Taoiseach meets flood victims in Athlone after helicopter tour

Enda Kenny had been criticised for failing to engage with those affected by storms

Ministers Heather Humphreys and Simon Harris with the Taoiseach and Mayor Tom Farrell on their way to Carrick O’Brien in Athlone. Photograph: Alan Betson

Ministers Heather Humphreys and Simon Harris with the Taoiseach and Mayor Tom Farrell on their way to Carrick O’Brien in Athlone. Photograph: Alan Betson

 

Taoiseach Enda Kenny spent yesterday visiting regions affected by the extensive flooding that has occurred over the past month.

After criticism from his opponents for being absent from the response to the problem, Mr Kenny made his first visits to flood-stricken areas outside his own constituency of Mayo.

In the morning, he travelled the breadth of the country in an Air Corps helicopter taking in views of the worst-affected areas, from Carrick-on-Shannon in Leitrim to Ardnacrusha and Parteen near the mouth of the river Shannon. Within two hours of Galway City Council chief executive Brendan McGrath expressing serious concern at the National Co-ordination Group briefing about the river’s rising levels in Athlone, the Taoiseach visited the town and the hinterland to see the flooding first-hand.

Criticism

Politically, he could not have left it much later. He has shipped a lot of criticism over the past month for not visiting the towns and rural communities which faced devastating damage. That his first act yesterday was a helicopter tour of the country called to mind for some opponents the response of George W Bush to the breaching of the levees in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, where he viewed the damage from Air Force One without ever meeting affected citizens on the ground.

Before that comparison could take hold, Mr Kenny had taken off for a tour of Athlone in a trailer on the back of a tractor for a two and a half-hour tour through the new wetlands.

Along the way he visited a farmhouse, met a horse trainer whose training facilities and land have been over-run by water, and a family living in a cottage protected only by a three-foot high wall of sandbags. While jumping off the trailer, the water crept in over the top of his wellies. The afternoon, while dry, was bitterly cold and it must have made for a very uncomfortable return journey to dry land.

Finally undone

It was bad but not as bad as the incident involving Tánaiste Joan Burton who fell out of a canoe in Kilkenny into less than three feet of water. Having survived the water meter controversy all year, she was finally undone by a metre of water.

Back in Athlone the Taoiseach met some of the workers who have been working night and day to prevent the Shannon breaching the defences. There are are dozens of industrial water pumps, powered by generators, in situ along the banks of the river, which has swollen to more than double its width in places. Thousands upon thousands of sandbags have been placed by the Defence Forces to act as temporary dykes.

The Shannon’s water levels in Athlone are now within 5cm of the levels of 2009 when dozens of homes in Deerpark and elsewhere were flooded.

Then taoiseach Brian Cowen visited the affected scene much earlier at the time but also left very quickly after speaking to only one or two residents. By contrast, while it took four weeks for Mr Kenny to visit the flooded regions outside Mayo, he took much longer touring the affected area and has also promised further visits to other areas over the next few days.