April 24 2014 Latest news:
Sunday, December 15, 2013
It’s the village where Christmas is cancelled, where very few homes escaped unscathed from the relentless surge of the tides. STACIA BRIGGS joined the clean-up operation and met the woman who refuses to stop fighting for her village.
The spirit in Walcott is battered but not broken, but the same can’t be said for many of its houses which are either uninhabitable or condemned after the devastating tidal surge that struck Norfolk.
At least 10 houses in the village will be demolished, around 50 more are uninhabitable and some residents – who were unable to find insurance for their properties – have been left with nothing whatsoever: in some cases, not even a pair of shoes.
Those whose lives have been devastated are relying on temporary accommodation from North Norfolk District Council, donated clothing and food parcels: the sea has taken everything from them. But the village is fighting back: and what a fight back it is.
Outside the fish and chip shop – which has been providing free food for workers – is the command centre provided by UK Power Networks.
And there, with her ‘battle bag’ packed with essentials clutched to her side, dressed in many layers, her boots speckled with the sand that turned the village into a temporary beach, is Pauline Porter, Walcott’s Wonderwoman.
“When there are no words, you just give a hug instead,” said Pauline, who is community resilience coordinator, an extraordinarily apt moniker for a powerhouse who simply will not give up fighting for Walcott.
“Some people have lost everything and all we can do is try and make sure that they have somewhere to stay, something to eat and that they know we are here for them. Those who weren’t affected feel guilty and we’re here for them, too. It’s about the whole village supporting each other.”
The command centre arrived on Monday and Pauline’s phone hasn’t stopped ringing for days: people asking for help, people offering support, people unsure where to turn now the worst has happened.
Pauline and husband Keith moved to Walcott from Potter Heigham almost 10 years ago and immersed themselves in village life: both are on the Parish Council (Pauline is chairwoman) and play an active role in the community.
They love the peace and quiet of their home, the fact that it isn’t overlooked and that their nearest neighbour is a field of sugar beet, the friendliness of the community and, of course, the many advantages of living so close to the sea.
“She looks beautiful today – when you live here you get to know the colours and the moods of the sea; she can turn from silver to black when she’s angry and we have a saying: ‘there’s a lot of sea out there today’, which is when we know there might be trouble,” said Pauline, who is currently living with Keith in temporary accommodation in Cromer.
“If you live here, you’re very aware of what the sea can do. It’s part of our life.”
Walcott is used to the kind of evacuations that took place on December 5 and even has its own independent flood wardens – the Walcott Emergency Volunteer Association.
Before the recent flooding, the village prepared for the worst in October, and back in 2007 residents suffered another breach and subsequent damage.
“If you don’t evacuate, when the road closes you get trapped,” said Pauline, who was wheelchair-bound in 2007 and left her home after warnings of a 19ft tidal wave.
“We all go to The Lighthouse pub in the village – Steve the landlord is amazing and we have a bit of a party. You can’t think about what’s happening because there’s nothing you can do. You just have to wait.”
Around 30 villagers spent the night at the Lighthouse this month, others going to the rest centre in nearby Stalham.
“I was in the control room, so I knew exactly how bad it was. You just have to deal with it – there’s no point telling people how bad it is, you just have to try and keep people’s spirits up, keep them safe, fed and watered.”
Keith (or “Mrs Pauline” according to the whiteboard in the command centre) was the first to go back to the couple’s home and see the damage that had been wreaked.
“It was carnage – raw sewage and mud all over the road and up into the house, the floors were soaking, floorboards had lifted, everything was wet. We’d just spent thousands on DIY and it was all ruined in a few hours,” said Keith.
“It’s awful, but there are people far worse off than we are and our main concern is to help the people without homes and without insurance. Once we have them sorted, we can look at what we need to do at home. It’s just stuff. No one died. That’s the main thing to remember.”
Pauline was too busy to return to her home, at least 150 metres from the sea wall, until Saturday.
“I was helping a lady who wasn’t very well when Keith came back from the house. He was in tears. His face said it all. I knew it was bad,” she said.
Inside, the house smells unmistakably of floodwater. It is damp, freezing cold and the couple think it will be many months before they can return.
“Everybody said the water had only ever gone halfway up our road and we thought we’d never get flooded – even this time. We were wrong,” said Pauline.
The couple had moved as many possessions as possible to higher ground but many items have been ruined by water: an heirloom clock lies on a waterlogged sofa in an attempt to save it, some of Pauline’s late mother’s belongings have been damaged but may be salvageable.
“Most things you can just replace, but losing my Mum’s things feels like letting part of her go all over again,” she said.
“It was chaos at home but I don’t let myself think about it. There are things that need to be done. I had to get back to doing what I do best: I know that I’ll crash at some point but I know my friends and family will be there to pick me back up.”
By the sea wall itself, the devastation is horrific. Brick walls have collapsed into bedrooms and garages, outdoor buildings are reduced to matchsticks, possessions lie dripping on driveways, the smell of decay hangs in the air. On one condemned building, a Christmas wreath hangs.
“Christmas is pretty much cancelled in Walcott. So many people have lost their homes, have nowhere to cook their dinner, nothing to celebrate,” said Pauline.
“We can’t think about Christmas when there’s so much to be done but obviously we will try and organise something if we can. It’s hard to get into the festive spirit when you know how people are struggling.
“The support we have had has been incredible – particularly from UK Power Network, North Norfolk District Council, the local pubs, people who live nearby, EDP readers…situations like this make you realise that although as a village we feel forgotten when it comes to flood defences, when it comes to support, we are not alone.”
But just as emergencies bring out the best in people, they also bring out the worst. Villagers have been upset by the number of ‘disaster tourists’ coming to take photographs and gawp and the looters who have stolen the few possessions that weren’t ruined by floodwater.
“I got to the stage where I was asking people if they were from Walcott and if they weren’t what they were doing here. When they said ‘just looking’, I told them to come back with a shovel and ‘just look’ because then they could give us a hand!” laughed Pauline.
Once the emergency situation in Walcott has subsided, the plan is to gather the Parish Council, county councillors and MP Norman Lamb to join forces to petition the government to spend the necessary cash on the flood defences that will save the village.
Without them, one can’t help but be apprehensive about Walcott’s future. The sea – peaceful today but prone to fits of devastating temper – is the village’s best friend and worst enemy; a lure for visitors with pockets full of cash yet a foe that can devastate an entire community in a matter of hours.
“We need proper flood defences. We need help. We are going to shout as loud as we can until something is done because we feel as if we’ve been forgotten in Walcott and Bacton,” said Pauline.
“I will be here for as long as I am needed. They’ve given me this title – community resilience coordinator, but I call it kicking ass. And I will kick ass until Walcott gets what it deserves.”