Hello, and Happy New Year to you all.
I started writing this post a week after the event and it has sat in my drafts ever since. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to post it or not, or whether I just wanted to write about it to preserve the memories. Either way, people keep asking me about what happened so here you go – this is the story of our experience of the flooding which hit Stonehaven in the early hours of the 23rd of December 2012.
Everything is more or less back to normal now and I look forward to sharing my journey towards my first Highland Fling ultramarathon with you in the coming months. The blog is getting an overhaul and moving to new hosting in the coming weeks so if things go a bit wonky that’s why.
I awoke several times throughout the night, my sleep thinned by the umpteen pints of strong ale I’d consumed in the Marine Hotel down earlier that evening. Kynon and I had enjoyed a delicious lunch and a long boozy afternoon with both sets of our parents to celebrate our recent engagement and the completion of the lengthy renovation of our home. The new carpets were finally laid, all of my belongings were installed around the house and my little cat Saskia had settled in happily. We were ready for a cosy and relaxing Christmas together, our first spent as a couple.
Each time I woke up I was confused by how totally dark it was outside; Urgh I hate these long winter nights, will they never end?! At least it was the 23rd of December, midwinter had passed and it was all downhill to Spring as each day now slowly gets longer. Lying in the darkness, I squinted to focus on my alarm clock – 06:45am. Not bad; I still had hours to sleep off the pounding headache and raging thirst from the beer. It was so dark though; where was the familiar orange glow of the street lights? I turned my head to the window, distracted by something seen out of the corner of my eye. Blue flashing lights? What was going on? A car crash?
I pulled myself to my feet and cursed that delicious Fyne Ales Superior IPA with the 7% ABV as I staggered to the window for a look. What I saw when I first peered through the curtains will remained etched in my memory until the day I die; the streets were gone and in their place was a shimmering, fluid mass with blue, red and white lights dancing across it. The Carron had burst its banks and Old Town Stonehaven had flooded again.
What followed was a sequence of events which are still being processed in my mind. The dust is still settling and and I’m still getting my head around this most disruptive occurrence in our life. At the point of writing it’s only been a week – seven days. A lot can change in that time, or as it happened, in only a couple of hours.
The water came at about 3:30am, not long after we had gone to sleep. After a week of nasty wet weather, an unseasonably mild night dumped a huge amount of rain on North East Scotland some time after midnight which overwhelmed our fragile tributaries. The water swelled in the narrow banks of the river Carron and the Glasslaw Burn and just like in 2009, the water exploded out of the confines and turned streets into waterways. Aided with flowing torrents of rain coming off saturated fields and down the hilly roads of the Bervie Braes, drainage blocked by a massive land slip, and nonsensical re-direction of natural river flow, there was no way the constructed drainage system could ever have handled it.
Dark brown water bubbled up from plug holes in sinks and baths, drains over-flowed and sewage mains backed up spilling raw sewage into the sink. The Flood Wardens frantically knocked on doors of the people of their streets to wake them but for whatever reason we didn’t hear our doorbell or the knocking, and slept through the first three hours of chaos.
When Kynon and I ran downstairs we saw that the water had come in both the front and back doors of our property and soaked the downstairs lobby. The living space of our house is on the first and second floor of our property but the ground floor is where we store a lot of things and have a big cupboard under the stairs which was filled with water.
The first thing we did was wade out into the knee-deep water and around the corner to check our cars which were parked close by on the street. At the highest point of the water both had been submerged above the wheel arches and all four foot wells remained filled with muddy brown water. We needed to get them moved so cautiously turned them on and miraculously both engines roared into life. We drove them slowly through the water up the street until the water shallowed and eventually stopped. Despite seeming mechanically sound it appeared to both of us that due to the state of the insides, our vehicles were write-offs. They were quickly abandoned as concerning as the state of them was, there were far more important things to take care of.
Police, the Fire brigade and the Coastguard were swarming everywhere and intermittently rescue boats came up the street containing evacuees from the High Street where people were trapped. There were individuals, couples, families with young children and more elderly than I care to remember. It was harrowing to watch a frail old lady clutching a dog and a suitcase be met by a nurse to be taken away, one old man was received by an ambulance, and the youngest evacuee was a 3 week old baby with his sister, and their mum who was recovering from the recent caesarian birth.
Two days after the shortest day of the year, and what passed for daylight didn’t come until after 9am. When the sun rose into the cruelly clear and blue sky, it was the first time we’d seen it in days and it revealed the extent of the damage. The water was receding quite quickly, so I took some pictures and shared them on twitter and facebook. Before long my phone was blowing up with journalists asking for permission to use the pictures and take statements. TV stations wanted to speak to me and broadcast an interview but I declined on the basis that, well, I had more important things to be doing.
