‘WE WON’T BE BEATEN BY THIS’
How businesses and families hit by Storm Callum are pulling together to get back on their feet:
T HE people of Carmarthenshire knew that a storm was coming.
Yellow weather warnings for rain and wind had been issued for the west of Wales and trains from Carmarthen to Swansea had been suspended.
There are areas of Carmarthen town centre that are used to high water.
The Quay, home to a hardware store, a riverside restaurant and a few other businesses, are often hit first when torrential rain falls on Wales’ oldest town. Their location yards from the River Towy makes them inevitable victims of flooding.
But what happened on Friday, October 12, and into the following day took everyone by surprise. Not since 1987 had the town seen scenes like this. This was different.
By Saturday afternoon, Pontargothi Bridge, around seven miles outside Carmarthen, was closed. The pub that sits beside it was drowning.
By Saturday evening homes were ruined and businesses were under water. One eyewitness told how he was stood on the ancient Towy Bridge, which leads into the town, when he felt it shake. This was real.
Pensarn Road, home to a number of large and small businesses, a stone’s throw away from the river, was a river itself, as was the village of Abergwili, on the outskirts of town.
The normally peaceful and tranquil Towy had transformed into a swollen and unruly beast that ran through the middle of Carmarthen.
Walking the streets in the days that followed it was almost eerie to see how serene it all was – the ultimate calm after the storm.
Roads and bridges reopened, pathways were dry, and people ambled the streets against a sunny, autumnal backdrop.
It was as if nothing had happened – but the damage will linger for weeks and months.
One of the most seriously affected businesses has been Bassetts Citroen garage in Pensarn Road.
Situated in the eye of the floods, the garage had dozens of vehicles parked outside. The staff there did all they could to limit the damage but some things were beyond saving.
Around £400,000 worth of stock was ruined within hours. In the coming days recovery lorries will arrive outside and transport 32 ‘totalled’ cars to the shredder.
“Those cars are never going back on the road,” said Eifion Williams, general manager at Bassetts.
“They’ll be taken away, broken up, and dismantled. Once water has got into the vehicles, that’s that.
“The build-up of water was so rapid that within no time at all the road was covered in water.
“Staff were worried about whether they’d be able to get home so we did everything we could to save as many vehicles as possible and then we closed at about 1.15pm on the Saturday. By 3.15pm we had a call from Natural Resources Wales to say that the flood alert had been escalated so we came down here and tried to move a couple of the cars.
“We’re lucky in a way that we didn’t move any more out to the back of the garage, otherwise that figure of 32 would have been even higher.
“I was here on Sunday morning and I thought then that the water would be here until at least Tuesday. I was in Carmarthen in 1987 and back then the water remained high for days, but this time, by Monday morning, Pensarn Road was clear.”
Eifion and his team of 18 staff all rallied together in the days that followed and just days later, everything was back to normal – except for the 32 new vehicles outside that will never be driven another mile.
In all his 15 years at the garage Eifion has never seen anything like it.
“This is by far the worst flooding the town has seen since 1987. We’ve had alerts from time to time about rising river levels but nothing like this, and it all happened so quickly. All those cars, everything that was out the back – finished.”
It’s amazing to think that, less than a week later, the company is back open and operating normally.
Life here goes on and the hard work of the staff has ensured that even a £400,000 hit can’t knock the spirit of the company. By Wednesday it was business as usual.
That hard work has been evident throughout the region, none more so that at the Cresselly Arms. The pub is next to the River Cothi and its owners don’t have insurance against flooding.
When the water began to rise on Friday night and into Saturday morning the landlady thought “that was it”.
“When I looked out of the window and saw the water outside I feared the worst – I thought we’d be closed for months,” said Amanda Philpin, who took over the country pub with her partner Gary Trickett in July 2016.
“On the Friday night, just after we’d finished serving food, we took everything out of the dining room. We didn’t sleep at all that night. We knew it was going to be bad.”
Nevertheless their worst fears, however grave, could not have lived up to the reality.
By Saturday morning the windows of the pub were barely visible from the outside. The beer garden, with recently-laid decking and a play area for children, had become an extended part of the Cothi.
To look at the pub then, and to walk around inside today, is to realise the magnitude of the work achieved by Amanda, Gary, and the community. Incredibly the pub was due to reopen yesterday lunchtime – seven days since such grave damage was inflicted.
“We have to give a huge thanks to the community because so many people have come together to help us out,” said Amanda.
“Local residents have been here and their attitude has been: ‘Well, it’s happened, let’s just get on and fix it’.
