Whaley Bridge dam crisis: What’s changed one year on?

Toddbrook Reservoir in July 2020Image copyright
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Sandbags remain in place after being dropped by an RAF helicopter a year ago

It was a shock for 1,500 people in Whaley Bridge last summer when they were abruptly ordered to leave their homes over fears a badly damaged dam could collapse and cause a devastating flood.

It would be nearly a week before they were allowed back to the Derbyshire town and there were jubilant scenes as they returned.

Now 12 months have passed – and amid another major crisis with the coronavirus pandemic – how are residents feeling?

What happened?

On the evening of Thursday 1 August 2019, about 1,500 people were instructed to leave their homes in Whaley Bridge immediately and find alternative accommodation.

Heavy rain had caused a large section of dam’s spillway at Toddbrook Reservoir to fall away and there were fears the whole structure could collapse, leading to a huge flood with the potential to wipe out much of the town.

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This understated council tweet on the morning of the evacuation gave no hint of the drama to follow

Many expected the evacuation to last a few hours or just one night – but in fact it was not until the following Wednesday they were given the green light to return.

During that time, emergency crews worked relentlessly to pump huge amounts of water from the reservoir to bring levels down while an RAF Chinook helicopter dropped sandbags and aggregate into the compromised spillway to reinforce it.

Is the dam fixed now?

Temporary repairs to the dam have almost been completed. The Canal and River Trust, which owns the dam, said it was now “secure against any extreme weather event”.

Footpaths around the reservoir are due to reopen this month and a permanent repair project has been slated to start next spring, with a scheduled 2023 completion date.

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Excess rainwater is still pumped from the reservoir to keep levels low

In March, an independent review carried out on behalf the government found the emergency was caused by poor design and a lack of maintenance.

Any excess rainwater falling in the reservoir has continued to be removed by pumps and it will remain drained until all repair work has concluded.

How do locals feel when they look back?

There were joyous scenes as residents returned – but did the good feeling continue?

“The first few days of being home were a mixture of emotions,” said Whaley Bridge resident Kelly Baker.

“On the one hand there was total relief we had a home to come back to and pure joy at seeing friends and neighbours.

“But on the other hand there was a lot of anxiety about the river bursting its banks again.

“Even now, 12 months later, I still get a little anxious when we have heavy rain.”

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Kelly Baker

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Kelly Baker said the evacuation was a much scarier situation than the pandemic

Gill Barras, who also lives in the town, does not feel as nervous.

“It will be the safest dam in Britain,” she said.

“The village could have gone – the whole world knew about it. So obviously they’re going to make it really strong.

“I have no doubts whatsoever. It’s all the other dams they need to worry about.”

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Gill Barras said she was given 10 minutes to leave her home on 1 August

Some residents even look back on the evacuation with some fondness.

Ian Kidd said: “I think everyone contributed in one way or another – whether it was the two ladies making tea and coffee [for evacuated residents] or the people who came in and started doing hot meals.

“So although we had this impending disaster, it was a really nice time to be a member of this community.”

Have local businesses recovered?

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Fred Salmon said he felt safe and confident a year later

The crisis came as a shock to the system to Fred Salmon, who runs Whaley Bridge cycling shop The Bike Factory.

“It almost wiped us out completely,” he said.

“It showed how vulnerable we were at the time. We’d got a great little business going with repairs and a workshop but the online store was only a small part of it.

“We changed everything and fully committed to developing our online store and we seem to be motoring ahead now.”

Did house prices go down?

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The RAF Chinook spent several days dropping sandbags to shore up the damaged dam

You might have thought the frightening situation would put prospective buyers off moving to the area but estate agent Lorraine Batty said it actually gave the town a boost.

“It put us on the world map. Everybody knew about Whaley Bridge,” she said.

“After about a month when things had settled down a little bit with the dam, we did more sales in the latter part of the year than we’ve ever done previously.

“And property prices were increasing slightly as well – probably between five and 10%.

“I’d been extremely concerned how people would perceive the market very close to the dam but we saw the absolute opposite and yes, it surprised me.

“I just think it’s a beautiful place in the world to be.”

Do the emergency services feel proud?

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The prime minister visited the scene the day after the evacuation took place

The emergency response involved police, councils, the military and about 1,000 firefighters who helped to pump millions of gallons of water from the reservoir.

Gavin Tomlinson, Derbyshire’s chief fire officer, said: “You can look back now with a sense of pride having achieved what we set out to achieve but at the time it was touch-and-go whether the dam would collapse or not.

“All the time we had to have another plan. We had to have other crews that nobody actually ever saw that were stood by at two other locations below the dam in case it did burst.

“I’m very proud of everyone involved.”

How does the evacuation compare to the pandemic?

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After returning to their properties, residents were given advice on future evacuations

Resident Kelly Baker did not believe there was any comparison between the dam evacuation and the ongoing coronavirus situation.

“Last year we didn’t know if we would have a home to come back to,” she said.

“This year home is where we have kept our children safe.

“Yes, it’s been disruptive in the sense that both girls had their birthday parties cancelled, my oldest daughter didn’t get to finish her first year of high school and my youngest daughter hasn’t been able to go and see her school or meet her teachers before she starts reception in September.

“But there’s nothing we can do about it – and the plus side of the Covid crisis is the time we as a family have spent together and the memories made along the way.”

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Normal life has returned to Whaley Bridge

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