As Storm Christoph raged across Wales a different story emerged from the depths below the Neath Port Talbot community of Skewen.
At around midday on Thursday, January 21st, following a build up in water pressure in old mine workings deep underground, a river of orange tinged mine water gushed up through the ground at the junction of Goshen Park and Drummau Road.
The catastrophic ‘blow out’ affected around 200 properties.
I saw for myself the distressing results having visited some of the houses of those affected. You could see from the watermark - around three to four feet up - that the water went right through people’s homes.
We are all thankful of course there were no casualties in this incident but it was heart-rending to see. We all take a pride in our houses and spend money, time and effort on getting things just right. But here, a tide of dirty water had washed all the way through, ruining carpets, furnishings, electrical goods and other household items. I can fully understand just how upsetting it has been for residents caught up in this.
All the agencies involved responded right away with the fire service, police, and Neath Port Talbot Council going in to help and soon, around 80 people were evacuated from the worst hit areas. Later on January 21st, a further 30 people were evacuated when a depression in the ground was noted between Goshen Park and Drummau Road. The Coal Authority began its investigations immediately to establish the exact cause of what had happed but obviously, the sheer volume of water at the start of this emergency made things very difficult.
Pumping work began and the area was bunded to prevent the water from spreading further and the flood water was driven into a location where it could be managed. A major incident was declared quickly. The council also had road sweepers and gully suckers in the area with the Coal Authority later doing drilling work to help its investigation.
As well as noting the rapid response by our partner agencies at the start of this incident I want to say how proud I am of the council staff who responded so effectively and so compassionately. People in the area praised the quick and efficient response of the council but they were also quick to point out how sympathetic staff were to them. Many people worked around the clock on responding to the sudden flooding – our own staff and our emergency service partners – and many of our staff who got their feet wet went back to help day after day.
All along, the safety of residents has been paramount and great care was taken, for instance, to ensure people who were moved initially to the rest centre in Cwrt Herbert were safe in terms of Covid. That was no mean feat given the urgency of the situation.
From the investigation work undertaken by the Coal Authority it’s clear this major flooding incident was a legacy of Wales’s mining past and while this council will now take the lead in the recovery phase we will continue to work very closely with the experts at the Coal Authority which now manages the issues caused by the country’s large amount of underground workings.
I am sure when the initial shock of this wanes, some may want to find out exactly what was to blame but our task now is to make sure we help people get back on their feet quickly – and more importantly, safely. Checks must continue on the safety of buildings affected by the flood, the safety of conditions underground and the safety of utilities such as gas and electricity. We are looking at a phased return of residents for different areas, as and when we can guarantee they are safe. But at this moment in time we can’t guarantee how long this will take and while we all fully understand how eager people will be to get back to their homes we would ask them only to return once their property has been declared safe.
Residents affected by the floods and all those who have been evacuated and who have not yet made contact with us are being asked to call our helpline on 01639 686868 or visit our Residents’ Incident Support Centre at Abbey Primary School (opposite Blodau Florist).
All of those evacuated were able to find temporary housing – either with family, friends and neighbours, or in the case of 13 families, housed in local hotels by the council.
First Minister Mark Drakeford, who was taken on a tour of the affected area, confirmed that financial support would be made available to people affected by the recent floods of up to £1,000 per household and we are making arrangements for that to be paid.
I welcome that, but I also welcome the First Minister’s announcement that he plans to take a strategic look, with the Coal Authority, which manages the effects of historic coal mining, at the issue of present day problems caused by Wales’s long history of mining.
Lastly, I want to say how proud I am of living in a place like Neath Port Talbot. Not only have people volunteered to help and put money into a fund to help out those affected by the flooding in Skewen but large amounts clothes and food have been donated. I was collecting my newspaper in a local shop a few days after the incident happened and someone asked me how they could help – and that was in Taibach!