© Getty Images WHALEY BRIDGE, ENGLAND – AUGUST 02: Prime Minister Boris Johnson meets with police and rescue crews at Chapel-en-Le-frith High School as work continues at Toddbrook reservoir following a severe structural failure after heavy rain, on August 02, 2019 in Whaley Bridge, England. The town’s 6,500 people were forced to leave their homes after yesterday’s partial collapse of the dam at Toddbrook Reservoir, in Derbyshire. Engineers have been pumping water from the reservoir overnight to reduce the water level. (Photo by Leon Neal – WPA Pool/Getty Images)
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has arrived in Derbyshire to meet residents evacuated from Whaley Bridge as work continues to save the town’s damaged dam.
Water levels at the Toddbrook Reservoir have been reduced by half a metre but engineers remain “very concerned” about the integrity of the damaged 180-year-old structure, which contains around 1.3 million tonnes of water.
Hundreds of people have been evacuated from Whaley Bridge over fears it could rupture and flood their homes.
On Friday night Mr Johnson arrived in the area by helicopter to talk to residents, emergency service workers and assess the scene.
He met a number of families affected by the evacuation, telling them he had flown over the dam twice and it was “dodgy but stable”.
© PA A Chinook helicopter drops aggregate onto the damaged dam of Toddbrook Reservoir
The Prime Minister said at the Chapel-en-le-Frith High School: “I flew over the dam and it looks pretty scary. I can see the problem.”
He assured residents “you will all be properly housed” if the dam burst.
Mr Johnson told a group of police officers: “Lets hope it doesn’t happen.”
He spent about half an hour talking to different groups of residents in the school gym and also police officers who helped with the evacuation.
Matthew and Lynn Lingard told him they had left pets – two cockateils and two rabbits – at their home.
The Prime Minister said: “That must be very worrying . Are you going to be able to go back and get them?”
Mr Lingard said they had been told probably not in the next 48 hours.
One resident told Mr Johnson: “We’re all like zombies.”
© Getty Images Prime Minister Boris Johnson meets with rescue crews and local residents
Stopping for selfies in the hall, he asked where everyone slept last night and when it became obvious they would have to leave.
He also looked shocked to be told some people had refused to leave. Flanked by senior police officers, he said: “We’ve got to sort that out.”
Mr Johnson told another group of residents: “The plan is to try and stop the dam breaking, clearly. And so a huge amount of effort is going into that.
“The Chinook’s been over putting in the aggregate and putting in the sandbags to try and stop it bursting. They’re pumping out huge amounts of water.”
Mr Johnson said he thought they had to get the level of the water down about eight metres, although there was some discussion with the surrounding officials about whether this was the exact figure.
He said: “They’ve got a long way to go. Whatever we do, we’ll make sure we rebuild it.”
Earlier in the day the Prime Minister tweeted: “My thoughts are with those who have had to leave their homes and all of those who are affected in #WhaleyBridge. First responders, engineers and RAF crews are working around the clock to fix the dam.”
© PA Prime Minister Boris Johnson meeting police during a visit to Whaley Bridge Football Club
He added: “I have just spoken to GOLD Commander and Deputy Chief Constable Rachel Swann to thank them for their ongoing efforts and I have instructed the Environment Secretary to chair a COBR meeting later today to coordinate the Government’s response.”
An RAF Chinook and around 150 firefighters using high-volume pumps appear to have partly stabilised the “unprecedented, fast-moving emergency situation” caused by heavy rain.
During a multi-agency press conference on Friday night, Assistant Chief Constable Kem Mehmet of Derbyshire Police said there was still “a substantial threat to life” if the dam wall fails.
“We would ask residents to continue to heed police advice and stay away from Whaley Bridge,” he told the press conference on Friday.
Due to concerns raised by residents over pets being left behind, he said officers had made the “difficult” decision to allow people to return to their homes temporarily.
“We will be putting plans in place for residents to return to their home to pick up very vital things they need along with their animal welfare,” he told reporters.
“This is very controlled, I must stress that, because this is still life at risk.”
Numbers returning will be restricted to one person per household, he said, and it was “difficult” to say when people would be allowed to return permanently.
Julie Sharman, chief operating officer for the Canal and River Trust, told the press conference the water level needs to be reduced by “several more” metres, with more pumps being installed on Friday evening.
“This is still a very critical situation,” she said.
“Until we are confident we can control that risk, then our position has to be to protect the public safety and limit access because we don’t want to put people at risk.”
The Chinook has been dropping one-ton sandbags on to the damaged area to bolster the structure.
Improving weather and work on the inflows means the amount of water entering the reservoir has also reduced.
Police have closed railway lines in the Whaley Bridge area over the risk of potential flooding.
The Prime Minister said “first responders, engineers and RAF crews are working around the clock to fix the dam” and he has ordered Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers to chair a meeting of the Cobra emergency committee to discuss the situation.
Around 1,000 people were evacuated from the town but most found their own accommodation with family and friends, according to Derbyshire County Council.
Carolyn Whittle, who lives in Meadowfield on the hillside in Whaley Bridge, said: “I’ve lived in Whaley for the best part of 45 years and I’ve never seen water flood over the dam like that, ever, nor thought that we could possibly be at risk in this way.”
The Environment Agency issued a “danger to life” warning covering the River Goyt on Thursday, as the river could “rise rapidly” due to water rushing in from the reservoir.
© Provided by Reach Publishing Services Limited The damaged dam on Wednesday night
Meanwhile, clean-up operations are under way across parts of the North West hit by heavy rain, including Poynton in Cheshire – where residents were evacuated on Wednesday night.
The Environment Agency has 10 flood alerts, six flood warnings and one severe flood warning in place across England.
Richard Parry, chief executive of the Canal and River Trust, said an annual inspection of the Toddbrook Reservoir by a senior engineer took place last November.
The reservoir is on the north-west edge of the Peak District National Park and was built in 1831, according to experts, although the Environment Agency records it as being built in 1840-41.
According to a 2011 Environment Agency report on national dam incidents, Toddbrook “has a history of leakage”.