Tuesday, June 26th, 2007: Doncaster is Flooding After a Month’s Rainfall in a Day!

It rained all day yesterday and not just where I live in North Yorkshire apparently but throughout the entire Yorkshire region. The drains on our drive are now gurgling away and spewing out raw sewage. I don’t mind dealing with my own excrement but when I have to deal with everyone else’s it gets a bit much. Our house is down drain of everything in the entire village it seems. I find two plastic bags rather rapidly and encase my feet in them as the only way of reaching the bus stop and remaining dry. The smell is getting bad too – not one you would normally associate with a four-bed detached in a reasonably salubrious area. My next door neighbour has pumps installed and the situation appears to be under control. He’s a good guy. A white-collar worker, British Library I think and not used to dealing with all this mess.

The sun comes out – briefly. Clouds threaten but pass over. There is a phone call for me from the Argos driver at 8.30am. I’m due to take delivery of a three-piece-suite this morning at my buy-to-let property in Doncaster. My teenage daughter and her two friends are in the process of moving in. I’d rather stay home after yesterday’s weather but I can’t expect my tenants to cope with the furniture’s arrival alone and I have all their rent details to discuss and finalise. My ninety-year-old mother needs her cough medicine too. So I buy my usual rider ticket on the 8.40am bus. ‘I’ll be there at 9.30 if the buses are running OK,’ I tell the Argos man; ‘I’ll let you know if I’m delayed.’

‘Rain, rain, go away, come again another day.’ I’m reminded of the popular nursery rhyme as I peer out at the sodden landscape from the top deck of the bus

My life is weird; I can`t drive, you see. So what do I go and do? I buy a house in every village along the bus route to break up the journey. At least there’s a welcome cuppa from my tenants when I call for the rent. The bus drivers laugh at me: ‘Not you again!’

My tenants in rooms 1 and 2 on the first floor have all but moved in. But room 3, I have yet to find someone for and the third floor is due to be occupied by my daughter. There are just a few things to finalise now, I tell myself. Thank goodness for that after six months covering mortgage payments out of my own pocket. Only trivial tasks like scraping paint off light switches and cleaning the toilets still need to be done. My daughter needs to choose furniture for her room and the dining room so in a week or two everything should be running smoothly. My husband is fed up with laying laminate floors, making frequent trips to B&Q and Focus DIY and doing other time-consuming jobs – all this in addition to his day job.

During the past six months, we’ve succeeded in renovating the three-storey terraced property and have brought it up to the required standard for letting. All the gas, electrical and fire alarm systems have passed the required safety tests and the tenants and the council are happy. The tenants say all they need now is a washing line, but with all this rain a fishing line might prove more useful. I’m proud of our achievements and it’s now a house I would gladly live in myself.

The bus journey of forty-five minutes goes well and there is no sign of the weather deteriorating further; the sky is in fact brightening. When I arrive my tenants are still sleeping. The recreation ground at the back of the house is flooded but the sun manages a brief appearance now and again. The water seems to be subsiding. ‘I’ll have to charge you extra rent for a room with a sea view!’I joke as we all peer out at the inundated rugby pitch which could now easily host a game of water polo. Drifting wood is spiralling in the water towards the drains at the back. I honestly don’t think the situation is going to worsen and I’m not unduly worried when I sign for the furniture at 10.10 am. I walk down to the post office to buy bread, butter and milk for my tenants and collect my mum’s pension. Everything is normal and there is no talk of there being any real threat to property in the area. The man at the post office helped me send a fax abroad last week; he’s a friendly old chap with a Santa Claus beard who looks a bit like ‘Captain Birdseye.’ of fish finger fame. He assures me that he’s not expecting any nautical events in the near future but look what happens to him a few days later!

Evacuating the House and Abandoning it to the Elements

I sit and chat with my tenants round the kitchen table; we share a bottle of wine together and they offer to cook some pasta for lunch. I decide I really like these teenagers who have decided to brave it alone without their parents. I envy them. I wish I’d had the courage to do the same when I was young.

In the afternoon things begin to change rather rapidly. I’m just leaving the house for the bus to mum’s when someone along the road runs up and tells me that a dam in Sheffield is under threat of bursting. There is talk that millions of gallons of water have been deliberately released into the River Don which has subsequently burst its banks. All the water is heading in our direction and there are no flood defences! If I was swearing yesterday because my own drive was flooding you should hear me now.

‘Mum, you’ll have to wait a bit longer for your cough mixture!’ I scream down my mobile as I dash back inside the house to tell my tenants that things could get really bad. As a precaution, we begin to move everything out of the kitchen and utility room base units and place the freezer into the under stairs lobby which is one step higher. We can`t do anything about moving the brand new washer/dryer. Well, they have breeze blocks in them, don’t they? My arm is dodgy from shopping for a family of six and I feel helpless. I call my husband and alert him to the fact that he’d better come over if we need to start moving heavy items upstairs. There are all his tools to move too. As usual, he thinks I’m making a fuss about nothing.

