Storm Babet: Stonehaven braced for high tide as town whipped by wind, rain and waves
Stonehaven was on high alert as Storm Babet swept in and no one took any chances. Blue flood gates stockpiled over years of sea surges and floods protected front doors long before the worst arrived. Sandbags were piled high against properties closest to the river and the sea.
Stonehaven has been here many times before and the onset of hard rain is enough to take people back to 2012 when people were rescued from their homes in boats the week before Christmas.
In 2019, the water came up waist deep in parts of the town, which is vulnerable to high water levels due to the drop of the River Carron into the North Sea and the flow of the Cowie slightly to the north. Then, there is water running off the land to consider in a town tucked below farming country to the north, south and west.
Driving into Stonehaven, the omens start to gather. A kestrel in flight comes to a standstill as a gust of wind blocks its path and cows tightly pack into the corner of a field. A post from a friend in a nearby villages says “thanks to whoever picked up my wheelbarrow”. At 3.20pm, the power goes out in at least some of the town, with further blackouts to follow. Mum asks “have you got candles?”
Georgina Corbett is at work at The Pet Store in Cameron Street, a road that has experienced some of the town’s worst flooding given it backs right on to the River Carron, the major focus of the new Stonehaven Flood Prevention Scheme, which has recently been completed at a cost of £27.5 million. On Thursday, the town was holding its breath to see how it held up against Babet.
Ms Corbett said: “There are still people here worried every time it rains, people worry until they know they are going to be OK. It is quite scary.
“The testing time will be high tide. We have been very badly affected by flooding before. We have had a lot of stock ruined and had to be dumped after we had water coming in the front door and also the back door. The shop goes straight onto the river.
“We hope the flood defence scheme works. It is bound to work, surely?
"You have got this storm coming in from the sea, but it is also the water coming down from the hills, the rain coming from the forests that you have to worry about.”
Down at Stonehaven Harbour, the sea is at full raging force – and it is still only low tide. Waves crash over the harbour wall and one boat has its sail ripped free from its mast.
At the Marine Hotel, sandbags line the door. The plan is to keep open as usual and inside, a couple of men hunker down with a half and a half. One, a retired fisherman, has seen worse. “It’s just rain,” he said.
Outside The Ship next door, a German tourist gets caught in the wind as he heads up an alley way to the harbour with his suitcase blown up in the air. I ask if he is OK, but no one can hear anything as the elements take over.
Bar staff help to carefully prise the door open against the wind using two hands against the gusts, which are hitting around 70mph. Inside, the fire is on.
Craig Andrew, assistant manager at The Ship Inn, said: “We have got the sandbags in place, so we just take it in our stride. We are prepared as we can be. We have got residents still needing to check in, so we need to stay open for them and make sure they are looked after. No one has cancelled yet
“We will see what happens at 5pm at high tide. The new flood scheme looks good – whether it works we will find out.
“I remember all the floods here over the years. Something needed to be done and it couldn’t carry on the way it was.”
The flood scheme, which ran over budget by around £7m, has been designed to reduce risk to around 370 houses, a school and the town’s police base. Around a mile-and-a-half of flood walls have been built and two high capacity culverts have been created to manage water levels.
Self-raising flood barriers are a key feature. All eyes will be on this new river engineering – both in the town and at Aberdeenshire Council – in its first major test since it was completed in August. Heavy rain in early October posed no problems.
Lorraine Hunt lives on the edge of the harbour, close to the sea wall where the highest waves are rushing over. It was near here that a young father was tragically swept into the water when taking a photograph of storm surges in 2014. Ms Hunt is putting the floor gate over her door in anticipation of the next few hours ahead.
“I am just hoping the water doesn’t come over,” she said. “The waves are crashing over the wall and that is only low tide. We wait to see what happens.”
For residents of Stonehaven – and other villages crouched down low by this stretch of coastline – a long night lay ahead.
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