Clare Cope had expected to spend Christmas enjoying a well-earned breather. But on Boxing Day 2015, several feet of filthy water swept through the school where she is headteacher, Burnley Road Academy in Mytholmroyd, West Yorkshire – one of several devastated by the area’s worst floods in living memory.
“Nothing could have prepared me for the sheer scale of the damage,” says Cope. “Everything was completely ruined, covered in inches of foul-smelling black sludge. Years of work, gone, just like that.”
There was a moment, she says, standing in the sewage-ridden sludge, with children’s wrecked exercise books lying around her, when she wondered where on earth to begin.
“But, faced with something like this, you really have no choice but to roll up your sleeves and get on with it – act on instinct almost. So that’s what I did,” she says.
Two months later, with reconstruction work well under way and her pupils now settled in temporary accommodation, Cope has had the time to consider her response to what happened. Here, in her own words, she shares what she has learned and offers advice to those who might one day find themselves facing a similar incident.
Acting on instinct
The first few days are about reacting to the immediate crisis. Try not to panic. At this stage, you haven’t got time to mull over every decision. To a certain extent, you have to rely on instinct, and that is OK.
Keep your list of emergency contacts and a dedicated mobile phone at home so they won’t be lost if your school floods. You’ll have lots of calls to make and chances are the school landline will be down. Make calls straightaway – to your insurer, the local authority, and so on – and, even though you’ll feel desperate to start cleaning up, don’t. Any insurance claim could be affected if you act before your loss adjustor has given you the official go-ahead.
We were inundated with offers of help. On the first day, about 150 people turned up with mops and buckets asking what they could do.
Initially, the enormity of the situation was difficult to deal with because I’m used to feeling in control.
I realised very quickly, however, that I could not manage something like this alone – and that delegating and making use of the considerable skills and expertise of volunteers was the wisest course of action.
For example, the father of one of our pupil’s took charge outside and did a brilliant job. One of the things he did was to organise a pump, which took 72,000 litres of water off of our playing field in one day.
I wanted to lead and manage, but I also learned that I had to let go a little bit and trust in others’ capabilities.
Once the dust has settled
The challenges don’t stop once the initial emergency has been dealt with. At the moment, our older children are being taught in the local high school’s sixth-form block and our younger pupils are travelling six miles to a primary school with spare classrooms.
This has entailed all sorts of organisational challenges, such as finding transport for the key stage 1 pupils and employing extra staff to supervise bus journeys and lunchtimes on two sites. Again, it’s important to accept help and advice. Working in partnership with the local authority and other schools has allowed us to minimise disruption for our children and get things sorted out faster.
Give some thought to how you’d manage if you lost all of your resources. We lost everything, which means that teachers are having to be more creative in the way they present lessons.
There’s also more old-fashioned text book-style teaching going on– and the children don’t mind a bit. They’re very adaptable.
I worried, and still worry, about the effect that being on two sites could have on children’s relationships and staff morale – and this is something I’m watching closely. I spend as much time as possible on each site and find our weekly staff meetings play an important part in staying connected.
Planning for the worst
Think about where you could move in an emergency situation. Our vague plan was to use the community centre but during the floods that building was ruined, too.
Fortunately, the local authority and nearby schools came forward with offers of space, but it would have saved time and effort if we’d had a list of possible accommodation beforehand.
It would be worthwhile for schools in any area to get together to discuss how they’d help each other in an extreme situation, and they should include that information in their emergency plans.
Make sure all inventories are up to date – this is crucial for insurance purposes – and that computer systems and other essential documents are backed up and copied.
Consider the logistics of cleaning up after an event like this. Where is your nearest waste-disposal site and what rubbish will it accept? Are there any local skip-hire companies? Basically, your school’s emergency plan should be as thorough as possible – and include even small, seemingly trivial, details – such as the phone number of the tip.
How well you plan now could make all the difference when you’re in the thick of it.
Using social media
Social media proved invaluable during our crisis. The Parents, Teachers and Friends Association did a marvellous job on Facebook, making sure information was kept current and that the right help was arriving.
We made sure Twitter and the school website were regularly updated and found Parent Mail an easy way of keeping parents informed of developments. Effective communication has been absolutely crucial at every stage. Everybody feels happier and more accepting when they are kept in the loop.
It will be several months before we get our lovely school back – the local authority is currently managing the rebuild for us – and we’re trying to carry on as normally as possible in the meantime.
With our like-for-like insurance policy, it won’t be possible to spend huge sums of money on flood-proofing, but we are looking at small measures such as replacing sockets at a higher level and buying storage that can be moved more easily. No amount of preparation could have saved our school from flooding, but the aftermath might have been a little easier if we knew then what we know now.
And although it has been a very difficult experience, it has also highlighted what a wonderful community I am part of and just how far people are willing go for others in desperate times. It will certainly take more than a flood to keep us down!
Sally Ashworth is a freelance journalist