The following pictures were picked up and used by the Sun, the Daily Record, BBC News and Sky TV:
Here’s how deep it got in the back garden:
The Floodgate worked to a certain extent, but didn’t hold a tight seal at all. The water on the other side of the door was about 6 inches below the outside high water mark seen above.
Funny things happen in floods that you don’t know about until it happens to you. Insects that are desperate to escape the rising waters, will climb up the walls on anything to get away. The wall of our house was covered in humongous spiders, beetles and centipedes clinging to the bricks – big, massive hairy things that clearly live quietly under the floorboards of our home that I wished I didn’t now know about. Wheelie bins tip over and your rubbish flows merrily down the street – it is a strange and exposed feeling seeing your recent household discards drifting publicly outside your front door. Less funny things are when you call your car insurance company for advice and they laugh and tell you that flooding is an act of God and you’re not covered for damages. Prove to me that there is a God and I will accept that as an answer, until then they need to be able to provide cover to those who need it, who pay through the nose every year for their premiums and trust that the company will help them when they are in need.
In the meantime, the town was waking up to the news that once more there was a spectacle down by the harbour. The police were having to work hard to keep the disaster tourists away from the area and had officers guarding each cordoned off street. Still, people stood behind the cordons and stared, watching intently as we worked to clear our properties as if they were watching us on the news instead of standing 5 meters away. It felt intrusive and callous and I wished they would go home and leave us in peace.
Water remained chest deep in the dish-shaped high street and the search and rescue operation was ongoing. I didn’t take this picture but it shows the depth of the water perfectly:
The black nodule in between the car and the sign is a monument – it’s actually an upturned cannon set into the ground and is shoulder height on my 5ft 10 frame. The car is floating.
As the water receded, all that was left was mud. Five inches of thick, smooth and silty mud with a texture like chocolate custard. It got EVERYWHERE; for days afterwards Stonehaven sung with the sounds of street cleaners repeatedly going up and down roads sucking it all up. Even weeks later people are still hosing it off the pavements and out of their gardens.
Time was passing in turns by leaps and slow motion. It became 1pm and we realised we hadn’t eaten all day so I made a sandwich and hoped it would kill the nagging hangover that was making the experience so much worse. We had spoken to many people who were suffering the same – it was the last Saturday night before Christmas so people were partying of course; however we hadn’t had the nightmare of being woken up at 03:30am still steaming drunk. We heard tales of many people giving their car keys to police officers, begging them to remove their cars to safer ground as they were well over the limit for driving.
At some point I was interviewed by Radio Scotland. I was standing on my front door step and a pleasant lady came up and talked to me and then asked if she could record our conversation for the Radio. I agreed and then promptly forgot about it until the following day when I was broadcast several times in the news segments across the morning, much to the surprise of my friends and family. We also discovered that we had been papped by the Daily Record and a picture of us paddling out of our front door was on the front page of their website.
Just in case you’re wondering – yes, we do live above a funeral parlour. And no, there was nobody in. Or no body, in.
At around 3.30pm we both crashed, hard. The adrenaline had worn off and what had actually happened to us was beginning to sink in. We hadn’t stopped running around for hours and were starving, dehydrated and emotionally bruised. It was surreal, disorientating, and utterly heartbreaking to see your street and town in such devastation. We put on our coats and shuffled off to a place of comfort for some hot food and a dry seat – back to the Marine.
The juxtaposition of the the events of the previous 24 hours were incredibly hard to get my head around. The happy and festive outlook I had had the day before was gone, it seemed like another lifetime ago. Apparently Christmas was in a day or two as well but it was all completely insignificant to us now. It was so cruel that we were celebrating the completion of our house, a 2 year renovation project, just hours before the floods came and now that warm happy home as it had stood was gone; or was it? Throughout the day it was becoming increasingly obvious how hugely lucky we were, and although the ground floor had sustained damage and the contents of our cupboards, garden and cars were ruined, in the grand scheme of things we had been extremely blessed. Disgustingly lucky. A dark and heavy feeling of survivor’s guilt cloaked us and we both struggled to deal with those feelings.
Over the next few days we watched as car after car was towed away on trucks from the High Street. The streets in the area, now emptied of cars, had huge council skips lining the road in their place. The skips were filled to the brim with soiled furniture and belongings, everything coated in that thick omnipresent mud. Businesses which had only just got back on their feet after recovering from the devastating floods of 2009 were now destroyed once more. One of the most heart-breaking sights was all the ruined pianos belonging to Music Zone on the High Street piled in to a skip until there was no more room, then lined up alongside it on the pavement like some twisted musical graveyard.
