was not enough fuel resources, generators, and so on. Electricity North West were asking areas of the country to lend more generators to supply the thousands of homes still without power while they try and pump out the water in the substation and fix the main problem.
Yesterday, in Cumbria there were more than 2,000 homes without power and due to the flooding it was difficult and extremely risky for the electrical engineers to get to the affected substations. Now, on Tuesday I think it is around 300 in Lancaster and around 1,000 homes in Cumbria remain without power, when on Saturday it was over 60,000 homes without power. The teams have done a truly fantastic job.
The emergency services and the army have also done a fantastic job working tirelessly to get people to and from hospital. They even transported a woman in a coma from Morecambe Victoria Hospital to the Lancaster Royal Infirmary. They have helped vulnerable citizens who rely on electricity to power things like ventilators and oxygen machines to keep them alive. In addition to this, Electricity North West have and continue to check on vulnerable people and to try and keep their power on as a priority.
In Kendal and Carlisle, the environment agency, the army and the emergency services have been sailing up and down the streets rescuing people from flooded homes.
The Environment Agency said the flood defences were adequate as it gave the emergency services more time to rescue people from their houses, before the water began to pour over them. However, nobody could ever have predicted that it could ever be this bad, especially as in Cumbria it is the third flood in ten years, when it was labelled as a one in 100 year flood, while in Lancaster it was the first EVER flood. The Met Office were correct with their red warning for the weekend, meaning life threatening.
Furthermore, it is impossible to know how high to build flood defences, as we have learned this time that we had so much rainfall (341mm) it broke the record (316mm) by quite a large margin.
In the meantime, we are still waiting to be connected to the grid. Parts of Lancaster were connected back this afternoon, however people are still asked to use it sparingly as the substation is not running at full capacity and at the time of writing, the electricity could be intermittent until further notice…