Following consultation and assessments of all the available weather information, we were advised to put an offer of assistance to the police, to include the Northern boat and, if required, Scotland’s and Southern’s boats. We received a response back thanking us for the offer and informing us that they would be in touch if they needed us.
Thursday 19th November
We spoke to the police again and this time they asked us to mobilise a team to the area and stand by. Following a brief conversation it was agreed to move a team to Greystoke (where we had already scheduled a training session) and remain there on standby.
Our team selection gave a reasonable mix of experienced personnel.
We agreed to meet at the stores at 12:00hrs and travel across together.
There now followed a delay awaiting instructions. A Coastguard Officer contacted us at 20:55 and we were finally mobilised to the Fire station at Cockermouth at 21:00. We were advised that most of the roads were now flooded and only one remained open. It was a much longer trip than we would have liked but we eventually arrived at the station at 22:05. We parked the vehicle up and checked into Silver control and two of us joined a briefing that was just about to start.
The town had been divided into 6 sectors. Sector 2 was where most of the immediate problems were followed by sector 6. Sector 2 was the Main Street running through the centre of the town. (This is the street the seemed to be on the TV a lot). Main Street was slightly wider than the average town street with a variety of shops, banks, pubs, etc. along both sides. The estimated depth of the water was around 10 feet with a flow rate of around 50 to 60 miles an hour. Both the Rivers Derwent and Cocker merged there and both had burst their banks. At this point in time it was not possible to deploy boats into the street. There were a number of places where people were trapped in the buildings and there was concern about a three story building on the corner of Main Street that was around 200 years old. The water had surged through the interior of the building and taken out most of the internal walls. It was also taking the full force of the water on to the side of the building (including all of the debris that was being washed through with the flood water). There were three people still in the building and the police were concerned that it might collapse. In the absence of a structural engineer I offered our services to try and see if the building was safe. The police accepted our offer. Three of us would try and get as close to the building as we could on the ground and another member was deployed to a helicopter to view it from the air.
The helicopter took off at the same time as we went down to the bottom of Station Street which led into the main road. We tied ourselves in with rope safety lines and two of us entered the water, one stopping at the edge of Main Street while I inched along the shop fronts. At the same time the Sea King hovered over the top.
We did what we could but it was extremely difficult as the water was chest deep. The down draft from the helicopter did swirl the water around and, after a while, I lost my footing. I was pulled in on the safety line but, by then, had seen enough to report back to the police.
In my opinion the building was OK at this point in time but, if it continued to take the pounding it was getting from the water, I believed that it was possible it could collapse. What we couldn’t see and what gave me some concerns was any damage that may have been occurring under the water.
The team were then stood down for a break. We were allocated two radios and the police asked for one member of the team to be seconded into the command and control team. This was done. At the next briefing the RNLI and Red Cross stated that they believed that they had the appropriate boats to enter the water in Main Street. We were asked to set up two belay points and place two team members on the corner of Station Street and Main Street with throw lines as a safety in case anyone fell in to the water. This we did but once the boats were deployed it became apparent that they were not needed so we withdrew from the water and requested a new job.
We were asked to go to sector 6 and report to the police office at the entrance to Goat Road. The journey was again much longer than it needed to be as most of the routes to the area were under water. We arrived on scene just after midnight on the 20th November
Friday 20th November
I reported to the police officer on duty who advised us that there were a number of addresses that they believed had vulnerable people in them. Our role was to try and check the addresses to see if the people were OK or needed to come out.
The police advised us that the fire service had declared the water too dangerous to work in on foot, which is why we had been deployed there with the boat. I did a risk assessment on what I could see of the street. It wasn’t particularly wide but the water was very fast flowing (the police advised us that it was between 60 to 70 mph in places. We could see that the ground floor in all of the houses was completely submerged and there was a lot of debris in the water (household appliances and the odd car). I felt the job would be challenging (and, if I am being honest, a bit scary) but do-able. Two of us set off to do the first run. There was no power in the street so it was very dark and the force of the water was exceptional but we did manage to make it most of the way up the street. There was a bridge at the end of the street and the vet’s was set back in a garden right on the corner of the bridge on the right hand side of the road. The police had received a number of phone calls from these premises requesting help. We managed to get up to the garden but, due to the turbulence and speed of the water, I did not believe it would have been safe to take the boat any further. We did, however, make contact with a number of the residents on the list – all of whom wanted to come out. One in particular was an elderly gentleman who had not had any water for 15 hours.
After seven trips up the road we had made contact with all of the addresses on the list. We reported our findings back to the police and showed particular concern for the gentleman who had no water. We also advised the police that all of the residents wanted to come out but a larger boat would be required (we suggested contacting the RNLI and ask for two D Class Boats).
We came up with a plan to get the gentleman some water. We intended to tie two litre bottles together, go back to the house, hold the boat off and pass the water up to him on a boat hook. This would be difficult as we would be working against the current, but not impossible. The police officer asked us if it was safe to do. I repeated that it would be difficult but possible and, as the person was old and had been without water for so long, it was worth a try.
