The recent floods devastated the West Yorkshire town of Hebden Bridge but, writes resident Amy Harbour, community spirit and the extraordinary support of local religious groups have meant it’s well on the way to recovery.
December 2015 was wet. At the Town Hall in Hebden Bridge the never-ending rain was a hot topic of conversation. People ran into the building as a respite from the weather; the wetness was oppressive, even for people used to living in the shadow of the Pennines.
As I was locking up the building on Christmas Eve I received an automated phone call from the Environment Agency with a flood alert for 26 December. We get so many that I thought nothing of it.
But the rain continued and on Boxing Day we began to flood. A red weather warning (which indicates a threat to life) became reality as the highest ever recorded river levels triggered flood sirens. The water was so strong it even swept a bus down the street. Five electricity substations in the town were taken out, which meant most houses were without power.
Hebden Bridge Town Hall is not a council building; it’s a community building operated by a charity called the Hebden Bridge Community Association. Although I was moving on from the organisation at the end of December, for now I was still the director and the building was my responsibility.
We opened the doors to the Town Hall on 27 December so that the local community could come somewhere dry and have a hot drink. And then it began. People came to help. The help was unconditional; they just needed to do something.
“What do you say to someone who has changed your life? How do you explain to them that you were breaking and they put you back together? Are there the words to thank them for feeding tens of thousands of people in need and helping those in need for free?”
Within four hours of opening we were a hub for cleaning items, a food bank, a place for people to fill out grant applications, a mobile phone charging point, free WiFi provider and giving out free hot food and drinks.
On 28 December the situation became more serious. People were emptying their homes and had identified critical problems. There were structural and electrical problems, gas leaks and vulnerable people needed to be rescued.
We were logging the needs of the community in earnest, but one person with a laptop sat in reception was quickly overwhelmed beyond belief with requests for and offers of help. We needed a team of volunteers sharing information to coordinate it. Tim Harbour and Mike Stephens from local web design companies UC48 and Ayup created an online application matching the needs of our community with the offers of help coming in.
This was the moment Khalsa Aid turned up. They took me to one side, made sure I had phone numbers and told me to call for anything I needed. I had no idea what they were talking about; I had been running on adrenaline for three days and not a lot was making sense. We were muddling through, what else could we need?
That night, the responsibility of it all hit me. I was a wreck. I ran a building, not an emergency response for a whole town. I sat up all night on the sofa working out the local solutions and what the Town Hall could and could not do. Being a community organisation with a community facility allowed us to create a strategy that fitted the needs of the town.
I had about 45 minutes’ sleep and then went back to work. First thing, Ravi Singh from Khalsa Aid called me and let me know he was sending hot meals at lunch and dinnertime so everyone could eat.
He gave me his personal mobile; I was to call him with a list of things we needed and he would get them to us. He would keep his mobile phone on 24 hours a day for me to call him any time, day or night. Whatever we needed he would get it to me, no matter the time. He lived up to that promise.
Khalsa Aid has fed thousands of people for free, no questions asked. Their experience makes their help invaluable. They know what you need before you know it yourself. A community dealing with an emergency needs hot food prepared and packaged to be handed out throughout the day. Khalsa stepped in and did this for us and the neighbouring village of Mytholmroyd, which was also badly affected.
With a shared database up and running we were ready to help the community help itself. We have a huge amount of civic pride in Hebden Bridge. The number of volunteers was astounding and their skills were magnificent. Just when the community was flagging, groups from all over the UK turned up.
Volunteer teams dealt with the incoming requests and sent out those with specialist skills to the right place with the appropriate priority. Almost all these groups were Muslim; they mobilised locally and came to give their unconditional help to us. They worked with us to save our community. Hebden Bridge is predominantly white, so the vast number of religious groups that came to help was noticeable.
But what do you say to someone who has changed your life? How do you explain to them that you were breaking and they put you back together? Are there the words to thank them for feeding tens of thousands of people in need and helping those in need for free?
We have now passed our process and systems on to the local council who are continuing the good work (though we’re still running the food bank, cleaning hub, mobile phone charging, and free hot food and drinks). However, we have shown that a community with support from a community organisation can make a swifter and better response to a crisis than the local authority.
Amy Harbour is former director of the Town Hall in Hebden Bridge, a community anchor organisation run on behalf of the town.2023 Views