Nine months after some of the worst flooding the south coast has ever seen, the devastating aftermath is still visible as you stroll down the recovering South Terrace in Littlehampton. BEN LEO reports on how residents continue to struggle after the deluge
On June 11 last year, endless streams of filthy floodwater poured into nearly 30 basement flats after a month’s worth of rain fell in just 12 hours.
Homes, possessions and livelihoods were destroyed in what West Sussex County Council called a “one in a 200 year event”.
Sad scenes ensued as the majority of what were once cosy and habitable dwellings were transformed into sodden and soulless dumps.
West Sussex County Council received more than 650 calls that night – the number it normally receives in a month – as drainage systems between Bognor and Chichester took on five times as much rain as usual.
One of those callers was 53-year-old Margaret Greene, who hasn’t been able to move back into her property since first hearing the sound of running water at 11.30pm that night.
'I thought a pipe had burst or something'
She said: “I was a bit miffed at being woken up and thought it was one of my neighbours having a late night wash.
“I stepped out of my bedroom and saw a river of water streaming in.
“At that point I didn’t know it was flood water, I thought maybe a pipe had burst or something.
“I had no idea my neighbours were going through the same thing.
“It was really awful to see my home getting destroyed in front of my eyes.
“I went to my daughter’s house in Worthing to stay the night and I’ve been there since.
“It’s been a long wait to return because of the extent of damage that flood water has.
'It's one of those things, it takes a long time'
“There are environmental health issues with the dirty water, all the plaster has to come off and the place has to be completely gutted and it needs to dry out.
“All the other properties that were affected by the damage are at a similar stage in renovation.
“It’s just one of those things, it takes a long time.
“There have also been breakdowns in communication with my insurance company and the companies it works through.
“There have been times where my insurer has sent round a company to do something and then a week later another company will turn up for the same thing, for example.”
'Things become a bit difficult and I feel a bit of a burden sometimes'
Ms Greene has been living with her daughter in Worthing since the flood hit, a situation she described as “strained”.
She added: “Initially it was all good fun being with my daughter but naturally things become a bit difficult and I feel a bit of a burden sometimes.
“I could have found another place to rent but I really like it in South Terrace.
“My only concern now is that when I do move back, my landlord will put the rent up to recoup the renovation costs.
“I may not be able to afford it, which will be a sad situation if true.”
'Insurance companies seem to be messing people around'
Down the road, a pair of builders busy at work at another derelict flat said they were the second set of builders to tackle the job after the previous firm walked out.
One of the workmen said: “There are countless basement properties around here that have been destroyed by the flood.
“The only problem we have is that the insurance companies seem to be messing people around.
“We are the second sets of builders in this property and we’re about to walk out too because we haven’t been paid yet, and that’s because the insurance company is delaying payouts to the owner.”
The water destroyed homes and the after effects are still visible.
But also there is a long and drawn out process behind the scenes with paperwork that also exhausts people emotionally and financially as their insurance premiums shoot up.
Nick Gibb, MP for Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, raised concerns over the flood victims’ insurance plight during a debate in the House of Commons in January.
Speaking to Richard Benyon, from the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, he said: “Thousands of my constituents now face problems with flood insurance. I am told of excesses in the tens of thousands of pounds.
“May I emphasise to my honourable friend, in his negotiations with the insurance industry and others, the importance to my constituents of finding a replacement for the flood insurance statement of principles as a matter of urgency?”
Rubble, rubbish and belongings
Mr Benyon replied by saying he would be making a visit to the worst hit areas and assured Mr Gibb he wanted to “achieve something better”.
He said: “We recognise that there are real concerns about this, including in my constituency, where insurance premiums are being hiked dramatically.
"We want to protect those on low incomes who are at flood risk,” Mr Benyon added.
Still visible in the street today are front gardens full of rubble, rubbish and old belongings.
Builders are still hard at work trying to renovate numerous properties while countless buildings are flanked by for sale and for let signs.
Neighbours give refuge
One local estate agent, who didn’t want to be named, said tenants permanently moved out of their properties following the floods and it had been hard to attract a new breed because of the fear of future flooding.
Homeowner Ann Kenny is also counting the cost of last summer’s events.
She’s due to pay out around £15,000 excess as part of her building insurance claim and unlike many tenants on the terrace, she couldn’t just simply find somewhere else to live.
She is yet to move back into her seaside flat but was grateful to find her kind-hearted neighbours offered her a refuge.