At this point the police officer advised us that they had just been made aware that one of her colleagues had died after being washed away following the collapse of the bridge he was on. She asked us not to continue until the larger boats had arrived. Given the circumstances we complied with her request. While we were talking we noticed a light being shone from a window trying to attract our attention. The house was at the start of the street so we launched the boat again and made our way to the house. An elderly couple lived here and, as the water had gone above the level of their ground floor, they asked to be taken out. Taking them out of the front was not possible but the roof of a ground floor extension at the back of the house was only partially under water so, if we could get them out of the back bedroom window on to this roof, they would be able to step into the boat. We went back to the RV Point and picked up another team member. We then returned to the house and put him on the roof; he removed the window and assisted the couple into the boat. We then took them to the waiting ambulance and went back for our colleague (who had, in the mean time, replaced the window). The boat had been taking on some water so when we returned we pulled it out of the water and discovered a tear in the bottom to the side of the keel. The boat was then taken out of the water for repair and we began to assemble the new boat.
At 06:20 the two RNLI boats arrived. They decided to hold off until daylight and, at 07:25, the two boats were launched with myself in one and another IRC member in the other to accompany the RNLI crews. We rotated personnel with the boats and a number of rescues / extractions took place. We remained at sector 6 until 11:00, at which point the water level had dropped significantly and our role there seemed to be finished; we spoke to the police and returned to the command and control centre for a break. On arrival we were asked to assist the RNLI on a job at Main Street (Sector 2) where it was thought that seven to eight people were trapped, including a three week old baby. The request was for a small boat with an engine. Before setting off it was decided to call up a relief crew. Every available Northern Region operational member was called along with three personnel from Southern.
When we arrived on scene with our boat the RNLI explained what they wanted us to do. On receiving the job details we stripped the boat down to just the rubber inflatable. We were towed across Main Street, and then two of us and two crew from the RNLI boat entered the water and took our boat through an arched entrance to a pub car park and put the boat over a wall into the yard to the right of the pub. Not an easy task as the wall was quite high. We then carried on going forward and had to get ourselves and the boat over a six foot high security fence with pointed metal at the top. (At this point we put a small puncture in the back of one of the tubes). We then had to get the boat over another wall to the left of this yard which put us into a courtyard which led to a number of houses. The court yard ran all the way down to the back of a house that was on Main Street.
The house had scaffolding down the back and at the front. The plan was to pick up the people up in the boat (the water was still chest deep here) and walk the boat along to the scaffolding; take the people up the scaffolding to the second floor of the house; then take them through the window of the house, through the house to the front, out of the window and down the scaffolding into the RNLI boat at the front in Main Street – where they could be taken to safety. We did this run twice and although a slow process it did work and we successfully removed six people, including the three week old baby and two dogs, who were all placed in the care of the ambulance service. (I must admit this was one of the oddest boat jobs I have ever done). Our boat was then towed back to the RV Point. I informed control that our boat needed to be repaired and we were stood down until 16:30. Two other members got on with repairing the boat and I reported to Silver control to update them on our work. A replacement team were assembling at Greystoke as soon as possible and I would meet them there.
At 16:30 the boat was now repaired and we were given another job. Two of us returned to Greystoke for a break whilst the remaining team stayed on until the replacement team arrived in the town. I arrived at Greystoke at about 17:30 and handed charge of the remaining team in Cockermouth to Julie.
Julie’s notes for that period follow:
At 16:15 we received another with another job. We headed back to Station Street and were tasked to New Street (just off the Main Street) to pick up a vulnerable lady with a leg infection who had difficulty in walking. We set off down the Main Street but the water was receding fast and the prop got caught up in some debris – so we walked the rest of the way to New Street (there was no water there) and found the location. A fire team were already there and had organised a car to take the woman to safety.
As we headed back to the boat we decided to walk in the water pulling the boat with us. Back at Station Street Command tasked us to Robinson Court – a woman with three children required rescuing. We took an RNLI team with us and went in search of Robinson Court. Following several phone calls to command, it was realised that the occupants had already been rescued earlier in the day. The next task was Fold Cottage, off Challoner Street. We were joined by a coastguard member and were told it was two 80 year old women who were hard of hearing – and the job was a priority. We walked down the Main Street and Challoner Street whilst one member stayed with boat – the water had receded already but there was debris, cars, caravans and parts of the roads missing and strewn everywhere.
We searched the area but were unable to find the exact address – we could only find Fold Cottage, of which the occupants either weren’t in or were unable to answer the door. We radioed control to ask whether we could force entry but then a message came back that the couple had been rescued earlier. It was apparent that most people who had called the police had been rescued already.
At 21:30 we headed back to command. The fire service stated that anyone leaving the water had to be decontaminated before entering the command centre. However, as we were unsure as to whether we had any more jobs to do we didn’t go through the procedure until we knew we were finished.
At 22:30 Ray and the relief team appeared and we headed back to Greystoke, finally getting back there at 00:30 for a welcome rest!
