As the big clean up of Almuñecar begins, Bob Maddox draws parallels between the flood destruction wrought in the town and that in sleepy Lynmouth more than 50 years ago. His conclusions? Too much construction is to blame
AUGUST 1952. The Devon town of Lynmouth had been sitting under iron grey skies for days. An Atlantic depression had produced unusually wet weather for the time of year. Indeed, some estimates put the volume of rainfall that fell during that August as 250 times the average for the month. High above Lynmouth, the peaty soils of Exmoor had been transformed into sodden black porridge, as impermeable as concrete – any rain which fell from now on had nowhere to go but sideways.
Lynmouth had for some time enjoyed a reputation as the premier resort of the north Devon coast. ‘Lynmouth – Where Exmoor meets the sea!’ was the proud boast of one contemporary advertisement. Occupying a wonderful situation at the foot of a deep wooded gorge, the town was also situated at the confluence of the racing East and West Lyn rivers. Idyllic.
Anxious to make the best of its situation, the town worthies had allowed relatively unbridled expansion of Lynmouth’s tourist infrastructure. Many buildings were built out into the former course of the Lyn, which was diverted into a confined channel. The river found itself crowded about by hotels, constricted by narrow bridges and diverted away from its ancient natural path.
Concrete and tarmac replaced natural open spaces.
Then, on the night of August 15, 29 centimetres of rain cascaded over the sodden soils of Exmoor and across the concrete and tarmac of Lynmouth. The result was catastrophic.
Ninety million tonnes of water swept down the narrow gorges of the East and West Lyn rivers and on into Lynmouth. In a night of black horror, lit only by lightening flashes, Lynmouth was devastated. Its river, now a beast laden with rocks, boulders and trees to use as bulldozers, rapidly reclaimed its original course, flowing straight through the centre of the town.
Ninety houses and hotels were swept aside, along with almost 100 cars. Bridges became dams as trees and debris piled up against them, forcing the river to even greater excesses of destruction as it spilled sideways into the town.
As fisherman Ken Oxenholme recalled: “We saw a row of cottages fold up like a pack of cards to be swept out with the river along with the agonising screams of some of the locals who I knew well.”
Thirty-four people died that night, either crushed under collapsing buildings or swept away to sea by the river. Several were never seen again.
Fifty-five years on, the parallels with the Almuñecar tragedy are clear. Here too, unbridled development, utterly insensitive to the demands of nature, has constricted and diverted the ancient natural courses of the Rios Seco and Verde, while the vast “unproductive” open areas adjoining their floodplains have been given over to euro-generating housing developments, concrete and tarmac. To the rivers – as living, moving dynamic organisms – there has been given not a thought, other than to attempt to bully them into submission with concrete channels.
The Greeks had a word for this sort of behaviour, they called it hubris, meaning ‘excessive self-pride or self-confidence, often resulting in fatal retribution.’
Nor does it reflect reality to hold up our hands in bewilderment and shift the blame by calling this a ‘natural’ disaster. As at Lynmouth, nature’s role in this disaster was limited to the sudden delivery of rainfall in volumes to be expected only once in a hundred years or so.
But to be expected, nonetheless.
In the case of Almuñecar, it is estimated a volume of water equivalent to 300 litres per square metre fell from the sky; approximately the same as at Lynmouth and equating to almost one tonne of water over an area no larger than the footprint of an average car.
A river floods when water enters its channel at a faster rate than it can be carried away. The capacity of naturally vegetated land to absorb water and to slow down the rate at which it reaches a river is phenomenal and this is nature’s own flood control measure. But the vast tonnage of water that fell over Almuñecar that Friday fell mainly over impermeable concrete – over 300 tonnes of water per hectare with nowhere to go but sideways – a runaway train jumping its tracks in the centre of a town.
Lynmouth today is a very different place. Its river now takes precedent in town planning. The River Lyn has been allowed to follow its natural course once again, with high-risk flood zones left as open spaces and bridges built higher and wider to accommodate the next event.
Crucially, thousands of trees have been planted upstream, returning the land to its natural state, absorbing and slowing down rain water.
Will the same humility and foresight characterise the planning decisions made in the aftermath of the Almuñecar disaster? One can only hope so. But with the smell of quick profits in the air and with the latest PGOU urban plan envisaging the construction of around 30,000 new homes, is there really any justification for optimism?
There is a saying: “what is mine is mine, says the river.”
But who is listening?