Eyewitness: Carlisle floods mean learning what it is like to be on the front line of climate change

Joe Sabatini reports from Carlisle, where floods devastated the town. He discusses what it means to be on the front line of climate change.

The Civic Centre.jpg

Climate change has just slapped into Cumbria. For the third time in 10 years the county has suffered from a major flood, leaving thousands devastated – many hit for the second time.

In 2005 there was a hurricane that left Carlisle flooded, and in 2009 there was a deluge that tore through the town of Cockermouth. Over the weekend we had both of those events superimposed, plus major flooding down the Eden valley, the town of Kendal and across the Lake District.

The picture below shows how high the waters reached.

Tim demonstrating the floodline-1

Why Carlisle is vulnerable

Carlisle is a small city with around 60,000 people, and sits at the point where three rivers join before issuing into the Irish Sea. All three rivers have catchments in the Lake District Fells (most notably Helvellyn at 950 metres) and the Pennines (most notably Cross Fell at 893 metres).

This means that Carlisle sits downstream from some of the most powerful rivers in England, and can suffer storm surges during high tides. On Saturday we experienced both the highest day’s recorded rainfall, and a high tide that blocked the waters from escaping.

When climate change is factored in, it means that we are on a new front line.

The current situation in Carlisle and elsewhere in Cumbria

On Friday night the rains began and continued until early Sunday morning. At 3pm on the Saturday I went to look at one of the rivers where the flood defences had held. By the following morning they were breached.

On Sunday my wife and I took a walk around. Large parts of the city were unaffected, but then we were hit by a smell as we neared the flood. It revealed a totally different city. The RNLI were running relays through the streets where families were trapped. Many of the people who were being helped out of the boats were really shaken up, and the TV footage did not capture the fear and anxiety we saw in their faces.

We then went to the Civic Centre where the City Council was based. The 1960s tower block lay in the middle of a lake, where the traffic lights were just popping above the surface.

We then took a look at the railway, where the river Caldew was running along the main line cutting Carlisle off from Glasgow (and by implication London). All the car parks in the vicinity were inundated with only the roofs of cars poking through.

The mood has been deeply affected. There are many people now housing friends and family, and the Council is receiving remarkable offers of solidarity from individuals and organisations. One person who has been diverted from their job to help co-ordinate offers of support reported people around the country offering to put up families, while people affected by the Somerset floods had offered to send up teams of community volunteers. Local authorities from the Midlands and elsewhere have got in touch, offering gully cleaning vehicles and other equipment, and people in workplaces and communities across the countries are doing collections for money and goods.

People’s stories

I spoke to one person whose friend was a single parent of two disabled children who were flooded. They could not afford housing or contents insurance. Another work colleague was putting up his brother who was an IT manager at an NHS Trust. His brother was dealing with his own personal disaster while trying to fix the shutdown of servers and the loss of patient records. Another person was a few doors down from where floods ended. These are just three of the stories I heard.

Coming to terms with things

Yesterday I took a walk around the areas we visited on Sunday, and was accompanied by a friend who is a specialist in advising public sector organisations on climate change. It was amazing to see the water had receded and that the first trains were back. We also saw teams of workers on railway tracks, workers with pumping machines and dredging mud, all were putting in the hardest day’s work I had seen in years. I spoke to call handlers in the Council who were improvising call centres and working hard. There was a sense that people were fighting to get their city back on its feet.

Still we saw eerie signs on the walk. Firstly in a sign reminiscent of Katrina, we saw where houses had been marked with an orange cross, to denote that the house had been checked.

Window marked with an organge cross.jpg

Secondly we saw how the retreating waters revealed the way in which cars were pushed about by the floods like toys.

Cars pushed by the floods-1.jpg

Yet over all it struck me how much our society really does depends upon labour. The speed, the skill and the co-ordination told me where the real lifeblood of the system flows.