“Companies like Castell Howell and Morton’s Fine Foods have helped us so much. The fact that we’re opening a week later is amazing and is testament to everyone’s hard work and support.”
The immediate carnage may have only lasted a couple of days, and the water may have now disappeared, but the long-term damage could be harder to shift.
“I had a sleepless night the other night,” admitted Amanda.
“It was drizzling outside, only drizzling, but I couldn’t help checking to see how bad it was raining. I feel silly now, but I couldn’t help it.”
The reality is that this has never happened before in the couple’s time at the Cresselly, and the chances are that it won’t happen again any time soon.
Amanda’s partner Gary is even looking on the bright side of the fact that insurance companies just will not cover the premises against flood damage.
“You can’t let it beat you,” he said. “This is our first experience of it all and we’re just looking forward to reopening.
“One way of looking at it is – if we had insurance it might have taken months to sort it all out, but doing it this way at least means we can just get on with it.”
‘Just getting on with it’ seems to be a common theme among the people hit by flooding.
Back in Carmarthen, a much-loved chip shop and cafe has been closed all week after rain crashed its way through fridges, freezers, cooking ranges, and electrics.
Hagan’s Cafe & Chip Shop, located in Pensarn, was open as normal last Saturday morning. The popular cafe was busy with workers and those enjoying a weekend breakfast when the weather took a turn for the worse.
“We could see the water rising and we were told we had to get out – it all happened so quickly,” said owner Lilian Hagan.
“This cafe has been here for nine years and we’ve never seen anything like it before.”
A lot of her stock – potatoes, fish, sausages, and drinks – has ended up in a skip outside the cafe and this ruination, together with damage done to equipment, has cost the business thousands of pounds.
Hagan’s, like Bassetts Citroen, is located only a couple of hundred yards from the Towy and stood no chance of escaping the water that came down Pensarn Road.
“I assumed I would lose absolutely everything but my electrician has been so good and we’ve managed to save some things,” said Lilian.
“I’ve lost a couple of fridges and freezers and my cooker but my main concern is for the staff.
“I’ve got 14 people working here all together, full-time and part-time. They’ve been so good to me – they’ve been in every day since it happened, helping, trying to get things back to normal, but it hasn’t been easy.
“We’re lucky in a way because it could have been worse.”
Rain came pouring into the cafe and by Saturday night and into Sunday the water level had risen several feet above the floor, devastating everything underneath.
A large part of the chip shop was left underwater and its current state is a far cry from the usual hustle and bustle that normally fills this popular chippy on a weekend lunchtime, surrounded as it is by businesses with hungry work forces on either side.
“I have no idea what the future will hold for me and my staff,” said Lilian.
“My main concern is for them – they’ve been working so hard and they need wages. My problem at the moment is we’re not making any money because we can’t open.”
Lilian has launched a GoFundMe appeal to raise enough money to be able to reopen her beloved business.
Buildings insurance will cover damage to the property itself but with no contents insurance the equip- ment she needs to bring Hagan’s back will run into the thousands.
“Just when you think everything is fine this happens,” she said.
“I don’t know where else I can turn – I don’t think I will be able to do this on my own so I am asking for help.”
Despite her fears for the future Lilian hopes the cafe, at the rear of the property, can be reopened this weekend but the chip shop at the front could be closed for some time.
All of this hardship pales, however, in comparison to the anguish felt by the family and friends of 21-year-old Corey Sharpling, who tragically died last Saturday evening after being hit by a landslide in the Cwmduad area of Carmarthenshire.
Possessions and earnings can be replaced – a young man’s life cannot.
Carmarthenshire council has set up an emergency fund to help the scores of homes and businesses inundated by floodwater from Storm Callum and the authority says that £3m will be needed to repair highway infrastructure alone in the county following “the worst flooding seen in the area for over 30 years”.
The flood of 1987 remains in the minds of everyone who witnessed the carnage that spread through parts of the county on those October days more than three decades ago.
Prince Charles and Princess Diana walked the streets of Pensarn to assess the scale of what had happened. Homes and businesses were never quite the same but the area stood up, brushed away the rain, and got back on its feet and this past week has seen history repeat itself.
The more things change, the more they stay the same – Carmarthen and its surrounding areas may have changed, but the will of the people in this part of the world has not.
The Cresselly Arms in Pontargothi, during the flood...
Flooding outside Ken Williams Motors in Carmarthen...
...and one week later
...and the scene on Friday
Eifion William, general manager at Bassetts Citroen Carmarthen, with some of the cars which were affected by the flooding
A football pitch in Abergwili last week...
The Riverside Cafe in Newcastle Emlyn during the floods...
...and after the flood water receded
...and a week later