Past Papers: washed out

In summer 2007, I was living in Sheffield in a house that backed onto the River Don. When the flood came, I was on my own with my children (then five and one) – and, it turned out, not very much idea of how to cope with a natural disaster. This is my account of the flood as I blogged it a few days later. Tonight, I’m going to see The Caravan, a piece of theatre about the floods and their aftermath, so it seemed like a good time to dust off this post and relive my horrors. (The Chris who appears at the end is currently fighting cinema rather than the elements.)

Edit 11 August 2009: my review of The Caravan is now up here.

flooded by Wednesday(Photo by minkymonkeymoo, used under Creative Commons license.)

On Wednesday, I returned to the house to have a look. Remarkably, the flood had filled the basement but not breached the floorboards. The water had entirely receded: the only sign it had left of itself was a powerful musty smell and a terrific jumble of all the things it had whirled about in the basement.

We were extraordinarily lucky, not only in that the flood was confined to the cellar, but also in the way we were flooded (yes, it turns out that there are better and worse ways to get flooded): the water which got us came up from the rising water table, not the filth that was rolling along the river behind our house. Since I’ve been able to bear to look at the news pictures, it’s very clear that other people have suffered and are suffering a good deal worse than we are.

In a shameful way, I was almost disappointed – not because I wanted my home to be devastated, but because after the terror and the strangeness of being caught up in a natural disaster, and the terrific effort of escaping, I expected terror and strangeness in the climactic return to my house. But the high water mark of a flood isn’t the end of it, of course. Maggie Tulliver in Mill On The Floss was a lucky girl in one regard: she spent all her heroics without having to participate in the clear-up. This evening, I read one of the stories in Tales From Moominvalley, “The Fillyjonk who Believed in Disasters”. In it, the Fillyjonk’s dread of a terrible event is finally satisfied when a storm takes her house; but on returning to her home the next day, she finds that more has survived than she expected. She is disappointed, too:

The old kind of fillyjonk was lost, and she wasn’t sure that she wanted her back. And what about all the belongings of this old fillyjonk?

All the things that were broken and sooty and cracked and wet? To sit and mend it all, week after week, glueing and patching and looking for lost pieces and fragments.

To wash and iron and paint over and to feel sorry about all the irreparable things, and to know that there would still be cracks everywhere, and that all the things had been in much better shape before… No, no! And to put them all back into place in the dark and bleak rooms and try to find them cosy once more…

In the end, everything of importance was fine, but it took a shockingly long time to realise that our possessions were imperilled, never mind ourselves. I spent Monday working at the library, out of sight of the windows – so although I knew it was raining heavily, I wasn’t aware of the persistent deluge going on all day until first my neighbour, Chris, and then my boyfriend (who is working freelance in Bath this week) rang to ask if our area was flooded. I checked the Environments Agency website, got no flood warnings for our postcode, and blithely reassured everyone that things were going to be fine before going about the school run.

Arts Tower in the storm(Photo by DESQie, used under Creative Commons license.)

The rain continued to bucket down. By the time Jay and I had got down the hill from school to nursery to pick up Maddy, I realised that things were getting pretty bad and we’d probably better stock up on dry and tinned goods in case we ended up stuck at home the next day. At nursery, the nurses Becky and Claire were giddy with nervous laughter about getting back to their homes in Rotherham. We left anticipating a long journey home, but expecting to find a safe place to dry off at the end of it.

After waiting half an hour for the tram and then taking the best part of an hour to creep through the heavy traffic to Hillsborough corner, I thought we’d better stop on the tram and get some provisions from our local shops rather than take a detour to Tesco. When the tram terminated two stops early and I saw that the power was out all the way down Middlewood Road, I just wanted to get home as quickly as possible. But I did take a picture from the bridge at Hillsborough Corner.

That photo marks the end of my detatched curiousity and the beginning of rising panic and fear. Jay and I walked back to our street, pushing Maddy in her buggy and talking about the hot buttered toast we’d have for tea. As we walked across the bridge crossing the river that runs behind our house, some kids walking in the opposite direction told me, “you’ll have to carry your pram.” I thanked them, and felt irrationally annoyed with them for telling me – well of course I would carry the buggy if there was a puddle. Only there wasn’t a puddle: the river had burst its banks and was flowing across the bridge. I was able to lift the buggy clear but Jay had to wade through alongside me, crying as the foul water poured into his wellies.

storm drain in Hillsborough

(Photo by minkymonkeymoo, used under Creative Commons license.)

After this, my appreciation of the situation’s severity began to escalate pretty rapidly. The bottom of the garden (which, sensibly enough, slopes down to the river) was a foot underwater, and the water was halfway up to the house. We got inside. I checked the basement – the water was lying 6″ deep so I went down to switch off the freezer and tumble dryer but didn’t turn the power off at the fuse – I was still thinking of eating toast and watching telly in the living room. So I popped the kettle on and rang my mum to check what I should do next, then left my tea to brew while I checked the basement again. This was not more than thirty minutes later: the water now looked to be waist height. At this point I swept the children upstairs, rang the fire brigade and cried incoherently that I couldn’t get to the fusebox, rang Nathan and cried again, and then I set about getting organised.

