EASTER FLOODS 20TH ANNIVERSARY: Report found a perfect storm of failings during the Northampton floods

MPs in Northampton called for heads to roll when a damning report criticised the Environment Agency’s response to the 1998 floods.

Some six months after the waters subsided in Northampton an independent team of assessors found a perfect storm of failings contributed to the devastating scenes.

St Leonard's Road, Far Cotton, submerged in water

St Leonard's Road, Far Cotton, submerged in water

Click here to see the 20th anniversary picture special of the floods in Northampton

The 500-page dossier, released in October 1998, found flood defence systems around the town, inherited by the Environment Agency some two years earlier, were wholly inadequate and under-maintained.

But the fact many of the 2,500 families in St James and Far Cotton were not warned of the incoming polluted waters before the morning of April 9 drew the most ire.

A “lack of public awareness of the warning systems, inconsistent application across regions, and misunderstandings between the agency and emergency services, resulted in poor overall performance,” found the report authors.

The devastation in 1998 was put down to a number of events.

No flood warnings sounded in Northampton in the early hours of April 9 - partly because telemetry gauges recorded the amount of rain incorrectly.

The Environment Agency only did so for the high-risk areas of Kislingbury, Weedon and Billing.

But by the following morning much of the county town, including Far Cotton and St James, was submerged by water.

“Insufficient rainfall information masked the severity of the event,” read the report.

“Flow measuring stations, not designed for flood monitoring, were overwhelmed.”

The area control room in Lincoln predicted the flow of the River Nene would only rise to 109 cumec - the measurement for water flow - on the night of April 9.

A ‘once in a 100-year’ warning would only be disseminated to the centre of Northampton if the water flow rose to 125 cumec.

But the flow far exceeded that upper warning by some 25 cumec, studies after the event found.

Outdated forecasting systems from the 1980s did not take into account new housing developments and the fact reservoirs adjoining the Nene were full due to recent heavy rain, and unable to take extra run-off water.

So, without sufficient warning, waters began to rise overnight as most people in Northampton slept.

And as the force of the Nene increased, unforeseen circumstances made matters worse.

South Bridge, near the Carlsberg factory, was partially blocked when a semi-submerged houseboat became wedged underneath it. Its owner, Chalieo Spence sadly, died.

Nearby sluice gates, intended to divert excess water onto the flood plains, were jammed shut.

As water poured into St James drains, some of which were clogged with silt and rubbish, failed to dispose of the surface water.

By the time the agency became aware properties were being inundated in the early hours of April 9, police and firefighters were already being called out to homes.

The police had “no plans or arrangements to alert the public”, in the event of a major incident, the report authors found, because Northampton was seen as such a “low risk”.

The result of the failures saw two people killed and a repair bill topping £75 million.

Northampton’s Labour MPs Sally Keeble and Tony Clarke called for the resignation of the Environment Agency’s chairman, Lord De Ramsey following the report.

But Mr Clarke believes the floods also had a wider effect on Northampton.

“Although only two people died over that weekend, many people’s lives never recovered from those events,” he said.

“Some contracted pneumonia, some never returned to their homes, went into care and found life was never really the same.

“A lot of people lost their lives that weekend.”

The report led the Environment Agency to plough £12 million into Northamptonshire’s flood protection over the subsequent two decades.

A flood storage reservoir was built at Weedon and improvements were made to the flood defences at Far Cotton and St James.

The agency is planning to invest a further £1.8 million by 2021.

Flood risk manager Ben Thornely said: “Although we can reflect on 20 years of progress being made since the significant floods of 1998, we also recognise that flooding remains a risk to local communities across Northamptonshire.

“Our staff and our partners work around the clock to protect people and their properties from flooding, but we can never stop the risk completely.”