With the omnipresent saturation of Social Media, comes great benefit in times of crises. Within hours of the event a flood fund had been set up and people unable to lend a hand in person were sitting behind their computer screens and on their phones coordinating a response effort via facebook and twitter. The Town Hall was opened for collection of donations and I spent most of Christmas Eve alongside dozens of other volunteers from all over Aberdeenshire processing donations, packing food hampers and wrapping gifts for displaced children. The generosity was so widespread that eventually we had to stop taking donations for a while as there was simply nowhere to put them. People turned up with vans filled with petrol and handed over the keys to help with aid distribution, local businesses such as Econo-move turned up with piles of boxes for packing, and local community groups like the Rugby club and the Running club mobilised their members to do everything they could to help. It was community spirit in its most pure and distilled raw form.
Christmas came and went in a bit of a blur. Nobody in our family was feeling particularly festive at all and the most festive spirit any of us could handle was that which came out of a bottle. The rest of the holiday was spent cleaning up and repairing things. We got our cars back after they spent 5 days at a valet, where the interiors were scrubbed, heated, cleaned and professionally dehumidified. It took a while for them to dry out fully but for the cost of a couple of hundred pounds and half a tank of petrol they are mostly back to normal.
The town itself bounced back terrifically on the surface, and the High Street was cleaned and looking its finest by the 31st of December for the Fireballs Parade. This annual ceremony has its roots in Pagan fire rituals and for many symbolises the burning of the demons of the last year and the chance for a fresh start. This was felt more acutely than ever this year and people turned out in their thousands to watch the ‘swingers’ as they are known, hurl their flaming balls around their heads as they march up and down the High Street as the clock strikes midnight on Hogmanay.
Kynon was taking part this year for the second time, and was relishing the opportunity to burn some of the debris from the house in his fireball. Unfortunately the fireball itself had been one of the casualties of the the flood and had to be rebuilt from scratch, but he had no problems at all on the night and enjoyed every minute.
Here’s another familiar face you might recognise…
Whilst the town has cleaned itself up there are still so many questions left to answer – why did this happen again? Kynon’s Dad has lived here for 60 years and this part of the town has only flooded twice – both in the last three years. What can be done to prevent another disaster? There are a lot of angry residents and the Council meetings which are going to be held in the coming weeks will be heated. I look forward to hearing what they have to say as everything in the Press so far has naturally been vague and non-committal.
We will remember this first Christmas together for the rest of our lives. Whilst our damage was tame in comparison to others it still took its toll and will have a lasting effect for some time. We have seen our community at its worse and at its very best and despite it all, it has underlined for me that Stonehaven is truly a wonderful place to live and exactly where I want to be right now.
****Postscript: added 22nd December 2013****
One year later, despite this being primarily a running blog, this post still remains my most popular to date. I thought I would add an update for those who have read this and may have wondered what happened next.
In January 2013 the Stonehaven Flood Action Group was formed; to work in tandem with the local council and various environment agencies, and to also act as a critical partner to keep the agencies accountable for their actions and promises. Over the last year we have worked hard to raise awareness of the situation in the Old Town and what needs to be done, and encouraged residents to educate themselves on the issues in hand. We’ve kept the pressure on our local government who are ultimately responsible for keeping our town safe, and raised thousands of pounds for a Flood Resilience fund which offers money to help affected residents purchase equipment to protect their homes.
There is a ‘Big Plan’ which is being developed to protect the town, but once the designs have been decided upon and approved it will likely be 2015 before any building work commences. Until then we have been pushing for gradual change and have been instrumental in the creation of a local flood warning system (specific to the River Carron, rather than the pre-existing system which was a general one for the whole of Aberdeenshire), a complete overhaul of the flood warden system, and improvements to drains and tributaries around the Old Town area.
12 months may have passed, but some homes are still empty and people are still displaced. Walking down the High Street you will see many empty ground floor flats; having been stung twice by natural disaster, some people just won’t come back in case Stonehaven floods again. With the anniversary looming I have found myself thinking a lot about it recently – sometimes I can’t actually believe it all happened. On the other hand it is never far from my mind and every time it starts raining heavily, anxiety returns; both Kynon and I frequently find ourselves lying wide awake every time it starts raining heavily in the night.
Being a total newcomer to the town at the time of the flood, this was not the way that I expected to meet all my neighbours and fellow Stonehaven residents but a year down the line I am thankful that I’ve got to know so many friendly, determined and downright stubborn people who are willing to stand up for our town and relentlessly fight for our rights. The circumstances are unfortunate, but perhaps that’s the good to come from the situation.
Here’s to many more dry years…