Disaster recovery

The South West is no stranger to gales and deluges, and has had to face several emergencies brought about by the elements. Derren Hayes finds out how Cornwall’s social services coped in the aftermath of the Boscastle floods in 2004

Few people who saw it will forget the image of the wall of water that came crashing through the village of Boscastle on the north Cornwall coast on 16 August 2004. The event reminded many of the disaster that overtook Lynmouth, north Devon, 52 years before to the day, when 34 people died after local rivers burst their banks as the result of 24 hours of torrential rain. In Boscastle, storm rain had swollen the Paradise River until it swept away cars, trees and houses. Homes were ruined, possessions and livelihoods lost but, somehow, no one died.

After the search and rescue operation had been carried out by emergency services the full scale of the disaster began to unfold and other services swung into action. As soon as Cornwall social services was alerted, its out-of-hours care management system began contacting suppliers of care to individuals in the affected areas (Launceston and Bude had also suffered) to check with their carers that people who were known to the department were safe.

By this stage the home care department had already begun checking that known clients were safe. Most were accounted for, even if this meant walking across waterlogged fields in areas impassable by car. Some clients had to be moved to temporary accommodation and staff directed emergency services to one couple that were trapped in their home in the harbour and needed rescuing by helicopter. The duty manager – a senior manager within the department – was co-ordinating the response, keeping in constant contact with emergency services and the local area manager.

Despite this quick response, Margaret Green, local general manager for community care, says that, in hindsight, vulnerable people should have been identified before duty teams began work as the rain had started earlier in the afternoon.

The main social services response swung into action the following day. Green, who then took over co-ordination of the operation, says many staff recognised the seriousness of the situation and arrived early for a team meeting.

The work diaries of fieldwork staff in the area were cleared where possible and an action plan drawn up. This included contacting children’s services, learning difficulties services and Sure Start regarding their clients’ safety. In addition, a relief centre was set up in Boscastle staffed by a social worker and two case co-ordinators on a rota to help clients, other locals and stranded tourists.

Green says: “We helped collect prescriptions, sort out care hire, voluntary drivers, temporary accommodation, lending mobile phones and accompanying holidaymakers to collect belongings.

“We had a lot of people come to us who had lost their cars. There was one family that had got split up and we didn’t know they were safe until after midday which was particularly worrying because at the time we still thought there were fatalities.”

During the initial response and the two weeks the centre was operating 23 fieldworkers and support staff were involved. The closeness of the small communities also saw them pull together which helped social services massively, says Green.

“This is a very close knit community and the local response was fantastic. Local firms donated food for emergency workers. One of the care workers was born in Boscastle and knew many of those affected. It makes you feel more part of the community than social services being the lady bountiful,” she adds.

Unsurprisingly, Green says the experience was the most traumatic of her career but her experiences have been passed on to the Cabinet Office’s Emergency Planning College, so hopefully others will learn from them. CC

Lessons learned

  • Earlier notification: vulnerable people could have perhaps been identified sooner before the situation had escalated.
  • Earlier presence at the relief centre: staff could have helped people establish links with missing relatives sooner.
  • Practical help and advice was what was mostly needed initially.
  • It may have helped to screen access to the relief centre and protect vulnerable people from media intrusion.


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