Fighting the flood

Unite heroes battle Storm Ciaran despite little kit

Reading time: 8 min

As the COP28 climate change talks draw to an historic close we meet the Unite heroes who took on Storm Ciarán – despite being very poorly equipped.

Flooding unleashed by Storm Ciarán in October devastated villages and towns up and down Northern Ireland. Newry and Downpatrick were among the worst hit, with hundreds of homes and businesses severely damaged.

Rivers reached record levels and the destruction in some areas has been called ‘unprecedented’.

Weeks later, many businesses are counting the cost of the disaster, with everything they’d worked so hard for now gone. Some residents too have returned to unliveable homes.

Workers employed by the Rivers Agency, an executive agency of the Department of Infrastructure (DfI), were among those who toiled round the clock during Storm Ciarán to manage the flooding and save as much as they could.

But Rivers Agency workers have been treading water – both literally and figuratively – as they’ve battled to do their jobs amid years of underinvestment in the service.

Unite member and Rivers Agency worker John* – who has asked us not to use his real name – spoken to us on condition of anonymity. He paints a shocking picture of a service that’s severely understaffed and under-resourced. 

Disorganised chaos’

John said that when the storm hit, it was initially “disorganised chaos”.

“We did get it together very quickly but at the start it was everyone running around everywhere,” he explained.

The speed with which he and his colleagues coordinated their response was exceptional – “It was one of the better floodings we’d attended to in terms of how quickly we got ourselves organised,” John said – but they were up against the unparalleled ferocity of Storm Ciarán.

“The storm and the flooding that followed was incredibly powerful and it became problematic very quickly,” he explained. “No one was prepared for how bad it would be. Especially in Downpatrick, no one was prepared at all because flooding of that scale had never happened there before.”

John and his colleagues’ daily job involves maintaining rivers to prevent flooding – when John spoke to UNITElive, he had just finished pulling out trees that had washed downriver and blocked a bridge. But the day that Storm Ciarán hit, their role became a reactive one, as they scrambled to put hundreds upon hundreds of sandbags in place to protect homes and businesses.

You’d think that these workers, who in effect serve as emergency responders, would be properly equipped by their employers. But because of the lack of investment, for John and his colleagues, it was like bringing a butter knife to a sword fight. 

“For the twenty-four hours that we were out, we worked in crews of only five people,” he explained. “We aren’t given standard equipment like sat navs in our vehicles, so we had to use our personal mobiles to find where we were going. Newry and Downpatrick are on the other end of the country for us so it was incredibly difficult finding very specific locations in these areas.”

John highlighted too the lack of head torches working outside in the dark of night. They each had to carry two 20 kilo sandbags at any given time – the equivalent of carrying two Siberian huskies – while somehow managing to also carry and manipulate a handheld torch.

In the end, John’s crew of five workers distributed over 1,500 sandbags, among many other tasks like setting up pumps. They left home at 8 o’clock in the morning and didn’t get home until 8am the next day, with only minutes for a break for cups of tea provided by Red Cross volunteers.

“The people of Newry also kindly provided us with food, but we didn’t have much chance to eat,” John added.

But for all their Herculean efforts, they received no recognition. In fact, much the opposite – online, they received outright abuse.

Deeply hurt

John told us he was crestfallen and deeply hurt to see Facebook post after Facebook post written by local residents claiming that DfI workers were nowhere to be seen amid the disaster.

“Not only were we there, we were the very first people to arrive to respond to the floods,” John explained. “I’m not at all knocking the fire service but I saw online posts saying ‘thank God for the fire service’ because they ran two pumps all night. But over that same period, we ran up to 16 pumps.”

John said he doesn’t fault local residents’ frustration – rather, it is the Rivers Agency’s lack of public visibility, fuelled by chronic underinvestment, that is to blame. And since John and his colleagues are considered part of the civil service, they aren’t permitted to publicly defend themselves.

“I just wish people knew what we do – I wish they knew that we even exist,” he said.

Low pay

The thanklessness of their jobs is compounded by low pay, John highlights.

“No one goes to work for the Rivers Agency for the money. We do it to help people. But the pay is so low that no one wants to work for us. Our people are earning from the minimum wage up to £12 an hour. These are people who are carrying sandbags in the middle of the night, up to their waist in sewage and water, working a 24-hour shift with virtually no break.”

To add insult to injury, Rivers Agency workers’ overtime rates were slashed in a recent pay review from time and a half to time and a third because, according to John, “management said they believe it pays too much”.

Dire staffing levels – with any new hires going to management instead of the frontline – has hollowed out the service beyond recognition.

“A skeleton crew has become the norm in our workplace,” John noted. “The gaps are filled by hiring contractors, who are paid twice as much as we are but who don’t have the same skills. It’s robbing Peter to pay Paul.”

Such robbery will only become less and less sustainable as the climate emergency ramps up in the coming years.

“When I first started 25 years ago, Storm Ciarán-type floods were considered a once-in-decade event. Then they said it was once every five years. And now, we’re seeing flooding on that scale literally twice a year.

“It’s only going to get worse,” John warned. “I can see for myself water levels rising year on year — we’re not ready for it.”

And, he adds, there is as yet no political will to do anything about it either.

“All we’re asking for is that management and people higher up in government listen to us. We know what we need to do our jobs – give us what we need so we can support the communities and businesses that desperately need our help.”

John’s plea to management comes as Unite members employed by the Rivers Agency have taken ongoing strike action in defence of the work they take so much pride in.

Climate change

Commenting, Unite regional officer Joanne McWilliams said, “Unite represents most of the Rivers Agency workers who act as frontline responders in flooding events, which are sadly increasingly frequent given climate change.”

“Unfortunately their dedication in protecting the public is in no way reflected in their pay. As industrial civil service workers, basic pay rates in the Rivers Agency are just above the legal minimum. This is a tough job – and combined with low pay – means there’s a permanent staffing crisis which is then used to push outsourcing and privatisation.

“But our members have had enough,” Joanne added. “In September, Rivers Agency workers joined with those from forestry, roads service and historic monuments to take five-days strike action for improved pay. That industrial campaign will have to continue until we see a decent pay increase – workers in the Rivers Agency cannot accept more of the same.”

*Name changed to protect identity

By Hajera Blagg

This feature first appeared in the latest, the Winter 2023 edition of Landworker. Hard copies are available from your Unite regional office and a digital version will be available from next week on the Unite website, Food Drink and Agriculture page.