LITTLE did we think in mid-October last that the country would go into lockdown so soon again with another status red weather alert, as happened last week with a different type of rare meteorological event that saw so much snow fall on the Met Office’s first day of Spring as to make it the coldest ever March day here since records began, as temperatures dipped several degrees below zero, exacerbated by a severe wind chill factor – the so-called ‘Beast from the East.’
Less than four and a half months after Storm Ophelia – which was the remains of a hurricane – Storm Emma took the same track from Portugal up through the Bay of Biscay to collide over Ireland with the cold air coming across northern Europe from Siberia, which turned the heavy rain the system was bearing into snow and sparked the status red weather alert, which brought the country to a halt again.
Since Ophelia and its immediate successor, Storm Brian, which also caused further damage last October, we have been inundated all winter since with so many alerts – mainly yellow and some orange – for different types of weather events that we could be forgiven for feeling alerts fatigue and the cynics amongst us could well protest that there’s a ‘cry wolf’ element to them. However, they are given in good faith and for people’s safety, so nobody should ever try to shoot the messenger.
When a status red alert is given, it focusses people’s minds and, giving credit where it is due, the Met Office got it largely right about when and where Storm Emma would meet the ‘Beast from the East’ and the serious weather consequences of that encounter. The National Emergency Co-Ordination Centre (NECC) issued stark warnings about it well in advance and, even though people in many areas might have been sent home a few hours too early on the day of the big weather event, it was better to be safe than sorry.
The vast majority of people took the NECC advice this time and this contributed to keeping the death toll down to zero. Three people died as a result of Storm Ophelia last October, so more people have come to appreciate the importance of observing the safety advice given to the public.
The last comparable weather event occurred at the start of January 1982 and claimed seven lives, as it came with little or no warning because the science of weather forecasting was not as advanced or sophisticated back then. Because that snow blizzard happened in the depths of winter, the thaw afterwards was painfully slow and schools and workplaces in some parts of the country were forced to stay closed for a week; the road network was much worse then also and gritting was not as organised at the time.
Thankfully, the statutory authorities have become much more organised in the 21st century in their preparedness for and response to extreme weather events. Credit and thanks is due to the emergency services in particular, including the Gardaí, ambulance crews and firefighters, hospital staff and local authority workers – many of whom worked above and beyond the call of duty – before, during and after the events of last week.
Hospital personnel who were accommodated in hotels and at their workplaces so that they would be on hand to care for their patients, selflessly gave up some of their family and social lives for the duration of the weather event and are to be commended for this. However, the biggest plaudits must be reserved for all the volunteers who gave their time to back up the emergency services, including the Civil Defence, Irish Coast Guard, Irish Red Cross, St John Ambulance and Order of Malta and others dealing with looking after the elderly who were particularly vulnerable in the conditions that prevailed.
While Minister of State for Mental Health and Older People, Jim Daly, TD, became embroiled in controversy before Storm Emma struck for his largesse in advising the elderly to leave their heating on around the clock, as he admirably stuck to his guns, his comments indirectly led to a welcome doubling of pensioners’ fuel allowance for last week.
The most vulnerable people of all during severe weather events are the homeless and a widespread trawl was done in Dublin in particular to identify and encourage people sleeping rough outdoors to avail of emergency beds. It resulted in the identification of almost 100 more people who were not in the system heretofore, adding to the number of homeless people and further amplifying the scale of the problem.
Whatever about debates as to whether last week’s weather turmoil was because of climate change caused by global warming, clearly the most urgent task in its wake is the necessity to seriously tackle homelessness.