Back in 2009 there was a serious flooding incident here in Cork City. At the time, as I remember it, we had had several weeks of quite heavy rain and that mixed with spring tides can often cause flooding in the city, but this one was different.
About eight miles to the west of the city, the ESB, (Electricity Supply Board), operates two hypo-electric dams on the River Lee, which in turn flows west to east through the city centre in two channels. I have been out to the larger Inniscarra Dam many times and behind it lies a massive lake, over 14 sq. kilometers in size. In heavy rains, the surrounding land drains off into that body of water and levels rise behind the dam gate. When this happens, the operator on duty runs a series of controlled releases of water from the dam to ensure the water level behind it does not rise above the dam and potentially breach the wall. Released a little at a time, the resultant surges are minimized and have little effect down river in the city. But something went wrong that day.
Rumour had it that the guy on duty at the dam just didn’t bother monitoring the rising waters behind him and when he did take note of it eventually, the damned water was lapping up over the dam itself, threatening to take the whole thing down. So he pulled the big lever, so to speak, and millions of tons of fresh water was suddenly released, gushing at high speed down eight miles of river. Witnesses along the banks described what they saw as a tsunami. As it came crashing into the western edges of the city, some reports claimed it was a wall of water twenty-five feet tall. The eighteen story skyscraper, the University College, the city water works and multiple businesses and homes along the path of river were flooded. But there was worse to come.
The river splits in two channels on the outskirts and the northern channel runs past the water works, goes in a straight line past Fitzgerald’s Park and the Mardyke before swinging almost ninety degrees left at the quay wall outside the Mercy Hospital. It was here that the quay wall gave way and the river rushed straight ahead, flooding the hospital and carrying on down the surrounding streets at high speed to the city centre. Doctors and nurses had to be ferried by boat to work. The water supply to up to 50,000 people was cut off, (including my own), in Cork after fears that the Lee pumping station had been contaminated. Damage was obviously into the hundreds of millions and in a single day, 1,042 insurance claims were lodged with the country’s biggest insurer Hibernian Aviva, most of them relating to flood damage. Even as the cleanup began, the talk was of a day in court.
At the time, a fellow told me a dark tale and I went to look at it myself. Readers may be familiar with those huge stone boulders that often appear at public entrances to prevent unwanted parties from entry. They seem to just magically appear and we tend not to take any notice of them. But this guy told me that these boulders in Cork are stored in the river by Cork Corporation. According to him, about a week before the flood, a crane showed up outside the Mercy Hospital and over a couple of days, it picked up some stored boulders from the river bed and loaded them on lorries. He then claimed that during this procedure, the crane picked a particularly heavy boulder which jerked the machine forward and it hit one section of the quay wall, dislodging a a piece of it about twelve feet in length. These walls are four feet high and about three feet thick lined together in joined twelve foot sections. The bloke claimed that the tsunami hit the damaged section, hurling it out onto the road before surging on to the city. So we have the possibility that the bloke at the dam fucked up and panicked and the Corpo had already weakened the quay wall.
So on Monday Oct 5, 2015, a judge ruled the ESB is 60 per cent liable for flood damage to several buildings on the campus of University College Cork. The point of course is, if they were responsible for the University damage then they were at fault for everything else. In his findings against the ESB, the judge said it, as operator and controller of the dams on the River Lee, failed in November 2009 to give adequate warning of the discharges it intended to make and of their likely impact. The ESB could, and should, reasonably have reacted to weather forecasts on and from November 16th 2009 so as to spill water form the dams earlier and in greater amounts than it did, and thus created the space for more water at the Lee Reservoirs, he said. There was no mention at all about the Corporation or a damaged and weakened quay wall. If that quay barrier had held then the surging gush would have turned left, then right and rushed down the river channel, past the city and out to sea. That particular section of wall has been there for over a hundred years and had never succumbed until that fateful day.
The ESB weren’t taking it lying down though and they immediately lodged an appeal against the judgement. Cue March 21st, 2018 and, “The Court of Appeal has overturned a landmark ruling that the ESB was partly liable for the disastrous flooding of Cork city centre in 2009.” The floods nine years ago were described as the worst in 800 years, but nobody was at fault. It’s a case of hard luck if you were swamped. The ESB is innocent and the Corpo aren’t even under suspicion. I remember in the weeks after the incident there were lively discussions all over the city about whether the dams were just time bombs waiting to go off. Was the 2009 flood simply a warning from the Gods? Indeed, what is the state of the two dams built in the fifties? Cork City centre is known as “The Marsh,” because it was built on marshy ground at sea level. The land rises steeply all around it and that’s where most of us live. But if either or both of the dams should suffer a complete breach, it is no exaggeration to say that the city would be flattened and thousands would die.
And nobody would be at fault?