Christmas and New Year was a disastrous time for homes and businesses across Ireland as torrential rain brought unexpected floods up and down the country. Doug Whelan catches up with two retailers who witnessed first-hand the damage high water can do
22 January 2016
Floods are nothing new, and for people who live in certain parts of the country they’re an unavoidable way of life. At certain times of year, heavy rain and tidal movement sees homes and businesses inundated with floodwaters. Whether it’s six inches or six feet of water, the damage that floods can do to convenience stores is twofold: there’s the immediate water damage, which can lay waste to electrical equipment and flooring, furniture and finishes. But following this is the financial and economic damage that closures can cause.
For grocery and deli retailers, for example, any closure of more than a day or even half a day would result in food stock being unsaleable. Dairy, poultry and so on would have to be disposed of. If a stock room and shop floor becomes flooded, and the next morning deliveries begin to arrive, where will they be placed? A retail business is like a production line and if an unexpected closure puts a halt to that line, the effects can be disastrous. Staffing and the wage bill would become skewed also; it’s a major headache, basically.
Those were some of the issues faced by two retailers over Christmas as the torrential rain saw rivers in Kilkenny and Cork burst their banks. Water rushed up streets and within hours, the stores were all but overrun by deceptively strong currents and unstoppable blankets of water.
Amid insurance claims, quarrels with local authorities and the ominous daily checking of weather reports for fear of repeat incidents, two retailers took the time to speak to ShelfLife about their plights, the aftermath, getting back to normal and what they have learned from the experiences.
Between two rivers
Michael Doran, Doran’s SuperValu, Graiguenemanagh, Co. Kilkenny
When we catch up with store owner and RGDATA member Michael Doran on a Friday morning in mid-January, he was coming off another night of watching and waiting as the heavens opened for the umpteenth time. He and his staff had the benefit of preparation this time, but that didn’t make it any less of a tense time. “We had the whole front of the store sandbagged,” he says, “and we had pumps on standby. The roads engineer for the county was keeping an eye on the situation, so we got through the night.”
That wasn’t the case during Storm Frank, which hit between Christmas and the New Year, leaving large swathes of the country flooded and thousands of homes without power. Graiguenemanagh was particularly hard-hit; readers may have seen the widely shared images of Doran’s SuperValu being tended to by emergency services. “There are two rivers in Graiguenemanagh,” Michael Doran explains. “There’s the Barrow, and also the Duisce, which is a tributary that joins the Barrow in the centre of town.
“So, when heavy rain comes, suddenly there can be a huge amount of water flowing and a flash flood can come up very quickly,” Doran continues. “But usually it would be in spring or summer, but now it’s happening more often. It’s more prolonged and it’s happening in winter.”
Doran adds that in the 33 years he returned to Graiguenemanagh, where he grew up, the recent floods have been the worst he can recall. “It’s happening more often now,” he says. “The last really bad one was 2008 or 2009.”
Doran says that the escalation is part of the reason his shop was hit hard this time out. “We got the weather warning and sandbagged one of our entrances,” he says, “but not our goods entrance and not the main shop entrance. It had never come right in to the shop like that before, it would always stop at the footpath.”
Despite this worsening of the situation over time, Doran’s still managed to avoid any catastrophic damage thanks to the elevated nature of the store. “About 20% of the store is at street level,” he says, “that’s the kiosk area at the front. Further in the store you go up a ramp to the supermarket section; it’s elevated around a meter and a half. For the first time ever, the water actually came up quite close to the top of the ramp, but not enough to cause a problem.
“It’s a real concern,” he says.
“So as well as the Barrow,” Michael tells ShelfLife, you have the Duisce on the opposite side of the main street. That’s an innocent little stream usually. When I was a child I used to paddle and fish there, and it would have swept away a car that night.
Amid all the news reports on the recent floods, there has been much criticism towards the preparation of local authorities and management of resources in the crisis. Michael Doran is pragmatic about such things. “The emergency services were there, but even they didn’t know how bad it would get. Plus, there’s little you can do while it’s ongoing. You just have to wait until it settles and start the clean-up.”
What helped the people of Graiguenemanagh in that situation was that Labour TD Anne Phelan is a member of the local community; Michael Doran says she was a great help with communication and coordination with the local authority.
Doran’s SuperValu was not open to the public the day after the flooding took place. “That’s the first time in 33 years we had to close the shop for a full day,” he reveals. “In previous incidents it was just for a couple of hours.”
Once the drama was over, the clean-up could begin proper, and Doran says that he estimates there could be up to €30,000 of damage when all is said and done. “There is a grant for small businesses damaged,” he says, “so we’ll have to quantify everything and see how much trading we lost out on.
“Not all businesses have the same pressure to reopen as we do,” he says. “We have the post office, and if we weren’t open on the Thursday, the social welfare would have been delayed. There are lots of issues beyond the actual water.”
The veteran retailer seems willing and able and even proud to take it all in his stride though. “I’m in this business 33 years,” he says brightly, “and this is what owners and managers must deal with in any business. Crisis management is our forte!”
Michael Smith, Smith’s SuperValu, Kinsale, Co. Cork
While Michael Doran was sandbagging his store in Kilkenny, 180km to the south west, another Michael, Michael Smith of Kinsale, Co. Cork, was just getting over his own flooding drama. On 23 December, Smith’s SuperValu was inundated with water with very little warning, causing large amounts of damage and a major headache for the new store’s owner.
“It’s a brand new store, only opened in April 2014,” Smith says. “I got a call late on the 23rd from my manager, who told me there was a lot of water on the road and he was quite concerned. He also couldn’t open the front door because that would have speeded things up!”
All Smith could do was wait and hope for the best, until he got a call during the night from the town’s foreman, who told him he should get to his shop immediately. “We got down to the store around 5am on Christmas Eve,” he recalls, “there were huge amounts of water across the store, in the front, the back, in the offices, the off-licence, the checkouts, everywhere.”
Smith confesses that his first thought when he surveyed the damage was despair. “We were totally shocked and just didn’t know where to start and how we were going to deal with it – especially when the day’s deliveries started arriving!
“But once the shock wore off we got busy,” he continues. “We got all the staff down and we also had a driver from Musgraves, and it was all hands on deck. We got a machine to draw the water out of the shop, and then everyone just had to start mopping and brushing and cleaning as best we could.”
Unlike Doran’s SuperValu in Graiguenemanagh, another concern for Michael Smith is that there has never been a flood in the area that anybody can remember. That said, the root cause has been partially identified and Smith and other local businesses plan to band together to get something done about it.
“We’ve had a loss adjuster down already,” he explains, “and we’ve gone through the entire store top to bottom to identify damage, but even then we weren’t able to finish the job because problems are still identifying themselves.
“For example,” he adds, “we might need to replace the vinyl floor in the basement. It looks OK right now but it might have to come up, we can’t tell yet.”
As for the emergency services and local authority, Smith says that the frustrating thing for him is finding the cause of the flooding and who can be responsible. “It’s a huge issue,” he says.
“The hardest part for me is the issue of ongoing maintenance that’s not being done,” he says. “The stream across the way is full of rubble and other bits. We walked up the length of the road on Wednesday with an engineer and there are a huge lack of gullies on the road for drainage. The precise cause isn’t 100% clear yet, but if the stream had been clear it might not have happened.”
To this end, Smith and more local traders and businesses plan to meet with the objective of getting their local Council to take whatever action is needed to prevent a crisis like this happening again.
“It’s terribly frustrating because there’s no accountability. If it happens again it’s my problem and I have my insurance company to deal with.
“You can imagine how frustrated we are.”