This I did in a fairly erratic fashion. I moved things upstairs by the armful, frantically grabbing at toys and books; I turned off every appliance I could get to (the fusebox was inaccessible at the far side of the basement now); I had to hunt out all the “emergency things”, the torches and tealights, that I’d squirelled away in unlikely places; I closed cupboards and doors with a feeling of finality, assuming that the water would be coming in shortly. Then I remembered that we would need drinks and food, so I found milk, juice, oatcakes and chocolate and tried desperately to convince Jay that we were having a fun picnic in his bedroom. But every time I left the room he got frightened and called for me; once when I came upstairs he grabbed me and asked me, “Will we all still be together if one of us gets dead?” And I told him that we would always be together, just as I have told him before that the people who love us are always with us.

By this stage I was very worried too: looking out of the window at the seething torrent running along the river bank, and the brown water standing in the garden, I knew that while I could do my utmost to protect my children, if the water took them, I could not save them. It is probably indicative of the complacency I felt about living by water that I wasn’t entirely sure of the river’s name until all this happened, but when that river is swollen to the full height of the bank, and water is rising inexorably up into your house, the implacable power of water is a terrible and unignorable thing. No power, no running water, two frightened children, a drowned basement, and with the street now streaming with water, no way out again. I could hear the contents of the basement banging on the living room floor. I rang the fire brigade again, I rang my Mum and Dad, I rang Nathan. I told Jay how brave he was and he cried frantically that he didn’t feel brave anymore.

Hillsborough helicopter(Photo by Ben Askew, used under Creative Commons license.)

I was suddenly very sorry that I’d brought us all back here. “Home” had been such an important idea a couple of hours ago, but once you are trapped there it becomes far less of a homely place to be. The helicopters were circling overhead. Firemen were evacuating the other end of the road, but there were so many people in the same predicament, we had to just sit tight until things became dangerous enough to necessitate rescuing us – on my own, I could never get my children back across the flooded bridge. So when neighbour Chris appeared at our door to walk us to a safe place, I’m fairly sure I’ve never been so happy to see a big-necked man in a trenchcoat. I threw a few things into a rucksack and strapped Maddy into her sling while Chris gave Jay a reassuring hug, and then we set out into the wet.

© Sarah Ditum 2007

4 thoughts on “Past Papers: washed out

  1. Aww, you say the sweetest things.

    Didn’t realise you’d written about it. Seems so long ago now, before my Indian adventure, before you moved away. I remember it pretty well though. I only got shaken when Jay ran to the front door and started crying. I had a weird Father Ted thing going on prior to that. I’d been in the office all day, the rain was just sloshing past the windows at knots and people were leaving early. But I stayed pretty late, due to my propensity for arriving late more than anything else.

    Then I got a phonecall from a friend, “your road is starting to accumulate water, best get home.” So I left, hood up, trenchcoat on and walked the 45/50 minutes to the house. It had risen pretty significantly since you crossing the bridge by the time I got there, iPod and mobile aloft I waded in, basically in that picture at the top – I walked through that. Got into the house which was dry and stripped off. Checked the basement, pretty full. Didn’t think it would get any worse though so I went and had a toilet break accompanied by the faintly stupid thought that I might as well have pissed in the basement.

    I checked the basement again, it had risen about 3 inches in that time. So over the next 20 minutes I desperately moved everything upstairs, dressed only in a soggy pair of boxers. I don’t think my brain was functioning because I had a stab at moving the sofa up the stairs. In a Sheffield 2up 2down terrace. Mental.

    Then I got on the phone, sorted a place to stay, re-routed my wife who was stuck in traffic, packed everything and made the move back out into the water just as it started seeping through at the bottom of my stairs.

    I’m surprised you didn’t mention the walk, it was like a scene from a big-budget disaster movie. People walking, stopped traffic. Meeting a manager of mine who laughed that she’d had to dump her car, “I’m sorry Karen, my house is flooded.” All these vignettes are just blazed into my head. Scraping shit out of my shoes. Scraping shit out of Jay’s wellies! The climb alongside Hanover Way. The arrival at Tom and Jim’s, drinking vodka into the night.

    I haven’t felt so purposeful before or since. I knew what I had to do. I had to sort Jane, sort myself, get you and get going. Do the walk and get to the safe place. I feel a bit like a useless dozy lump most of the time so it made a weirdly pleasant change to just know what to do for a change. Father Ted has the same thing in the plane episode, written by your mate Linehan if I remember rightly.

    I still wish you two lived round the corner. That’d be nice.

  2. I always meant to write about the walk – some combination of trauma and exhaustion must have got in the way. But I remember the walk as something epic, not fearful and trapped anymore but headed somewhere, the rain over and the sun breaking through, exchanging commiserations with other people left homeless or carless or otherwise stuck, your coat flapping heroically and Jay marching valiantly for miles. Being more physically exhausted than I can ever remember being without having just delivered a baby, taking sugar in my tea at Tom and Jim’s, hitting the vodka and then sleeping for 12 hours while Jane looked after Maddy and Jay. Even though the flood made me not able to be happy in that house anymore, it made Sheffield feel like my home. I miss you guys.

  3. You still owe us for that sugar…

    Despite the sh*t that you guys had to go through, that ended up being a strangely enjoyable night; watching Smoking Aces while drinking booze far too late on a work night.

    Can’t believe it was so long ago actually. You and Nathan really should come visit sometime, under better circumstances than being refugees from disaster level moistness though obviously.

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