Great flood anniversary: Sheffield business director recalls 'Michael Fish moment'

Gareth Barker beside the new flood defence wall at Forgemasters
Gareth Barker beside the new flood defence wall at Forgemasters
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Gareth Barker, director at Sheffield steel giant Forgemasters, admits to having had 'a bit of a Michael Fish moment' on the day of the great flood in 2007.

He was in charge of the machine shop at the Brightside Lane factory in the Don Valley, and remembers the chief executive calling at about 11.30am on June 25 to raise concerns about the river level.

Staff begin the clean-up operation at Forgemasters

Staff begin the clean-up operation at Forgemasters

"I was stood by the river and I think my words were 'it's high but no different to where it's been before, so I think we'll be alright," said Mr Barker, now group operations director at the firm.

"In the space of a couple of hours it just rose exponentially and by 1.30pm we were evacuating the site. It was a bit of a Michael Fish moment."

Michael Fish was the BBC weather forecaster who famously failed to predict the great storm of 1987.

Forgemasters' machine shop ended up under six feet of water with almost all the machinery destroyed, and it would be a long road to recovery for the business which employed nearly 800 people at the time.

The wreckage left at Forgemasters after floodwaters receded

The wreckage left at Forgemasters after floodwaters receded

The extent of the devastation meant it was a small miracle that within three months the plant was around 80 per cent operational, though it took 18 months to get fully back to strength.

Mr Barker credits the camaraderie at the firm for its recovery - helped he says, by two visits from Prince Charles, who he says was 'brilliant'.

Having spent the day of the flood evacuating the site and then using diggers and cherry pickers to rescue people stranded in cars and neighbouring offices, staff from the chief executive down mucked in together to begin the massive clean-up operation the next morning.

"The three months after the flood were the hardest I've ever known," he said.

Ellie Bennett, pictured with employee Dave Bramley, shows high how the water rose at Wicker Pharmacy

Ellie Bennett, pictured with employee Dave Bramley, shows high how the water rose at Wicker Pharmacy

"The most important thing was to keep our staff together because their skills are what sets us apart from everyone else. If they'd upped and left the devastation would have been equal to the devastation of the flood."

Over the last decade, flood defences at the site have been massively strengthened.

The wall's height has been more than doubled to over two metres and, together with other improvements, Mr Barker is confident today's defences could withstand a flood of the magnitude of the 2007 disaster.

The work is part of the Lower Don Valley Flood Defence Project, a £19m scheme to protect more than 250 businesses and thousands of jobs along an eight kilometre stretch of the River Don from the Wicker to Blackburn Brook at the M1 near Meadowhead.

The project - scheduled for completion this year - was largely funded by the Government and Environment Agency, with firms along the river agreeing to contribute around £1.4m as part of what is known as a business improvement district (BID).

Richard Wright, executive director of Sheffield Chamber Commerce, and a member of the BID steering group, said the focus in the immediate aftermath of the flood was helping companies resolve insurance claims and sort out cashflow problems.

He says the insurance company responded well, HMRC allowed businesses to delay payments and very few firms were forced out of business.

Thoughts then turned to protecting firms along the Lower Don Valley from a similar catastrophe.

The defences being put in place are designed to withstand flooding so severe it would only occur on average once every 100 years - not enough to prevent a one-in-200-year deluge like in 2007 but sufficient to significantly reduce the impact.

Mr Wright said: "It's been a really difficult project but I think we've definitely delivered what was promised."

He added that he expected many of the firms to recoup their contribution to flood defences through reduced insurance premiums, and said the next step was to ensure flood maps are updated as soon as possible to reflect the work.

The Wicker was one of the worst-affected areas in the 2007 flood.

Wicker Pharmacy was among many businesses which flooded on that street, with the cellar submerged and more than two feet of water on the ground floor.

Staff used incontinence pads to soak up water and protect medication, but they pulled together and were able to re-open the following morning to provide vital pills to customers.

Operations manager Ellie Bennett said: "I'm glad the river's now being cleared and there's something there to provide greater protection.

"I just really hope that people don't forget flooding is a possibility and they continue to build flood defences and be smart about building and rivers and keeping the river channels clear."