Back to Ray’s report:
The relief team finally assembled at 21:45 (the Southern team were delayed by some heavy traffic) and we set off for Cockermouth arriving at 22:30.
During the handover, Julie had advised me that all the boat teams had been stood down for the night with the exception of IRC who had been placed on a waking standby and were situated outside the command and control centre. I made the control centre aware that we had changed crews and took the new team out for a walk to orientate them to the area. Control of the work had now been handed over to the fire service who had decided that the water was contaminated and set up a decontamination unit.
From this point on anyone who went into or even touched the water had to be decontaminated. I attended the hourly briefings at silver control and it became apparent that nothing was going to be happening till daylight – so I pulled the team inside of the building where they could get hot drinks and some comfort.
Saturday 21st November
At the 04:00 briefing the police seemed satisfied that they had got everyone out who needed to be out and had sustained those who wanted to stay. The water levels had dropped so much that all of the streets were now accessible by foot with wellies on (including Main Street) so the need for boat crews was diminishing. They intended to send out police officers to every address that they had received contact from as soon as it was daylight to make sure that everyone was OK and to ensure that they hadn’t missed anyone. This was to be done on foot by the police and mountain rescue personnel. I offered to keep my team available on standby until the 11:30 briefing and, if the water levels had not risen, we would be stood down.
Various members of the team had helped with the command and control and I was asked by the police that if we did leave at lunch time could two members remain to continue their work there. I spoke to them both and they decided that if the need was there they would be happy to stay.
We were made aware that the Prime Minister would be visiting the control centres at around 11:30 so the briefing was brought forward to 11:15. Following this, the IRC boat crew were formally stood down, with the exception of the two who had agreed to stay on and assist with command and control. We packed up the boat and headed back to Greystoke to meet up with the rest of the team.
The next part comes from Ali, one of the members staying behind:
It became apparent to me that, although individual agencies were coordinating their own staff, there was a lack of a coordinated information picture regarding who was carrying out what tasks, to ensure that all tasks coming in were dealt with, and that different agencies weren’t trying to do the same job. We set up a basic spreadsheet to try and manage this process and provide information which could be viewed by all on the projector screen. From mid-morning we were working on this, along with other tasks such as collating and providing information on maps of the town.
The key task going on at this time was a door knocking exercise of all properties affected by flooding, by the military and police.
At about 10:00, Ray informed me that we would be standing down as our skills as a rescue team were no longer required. I informed the fire officer in charge of the command centre of this and he enquired if we would be able to stay on in the logistics/information management role we were carrying out. Ray confirmed that this was OK and arranged for us to stay on at the centre for as long as we felt we were required.
The 10:30 briefing was postponed due to the imminent arrival of Gordon Brown and entourage, who were visiting the area. At about 11:15 Gordon Brown arrived and spoke to all the responding agencies in the room, including ourselves. We talked with him about how we had contributed to the response (in terms of the rescue work as well as coordination work) and he thanked IRC for our contribution to the response. We then spent about 5 minutes talking with Hilary Benn about IRC and flooding incidents.
Update briefings were held at approximately two hourly intervals and, at the 14.30 briefing, it appeared as if the response was slowing. Searches of several sectors had been completed, the remaining live power substations in the flooded area had been turned off, and the flood waters had receded, especially in the Main Street area. Based on this information, and the fact that the work we were involved in was slowing down we thought it likely we would be able to leave after the next briefing.
The 16.15 briefing was cancelled and the next briefing took place at 18.35. At this briefing the situation appeared slightly more serious – the only bridge over the Derwent in Cockermouth which had remained open had been closed due to structural concerns. There was various gas leaks reported in the town and there was a damaged gas pipe which the utility company were concerned about isolating as it was on the inaccessible side of the river. However, all search sectors in Cockermouth had been completed and the mountain rescue teams were finishing off the rural areas, with an estimated completion time of 20:00.
We agreed that it was an appropriate time for us to stand down – this was for three main reasons:
1) The search and rescue phase of the response had finished.
2) The requirement for a coordination role had decreased and was more of an admin role in updating the system we had set up. It only really needed one person to do this and not three and it was felt this was a role which could readily be handed over to the full-time services.
3) The A66 had just reopened, although it was not known how long this would be for – as this was our only viable route out of the area t we thought it would be advisable to take the opportunity.
I informed the police operational commander and other agencies of our decision and briefed a police rep who was taking over the role and 2 members of the Cockermouth mountain rescue team who would act as back up. At about 19:10 we left Cockermouth; stopping over at one of our members homes for the night. All team members arrived safely at their homes on Sunday 22nd November.
Finally, back to Ray:
The whole team was formally stood down at 22:00 on Saturday 21st November.
According to the records of the Cumbrian Police we were credited with assisting with the rescue / extraction of 64 people over the two day period.
Ray Gray IRC Team Leader
To feature any part of our stories in your own publications, please contact Julie Ryan on firstname.lastname@example.org or call +44 7786 881 908