'The lights went out, it was real mayhem'
Speaking on the floor of her half-renovated home, she said: “It was about midnight and I was still up and about. It was really pouring it down outside and I heard the sound of water coming from the toilet.
“Then suddenly water came gushing in from the back of my property and the lights went out, it was real mayhem.
“I phoned the fire brigade who told me to look out the window as they were already on the terrace.
“I grabbed my passport, laptop and handbag and just got out.”
Ms Kenny’s possessions were collected around a month later by her contents insurance company, but by that point had mostly been damaged further through damp.
They were put in storage and only just returned to her on Tuesday last week (March 12).
'A lot of people haven't been so lucky'
She hasn’t been able to return to her home due to ongoing renovation work.
She said: “It’s nearly all done and I should be able to return soon.
“I’ve been really fortunate because my neighbours gave me a key to the property upstairs and said I could stay there until it was all sorted. But there are a lot of people who haven’t been so lucky.
“If there’s one good thing that’s come out of this, it’s the support and great help I’ve had from my neighbours.
“It’s good to know we have a really good community here. Everyone was quick to offer a room and other supplies after the floods.
'Bought the wartime spirit out'
“The emergency services were also really fabulous that night. I’d been living here 20 years before it got flooded but I don’t think it’s put me off.
"I love it here and I don’t think the threat of flooding in the future could tempt me to move.
“One of my neighbours said the situation had brought the wartime spirit out and I agree with her.”
A report published in December by West Sussex County Council said drainage was largely to blame for June’s floods.
Since then, the council has announced its £8.25 million ‘Operation Watershed’ scheme to improve drainage and ditches in the area.
River flood defences
In a separate flood defence scheme, today (March 19) sees the final shipment of 3,000 tonnes of sheet piling that will be used in a tidal defence project for Littlehampton.
The Environment Agency, in partnership with Arun District Council, began developing the ambitious scheme in 2009 to improve the tidal river flood defences along the east bank of the River Arun.
The steel will be used to replace the steel pile wall along Arun Parade and Pier Road.
The existing steel pile defences which protect Littlehampton from tidal flooding from the River Arun are now in need of being replaced in order to provide a greater standard of protection to the town.
Reduced tidal flood risk
Andrew Gilham, Environment Agency Flood and Coastal Risk Manager, said: “This is a major step forward in further reducing the risk of tidal flooding to Littlehampton.
“When complete this scheme will see a new flood defence wall along the riverside that will reduce tidal flood risk to more than 1,900 residential and over 500 commercial properties over the next 100 years.”
One of the lucky ones
Geoff Fowler believes he is one of South Terrace’s “lucky ones.”
After the flood devastated his basement property, he returned home in December last year and has nothing but praise for his insurance company.
The 61-year-old said: “I know a lot of people have had problems with insurance companies and builders, but I’ve been really lucky I think.
“My insurance company were great. They put us up in a flat for six months whilst renovation was completed. Being basement flats they’re difficult to repair after flood damage as it takes time to dry out. Everything has been done, the walls, the floor, everything.
“I know the council has announced their scheme to build a flood defence wall but I don’t think it’s going to help. It flooded here because of the drainage systems and as far as I’m concerned that’s Southern Water’s fault.”
What's being done?
Work on a £10.8 million flood defence scheme is due to start this autumn.
The project on the east bank of the River Arun is expected to reduce the risk of flooding for up to 750 homes in Littlehampton.
Backed by the Environment Agency, the scheme was among 93 similar projects across the UK given the thumbs up in February by the Department for Environment, Flood and Rural affairs.
The work includes the construction of a new flood defence wall along the riverside that is designed to protect properties for up to 100 years. It’s due to be finished by winter 2015.
Alison Baptitse, south east flood and coastal risk manager at the Environment Agency, said in February: “We’re working hard to reduce the risk of flooding and its impacts.
“With one in six homes in England at risk of flooding, we encourage people to take their own steps to prepare for flooding, for example by signing up to the Environment Agency’s free flood warning service.”
The year of unwanted records
Figures released by the Environment Agency this month confirmed Sussex was plagued by record droughts and floods in 2012.
In March last year, the River Ouse was at its lowest level ever before swelling to 310% more flow than average in July – the highest ever.
April to December recorded 200% of average rainfall, with June recording 400% and December 200%.
In total 999.7mm of rain fell in the south east, just shy of the wettest year on record in 2000 when 1104.3mm of rain fell.