Cork Flood Defences – Who saves us from “Save Cork City”? – Part 1

Well, you gotta hand it to the guys at Save Cork City: They sure are persistent. Ever since the Office of Public Works published its plans for a comprehensive flood defense scheme for Cork city and the lower reaches of the River Lee, this coalition of “concerned citizens” has been bombarding the papers and airwaves with a flood of “concerns” and “reasons” against proceeding with this project. As someone who has grown up in an area that is intimately familiar with flooding, an area that consists in large parts of reclaimed land, I cannot stop shaking my head at the shortsightedness of these activists, at the naivety of their arguments, and at the nonchalance with which their overblown aesthetic concerns are used to callously endanger the lives and livelihoods of everyone living in the city centre. In this first article of a multi part series, I will be looking at the claims of Save Cork City (SCS) and see how they stack up against scrutiny, especially given the rapidly changing weather patterns.

The main reason why SCS rail against the flood defence scheme is that it destroys historicallsy “significant” and “beautiful” river embankments in the city centre. Granted, some of those embankments date back to the late 18th century, however, they are not in any way what I would call “beautiful”. They certainly can’t hold a candle to Amsterdam or Paris. I actually spent last weekend taking a tour from Grand Parade along the south channel of the Lee to Customs House Quay, and then back up all the way to North Mall, and George Boole’s old residence on Grenville Place, and documenting the state of the embankments with my camera. You can find the images in the gallery below.

Quite frankly, how anyone can claim that the riverfronts of Cork are in any way aesthetically pleasing is beyond me, and I’d like about 10 kilograms of whatever it is they’ve been smoking. For the most part, the embankment walls are made of large blocks of stones without any distinguishing features, with rounded stone tops and a few iron bars to serve as handholds for ladders. The general state of repair is poor, and any part of the walls from the high tide mark down is overgrown with kelp or algae or something of that sort. Parts of it are overbuilt with concrete tops and 1970s style railings that block off parts of the quay because the rotting wooden supports underneath apparently can’t take the weight. The only section of the quayside that has any semblance of architectural design is the wrought-iron railing along the North Mall embankment. The buildings on those quays aren’t really helping things, either. Far from providing a continuous urban landscape, they are hodgepodge collections of architectural crimes from the 1950s and 1960s, relics of the Celtic Tiger years, and even those historic buildings that can be found are far from consistent. Indeed, many of these “historic” buildings vary wildly in height and style, not to mention state of repair or build quality, giving significant stretches of riverbanks the impression of a shantytown. Any suggestion that this riverside is in any way special, or even on the same level as cities like Bath, Paris, or Amsterdam is quite simply ludicrous, and an expression of the massive hubris that Leesiders are so keen on displaying when it comes to their city.

One statement on the groups Facebook page really caught my attention. In regards to the North Mall embankment, they critized the OPWs proposal to build flood defence walls there on the basis that this area had never been flooded in the past. Now granted, I am not familiar with the height of flood events here in Cork, however this type of argument shines a glaring light on the nonchalance with which threats to the city are brushed aside by Save Cork City. Quite simply, just because an area hasn’t been flooded yet, there’s no reason to believe it won’t flood. Quite frankly, Global Warming is a fact, and there’s no sign of it going away anytime soon. Storms are becoming stronger, leading to stronger storm surges, as well as stronger rainfall. Both of which in turn lead to stronger, more damaging flood events. I can see that in my own birthplace of Hamburg. Following the devastating flood of 1962, which killed 315 people in Hamburg alone, there was only one flood that reached or exceeded the water levels of that disastrous event. During the night from January 3rd to January 4th, 1976, a massive storm hit the Heligoland Bight and the Elbe Estuary, pushing a storm surge against the coast that topped 5.11 meters above normal at Cuxhaven, at the mouth of the Elbe Estuary. This event would eventually become known as the Capella storm, after a coastal freighter that sunk in it.  In comparison, the deadly flood of February 1962 had “only” reached 4.95 meters at Cuxhaven. However, the number of floods that have come close to the 4.95 meter mark has noticeably increased towards the end of the 20th and beginning of the 21st century. This isn’t just limited to Germany or the North Sea coast. Cork itself has been hit several times over the last few years. The problem with that is not only the increasing height of any storm surges, but also that these storms usually bring massive amounts of rain with them when they do hit, and given the general movement pattern of storm systems over Ireland, the chances are very high that both the storm surge and massive run-off of rainwater from the Lee and its tributaries will arrive simultaneously.

While that may be manageable at the moment, the effects of climate change mean that an increase in the amount of rainfall and in the height of storm surges is all but certain. And here is the main error in the arguments of Save Cork City. They extrapolate the current situation and weather patterns into the future, without accounting for a change in weather patterns and an increase in rainfall amounts and the severity of storms and storm surges. Once you take into account this increasing severity, it not only becomes prudent to secure current “safe” areas against flooding, it becomes a foregone conclusion. Save Cork City have suggested the renaturalisation of floodplains in the upper and middle reaches of the Lee river system, and that is certainly a worthwhile measure that I fully support. However, given the change of climate patterns worldwide, it won’t be enough, especially since this flood defence system will likely server Cork for numerous decades, if not centuries. What’s more, walls and pumping stations simply work.

Let me take you back to the previous paragraph for a minute. Remember that disastrous flood I wrote about, the one that hit Hamburg in February 1962? That event killed 340 people, most of them drowned in their homes when an area that had not been expected to flood, the suburb of Wilhelmsburg, flooded. In addition, 400 kilometers of flood defences along the German North Sea coast were destroyed. Following that event, the federal government in Germany embarked on a massive investment program, repairing damaged or destroyed dykes and levees, building entirely new dykes, as well as flood defence walls in cities where it wasn’t possible to encircle them with dykes, such as Hamburg with its massive port. When the Capella Storm rolled around in January 1976, most of these defences were already operational. 82 people still died, including the 11 man crew of the Capella, and only two major breaches of the flood defences occurred, one of which affected an area where the new defences were still under construction. There has been no major breach of the North Sea flood defences along the German coast since.

That’s all for this part of the article, I’ve already written much more than I had planned to write. In the second installment of this series, I will take a look at the suggstion of a tidal barrier to protect Cork from ever increasing storm surges. I’ll also take a look at the supposedly detrimental effects of the construction work on local businesses. In the meantime, I’m eager to hear your feedback. What is your take on the flood defence scheme? What do you think of Save Cork City? Is there any aspect you would like to hear more about, whetther in regards to the flood defences or any other topic I touched on in this article? Let me know in the comments below, I’m really curious to hear from you.

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