Mountmellick flooding: ‘I don’t know where we go from here’

Householder asks: ‘If we fix it all up, what happens next week, next month or next year?’

Occupants of 35 houses in Mountmellick were evacuated and have yet to return to their homes. Video: Alan Betson

 

“She can’t look at this; it’s breaking her heart,” says Jimmy O’Neill, who is showing me the flood damage in the Mountmellick, Co Laois house he shares with his wife, Kathleen.

Kathleen O’Neill is so distressed by the sudden, unexpected flooding that occurred when three rivers simultaneously burst their banks on Wednesday, that she is not in their Manor Road house.

The O’Neills have lived here for 44 years, and it took less than an hour on Wednesday afternoon for their home to become, as Jimmy says simply, “ruined”. The water that came flooding in both the front and back doors, situated as the house was between the trajectory of two different rivers, has now receded, but has literally left its mark everywhere.

O’Neill, who looks exhausted, shows me around. The living room floorboards are already buckling. The oil-burning stove has leaked oil everywhere. There is a tide mark of dirt on the radiators, and around the walls, some 18 inches high.

One bedroom is a chaotic tumble of the contents of drawers piled on a bed, whose base and mattress is wet to the touch. There’s a laundry basket on the floor they didn’t get to in time. “Full of laundry and water.”

Filthy with grit

In the kitchen the floor is filthy with grit, and the contents of a full freezer are slowly defrosting on the kitchen table. Sons Nigel and Conor are working silently, trying to empty cupboards, but surface space has run out.

Ita Conroy surveys the water-damaged contents of her home near Manor Road in Mountmellick after it was inundated with floodwater on Wednesday. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
Ita Conroy surveys the water-damaged contents of her home near Manor Road in Mountmellick after it was inundated with floodwater on Wednesday. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

“In 44 years, we have never had a flood like this,” O’Neill says. “In 1990, there was bad rain, but the flood was nothing like this.” They spent the previous night with friends. “My wife wants us to move back in, but how can we? And if we fix it all up, what happens next week, next month or next year? Are we looking at the same thing again?”

The damaged surface of Manor Road in Mountmellick after local rivers burst their banks on Wednesday. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
The damaged surface of Manor Road in Mountmellick after local rivers burst their banks on Wednesday. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Further up the road, back towards Mountmellick town, an Army platoon of 35 who have just arrived are going door-to-door at Manor Grove estate, checking on residents. “People are telling us that the water was coming up through the floors, rather than through doors,” says Sgt Alan O’Keefe.

Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan, and Minister for the Office of Public Works and Flood Relief Kevin “Boxer” Moran, made a joint visit to the town on Thursday.

A civil defence vehicle took them on a loop through some of the worst flooded areas, while the media followed in another vehicle. The Ministers did not stop anywhere on the route, but gave a brief interview back in Mountmellick.

Mr Moran spoke about the existing Catchment Flood Risk Assessment and Management programme (CFRAM). The programme is a key part of long-term planning for the management of flood risk. He said the scheme would have to be broadened to now include Mountmellick, not a town previously thought of as a flood risk.

Mr Flanagan said “every effort would be made to comfort people at this time”, and he assured local people of assistance.

Local residents on Manor Road in Mountmellick, where up to half a metre of water flooded into homes on Wednesday. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
Local residents on Manor Road in Mountmellick, where up to half a metre of water flooded into homes on Wednesday. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Near the Mountmellick Development Association Business Park across town, an alarm rang loudly for hours that nobody could switch off. The playground opposite the business park was partly submerged, swings out of sight under water. The fire station, ironically, was also flooded, and the fire truck parked outside could not get out.

There are 16 businesses in the business park, and Declan Furlong is the owner of one, The Hare’s Corner, a restaurant that can seat 70. “We opened on the 14th November last year. This is how we’re marking our first anniversary,” he says grimly.

Lunch service abandoned

The power is off in the restaurant, so he shows me around by the light of our phones. There’s evidence everywhere of a lunch service the previous day abandoned through necessity; dishes piled up, uneaten food.

At 1pm, the water from the Owenass river had started roaring across the large adjacent carpark, and Furlong urged people to leave and get their cars out. “There were maybe 100 cars in the car park,” he says. He had 30 people in for lunch at the time.

The water was in the door before they could do very much to salvage anything. Being a professional kitchen, the place is full of electrics, and after getting customers and staff out, he locked up and left.

Manor Road in Mountmellick, where up to half a metre of water entered homes in the area on Wednesday. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times
Manor Road in Mountmellick, where up to half a metre of water entered homes in the area on Wednesday. Photograph: Alan Betson/The Irish Times

Furlong gets more distressed as we tour the darkened restaurant, office and kitchen; each of which are clearly destroyed. “I don’t know if I have lost my business or not,” he says. “This restaurant serves the community, and employs 14 people. I don’t know where we go from here.”

Back on Manor Road, Therese Dowling has lit a fire in her front room, and is using borrowed dehumidifiers to try to dry out her bungalow. I go automatically to sit down on her sofa, and it’s wet: the water here was two feet high, and arrived before sandbags could be delivered by the Civil Defence, so swiftly did the rivers rise from 1pm.

Dowling lives next door to Cara Rescue, where more than 20 rescue dogs were in danger of drowning in their enclosures. The occupant of the house was away at work. “I heard awful barking; the dogs were terrified,” she says. “The civil defence had arrived with a boat. I climbed out the bedroom window and helped them get the dogs in the boat.”

Road impassible

Dowling’s partner, Paul Byrne, was away at work, and by the time he responded to her calls to come home, their road was impassible. He abandoned his car and walked with waders through the waters. He shows me a video he took on arrival at the house close to 2pm: the water is up to the windowsills. Their home is strewn with wet clothes, wet towels, wet linen, and everywhere, despite the dehumidifiers, is the pervasive smell of damp.

On Wednesday night, 19 rooms in the Maldron Hotel in the nearby town of Portlaoise were occupied by displaced families from Mountmellick. Some of them are still there. One of the occupants, Christina O’Neill (74), of College Avenue in Mountmellick, was carried out of her house on someone’s back when the water started rising. “I was getting panicky,” she says.

O’Neill left her house with only the clothes she was wearing, her phone and a small handbag. A bus brought her and several others to the Maldron as darkness fell on Wednesday evening. “My son has come down from Dublin and is going to bring me in some clothes,” she says.

O’Neill has not yet been back to her house, but has only praise for those who came to her aid. “When you are in trouble and need people to help, a community is so good when it gets together.”

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