David Cameron confronted by angry residents of flooded village
People in Yalding, Kent, tell prime minister they were abandoned when floods hit on Christmas Eve.
David Cameron has been confronted by angry residents of a village in Kent that was flooded by waist-high waters over the Christmas holidays.
When the prime minister swept into the devastated community in his Range Rover to talk to residents and members of the emergency services on Friday morning, despair at nature’s power turned to recrimination over the perceived inadequacy of the official response.
Erica Olivares, 49, was among the residents of a row of early-18th-century cottages in Yalding who were sluicing out silt from inundated floors and hauling out sodden Christmas trees when Cameron arrived with his entourage.
Rushing across the street, she told the prime minister that the village felt they had been left to struggle on their own. About 100 homes had to be abandoned on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.
“We were literally abandoned,” she told him angrily. “We had no rescuers, no nothing for the whole day. It was Christmas.”
Cameron, who was due to talk to Environment Agency officers and firefighters, seemed taken aback. He asked what she needed now and urged her to “get on to the council”, but she replied that “they all decided to go on holiday”.
“The Environment Agency said it was up to the council and when I did get through to the council they said if you need sandbags, get your own,” she later said. Her grandmother’s walnut-veneer cabinet was ruined, chairs were upended and her Christmas tree was about the only thing that was standing.
She complained that there had been only a couple of hours’ notice of the flood and no chance to get possessions to safety before the converging rivers of the Beult, Tiese and Medway burst their banks. Among her losses is a buckled and drenched £5,000 wooden floor she laid eight months ago.
Cameron was also heckled by Sean Matthews, 54, a tube driver who had given up on keeping his footwear dry and was striding around the village barefoot.
“The people he is talking to, the Environment Agency and so on, they weren’t here,” he said. “I swam this road on Christmas Day, pulling people out on my own. There was no one here on Christmas Day or Boxing Day. A lot of families have lost a lot.”
Sally Pawson, a nurse who lives alone, had enlisted the help of friends to rip out carpets, lift soaked chipboard floors and clean up her filthy possessions.
“My frustration is that until Cameron came we had been left abandoned,” she said. “When we knew he was coming this morning the police showed up, the council turned up but until then the only people helping us were volunteers. It was just a publicity stunt.”
Cameron pledged to make flood protection an increasing priority of the government and commiserated with villagers that the floods were “completely awful”.
He told the Guardian: “You only have to watch the news over the last few years to know these events are happening more often now. It needs to be a bigger priority for the government and it is.”
Speaking outside the flooded village pub, he added: “There are a lot of flood defences being built and something like 80,000 houses were protected this time, but we have got to do more. We need to work with the Environment Agency to see what more we can do from this flood and other floods, but right now the priority is to help people recover from the terrible shock of this happening to them on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.”
He conceded warnings from the Environment Agency “weren’t always accurate” but he said: “Sometimes these are very, very tragic events and it is impossible to protect everybody, but we have got to do more and we have got to do better.”
Over the road, logs were strewn around Lorraine Gibbs’s sitting room, chairs were upended and a Santa decoration sat forlornly on a soaked cabinet. She and her husband Paul had left by a canoe from their front door on Christmas morning and only returned on Friday to start picking up the pieces.
“It was emotional at first, but you have to be philosophical about it,” she said. “If you look at other parts of the world, this kind of devastation happens all the time.”
The village remained without power and, as night closed in and temperatures dropped, the clean-up continued by candlelight. Residents lit wood fires to try to drive out the damp.
A key concern for many was when the insurers’ loss adjusters would turn up, because until they do residents cannot throw out their ruined possessions. Many were told to call back on Monday to arrange appointments.
Yalding suffered serious flooding in 2000 but no improvement have since been made to flood defences in the area.
There is little chance that any projects will begin before 2017, according to Environment Agency officials. A proposal to build a earthworks burm – a raised mound – around the village was not taken forward following consultation with the local community, partly because of its aesthetic impact on the village, said Andrew Pearce, the Environment Agency’s area manager for Kent and south London. Geraldine Brown, leader of the parish council, said protection for the village would cost up to £20m.