I’m very good at damage limitation exercises as a rule after three and a half years of being a landlord. You get wise eventually, however green you may be, to begin with, but this is going to be a real challenge. I remember when I bought my first buy-to-let property, the first of thirteen (that accounts for it then – this one is the thirteenth!). I had a serious leak that very first week I became a landlord and news of it almost gave me a heart attack but these days I’m more or less hardened to the prospect of the worst possible case scenario.

I stand here bewildered peering round downstairs, surveying all our hard work and wondering what can be done to limit the damage. Not a lot. And as for the sandbags, well, I ask you? Piling sandbags up against doors is a bit like going off to boil water when a woman is giving birth – just something to keep the men occupied.

I really do like this house. It will be a damn shame if it gets ruined! That should be dam without an ‘n’ thanks to the water board in their infinite wisdom. So damn that damn dam of theirs! And did that furniture delivery have to be today of all days?!

I start moving the tools upstairs. If the worst happens, at least it will be something my husband can’t blame on me.

Sandbags are being issued now but I don’t see any pumping in progress. There’s still been no further rain since yesterday but now it seems we are going to receive everyone else’s rain too. We are told to shut down all the utilities. I manage to close down the boiler and turn off all the electrics at the consumer unit. The gas lever won’t budge and I’m not forcing it as I don’t fancy departing this life with a bang.

Even now confusion in the locality as to what to do is still rife. What can people do if they don’t drive or have nowhere to go? Some decide to stay put and retreat upstairs. The warning comes far too late for the community to rescue most of their household goods. My husband arrives with some sandbags from Askern builders merchants. We place all the newly bought electrical items for the kitchen on the worktops. Surely the water won’t come up that high? Everything else on floor level we manage to carry upstairs apart from the once used washer/dryer and newly-delivered sofa. Then we just have to leave. No choice. Our Volvo car will certainly be floating if we procrastinate. Volvos are pretty sturdy vehicles with their unique side impact protection system but I don’t think they float very well!

So we lock the front door behind us without further ado and drive away, leaving the house to the elements and hoping the water level will not be up to Genesis standards by the time we return. It’s quite frightening as we leave. The golden gravel in the front garden suddenly darkens, becoming saturated as murky flood water rises up from the drains, producing relentless waves that follow us down the high street as we head north along the A19.

The Following Wednesday 6.30 am: the Aftermath

Back to survey the damage. Too many road blocks en route are not a good sign. The police are helpful and sympathetic. Our property has been one of the most badly affected. I remain in the car. My husband goes on foot to get closer to the house and takes a photo on his mobile. ‘Up to the letter box,’ he mutters when he returns. ‘That’s the whole of the ground floor ruined… all that hard work.’

Any minute now I bet he’ll start blaming me, I muse. I always get the blame for everything; if the sky fell in it would be my fault for not holding it up.

‘Did you know the house was in a flood area when you bought it?’

Oh, oh – I can see where this conversation is going. ‘No I didn’t and neither did our solicitor. Hey, it’s not my fault you know! It’s not like I left the tap running or something’ I retaliate.

At least no-one has been hurt and we are not in floods of tears over the loss of possessions. We are just buy-to-let investors. It was not our home, our world. Nearly every other householder in the vicinity will have lost everything including irreplaceable items of personal importance. Those poor old people in the bungalows nearby had no upstairs to carry things. The waters rose up in the night and they awoke knee-deep in stinking, muddy water. No sunshine breakfast for them.

‘So, who’s to blame then if not me?’I ask hubby. He remains silent, unaffected by my dry humour. But I continue in the same vein. It’s a coping strategy, this semi-sarcastic, cynical, laugh-in-the-face-of-disaster philosophy of mine. ‘If someone says there’s going to be a drought this summer I’ll throttle them.’

At least I have a story to read at my writing group next week. A landlord’s life may be a difficult one but it’s certainly never boring. So there’s no time to write that blockbuster just yet!

Whoever said ‘Into each life, a little rain must fall’ was absolutely right and we’ve certainly had more than our fair share today. Rain is the one thing we perpetually complain about in the UK. We are used to more rain than most other countries and its; what makes England ‘A green and pleasant land’ but when quantities descend in relentless showers that last for weeks on end you begin to wonder if all that stuff about climate change is true.

Some would call it an act of God but it’s no use cursing God for all the rain. In another part of the world right now, someone in a drought-stricken land will be praying for rain as they walk miles to the nearest well, desperate for a few drops of uncontaminated water to quench their thirst. And I’m sure that the water board, not God, had more to do with the amount of rain that flooded our region. Rumours that the water board had deliberately opened the sluice gates and flooded an entire community to protect the infrastructure of the city centre would soon be rife. And whether the water board was the perpetrator or not, all we could do now was drive home in silence to phone the insurance company and hope that they would pay to put things right.