Political and ecological lessons

While we come to terms with the emergency, we are learning what it means to be in the front line of climate change. Where we go next will depend on the mood of people on the ground, as they come to terms with the prospect of continual flooding.

The big question immediately is around the failure of the flood defences. Following the 2005 and 2009 floods millions was spent on flood defences. On Saturday these were breached in some places, and simply acted as a canal to push the water to other places.

While the ‘build and engineer’ school talks about strengthening defences and higher walls, the ecologically minded thinkers are focusing on how we are managing our rivers.

The main river running through Carlisle is the Eden. The bulk of the river-heads are given over to sheep farming, which reduces the capacity of the soil to absorb the rain. To address this would require a revolution in the structure of upland farming and taking on vested interests who have powerful links through the NFU, the Conservative Party and many elected councillors.

The final question is about climate change and working class communities in flood risk areas. This requires a whole debate on the relationship between climate change, class and austerity. While the Labour Party has focused on the cuts to the Environment Agency, they have not seen what I saw – a county council with over 50% of its budget cut, acting as the front line of support. The cuts to local authorities threaten the viability of the emergency services, but also social services departments and back-office workers who can be quickly redeployed to run phonelines.

Tackling these issues requires a debate on what can be achieved by the market, the state and communities. It means rejecting austerity, but also top down Keynesianism with its technocratic mentality. It means serious investment in the most local levels of the state, where accountability to communities and direct forms of workers’ control can be explored. From the past few days I saw germs of this model springing up, and as these events keep happening, the capacity of people to self-organise increases.

All the while in Paris talks we see a rendition of Nero fiddling while Rome burns.


  1. Cartainly the cuts have played into the impact of the Cumbrian flooding. Not so much around flood defences as we had major floods in 2005 and 2009, and expensive flood defences were installed under the Labour government. But these failed due to the scale of the rain – the Lake District received the highest 24 hour rainfall on record (I think anywhere in Britain – though would have to check). The point in terms of climate change is that even expensive flood defences cannot handle the kind of rain we will see now the global temperature has increased 1 degree compared to pre-industrial times (hence the shift to debates on land management, and the role of industrial (capitalist) farming practices).

    In terms of the cuts, there has been cuts in Fire and Rescue leading to greater reliance on national support and personnel (there are also proposals to cut fire stations in Cumbria, including one in the village of Staveley where Cumbria had its only flood related death). Also cuts in Highways means that more is needed from national government to repair infrastructure, and investment in infrastructure is at a real low – making us reliant on older more worn out bridges and roads. The capacity to check this infrastructure, repair, redesign etc. in the years leading up to the floods has been impacted by cuts.
    There have also been cuts in terms of Council officers working on broader ecological and environmental assessment work, which is large rural counties like Cumbria and North Yorkshire come into play.

    Other impacts include greater costs so schools have been relocated, or rural communities have become more cut off leading to greater costs in transporting children to schools. The cost of domicilary care to vulnerable housebound adults would be similarly impacted.

    Given that local authorities set their own budgets, they implement cuts in very different ways and to different departments, often through restructures, so it takes quite a bit of detective work to see which cuts have impacted where and in which way. But certainly it is more than that which is being presented in the national debate on funding for the Environment Agency, and Corbyn could do more to work with Labour led Councils to map these impacts and shape anti-austerity policies that focus on integrating climate change, flood management and redesign of infrastructure and community services (Cumbria County Council, Carlisle City Council and Calderdale Council are three Labour led authorities who were badly impacted).

  2. And in a country where the rich and affluent in London and the SE are getting more, and the rest of us are getting less and less and working harder… Do you think the cuts to all kinds of services have actually exacerbated the flooding in Cumbria? Cameron got booed in York. I wonder why, he added sarcastically?!

    This incumbent government is now so bad, and is so against the majority of the citizenry of these Islands, that one or two more scandals and they will be gone….. Just give it time…. More chicanery coming to a town near you soon…


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