York flood volunteers fear council’s recovery effort scaled back too soon

Debris from the flood piles up on Fossgate on January 4. Photograph: Nigel Holland
14 Jan 2016 @ 8.39 pm
| News
Debris from the flood piles up on Fossgate on January 4. Photograph: Nigel Holland
Debris from the flood piles up on Fossgate on January 4. Photograph: Nigel Holland

The flood water might have receded but the work of York’s army of volunteers continues apace.

Many have worked full-time on the recovery operation since Boxing Day and some are now concerned that, while they carry on helping their fellow residents, City of York Council has scaled-back its own efforts too soon, leaving them without proper support and central coordination.

“York is definitely open for business, but that doesn’t mean the clean-up operation is anywhere near complete,” said Cary MacMahon, a volunteer member of the Facebook group York Floods 2015 Help For The Affected, which has more than 14,000 members.

“If the chief executive and the council leader would like to get their wellies on, I’ll show them the areas of the city that are still in dire need.

“Some of the most deprived areas of the city have been worst hit. I’ve been moved to tears by what I’ve seen. People are really struggling.”

The council response

Sally Burns, director of communities and neighbourhoods, at City of York Council, said: “The Emergency Plan involves council directors, senior officers and service teams directing substantial and co-ordinated work by the council and partner agencies and this was carried out swiftly and effectively.”

Scaling back the skips

The clean up. Photograph © Darren Patrick Friel on Facebook
The clean up. Photograph © Darren Patrick Friel on Facebook
Cary said: “As a volunteer, my forte is banging on doors. But when I bang on the council’s door, no one at the top seems to want to help.

“Individual council employees and officers have been working incredibly hard behind the scenes; a great many even coming off-shift and then joining the volunteers. There is, however, a vacuum at the top.”

Some volunteers are concerned by the city’s lack of a central flood group tasked with coordinating the recovery effort.

They also believe the council has moved on too quickly, taking a brisk, business-as-usual approach while residents and business owners are still struggling and suffering.

After initially placing skips at 61 locations around the city, the council has now scaled it back to 25 because, it says, they were being increasingly used to dump items not affected by flood damage, such as Christmas trees.

In the two weeks after the flood, businesses could dispose of flood damaged waste free of charge at Hazel Court household waste recycling centre.

From January 11, however, normal charges were reintroduced.

Ms Burns said: “We’ve made it clear that skips are monitored, emptied and returned as required and will continue be provided for residents still needing to dispose of flood-damaged items.

“They are not for the next phase of recovery as the cost of disposal of building and refurbishment waste must be borne by insurers.

Where residents have returned to flooded homes and skips in local areas have been removed, they are asked to call 01904 551551 and the council will help to make arrangements.

Residents visiting Hazel Court or Towthorpe Household Waste Recycling Centre to dispose of flood damaged waste won’t require a permit and are asked to contact the Centres before visiting to make arrangements.

Normal disposal charges will apply to disposal of building/renovation materials which should be covered by insurance costs.

Stores are full

Many people have been generous with their donations. Photograph ©
Many people have been generous with their donations. Photograph © Vikki Harrison on the York Floods Facebook page”
As of this week, the council is no longer accepting donations of goods because its stores are full.

“Portakabin has said it’s happy to provide additional storage, but the council doesn’t seem to want to engage to make it happen,” said Cary.

“We’ve got 500-litres of disinfectant arriving today and nowhere to put it. York Rowing Club is trying to make room for it, but it’s hardly ideal.

“I’ve also spoken to YorWaste about providing more skips, but they had to send 50 up to Cumbria and are now running short in York. Again, it’s been difficult to get the council to come up with a solution.”

Ms Burns said: “The council has been working closely with community-based donation centres since Boxing Day. We have co-ordinated efforts to ensure the right resources are given to the right people as quickly as possible and we have advised on distribution and disposal of unwanted items.

“A small number of donation centres remain to hold stocks for the later stages of the recovery process, and others are returning to community use, as they decide and based on local need.

“Donations gratefully received have included clothes, pet food, food, cleaning materials, toys and other items donated by the public and at this moment immediate requirements for this type of donation are met.

“The council and its partners – including the Community Furniture Store – has a significant number of items held in storage for immediate requirements, the continuing clean up operation over the coming weeks, and for when people are able to move back home.

“If residents need cleaning kits, they can request them by calling 01904 551550.”

‘Left to our own devices’

Another view of the Fossgate clear-up. Photograph: Nigel Holland
Another view of the Fossgate clear-up. Photograph: Nigel Holland
“The council needs to learn from this experience and to establish a properly coordinated flood group fully equipped to deal with any eventuality before the next crisis occurs,” said Cary.

“They scaled it back from a major incident way too soon this time. There is still so much work to be done but no one is available to coordinate the work of the volunteers. We feel very much left to our own devices.”

She said the Facebook group has become the coordinating force behind the clean-up. “People who have very little are doing the most. It’s wonderful to see, but the fact remains that they shouldn’t have to.

“I would normally suggest that people go through the council’s website, but that doesn’t seem to get you very far,” said Cary.

“Our Facebook group seems to be a more productive option.”

She praised local churches and York Mosque for their support, and also the numerous volunteer groups across the UK who’d parachuted in extra help, including members of the Muslim community who’d travelled from as far as London to do their bit.

Ms Burns said: “City of York Council has logged all offers of assistance and thanks everyone who has come forward.

“People wanting to volunteer have been asked to email [email protected] with their offers of support. This has been promoted on our website, through social media and in leaflets / posters etc.

“We have been working behind the scenes to ensure that areas are safe for volunteers and co-ordinated that relief by contacting flood-affected properties including knocking on doors to offer help and advice where needed, plus with follow-up telephone calls.

“Where work or supplies have been requested by residents we have been liaising with volunteers directly to meet those requests. This co-ordination will continue as water levels recede further, the clean-up continues and people begin to return home.”

Agencies discuss floods at Friday meeting

A flooded Foss Islands Road on December 29. Photograph © Allan Harris on Flickr
A flooded Foss Islands Road on December 29. Photograph © Allan Harris on Flickr
The council has invited residents and businesses affected by the floods to a public meeting at the Barbican on Friday (January 15) from 6-8pm.

The city’s response to the floods, the clean-up operation and the way forward will be discussed, with a focus on the practical support offered across the city.

People will be able to talk directly to representatives from organisations at the heart of the operation, including the Environment Agency, North Yorkshire Fire and Rescue Service, BT, North Yorkshire Police and the council itself.

Ms Burns said that both city council leader Chris Steward and chief executive Steve Stewart would be at that meeting

“In addition to their visits to the affected areas, the leader and chief executive invite resident to Friday’s public meeting at the Barbican to share their views.”

Cary doesn’t have high hopes for Friday’s meeting.

“The message that has been coming through loud and clear for days is ‘where is the council?’. I suspect we might still be asking that on Friday and beyond, but I sincerely hope I’m proved wrong.

“We simply want to know why there hasn’t been any coordination this time and if it will be the same next time York floods.

“I keep asking myself ‘what state would York be in now without its army of volunteers?’. Frankly, it doesn’t bear thinking about.”