After the flood: interview with Mary Dhonau

To the British public, Mary Dhonau is the human face of flood – the everywoman whose Worcester home endured several deluges, to be found talking to camera wherever catastrophe strikes. Karen Thomas went to meet her


Eighteen years ago, the first time Mary Dhonau’s Worcester home flooded, she, her five children and former husband spent nine months crammed like sardines on the top floor of the house, having had to strip out fixtures and fittings downstairs that reeked of the raw sewage that had invaded their home.

“We had no idea, when we moved into that house, that we were facing a flood risk,” she recalls. “There was no river, no stream, not even a ditch to alert them to flood risk We had no warning. The first thing we knew was when my eldest son, who had a downstairs bedroom, shouted that his room was filling up with water, ‘and it stinks’.”

Her youngest son, aged two, had just been diagnosed with severe autism. And from then on, every time it rained hard, the Dhonaus’ house filled with sewage. The worst incident left the house waist-deep in sludgy water.

All these years later, Ms Dhonau remembers the stench, the disruption and the stress. Even so, she says many others had it bad, or worse, that year.

The flood left one of the Dhonaus’ Worcester neighbours with a carpet of faeces 21 feet long and four inches deep. For that neighbour, the damage was psychological as much as physical.

“That poor lady was agoraphobic; she never left the house; but being flooded forced her out,” Ms Dhonau says. “That taught me that the recovery from the flood is far worse than the flood itself.”

Often, it’s the personal losses that cut deepest. Another neighbour had buried her husband the day the storm broke. She went up to bed, leaving her wedding photos on the coffee table. The flood took every single one.

“The flood waters entered our homes, annihilated our houses and devastated our lives – and we had no help, no support and no advice,” Ms Dhonau recalls.

At first, Severn Trent blamed the flooding on the local river. But the community proved that the floods had nothing to do with river levels.

New developments had increased pressure on the combined sewer network, which channelled a third of Worcester’s waste. Three pipes converged on the Dhonaus’ street. It was gravity-fed and flowed uphill. In heavy rain, the manhole covers burst.

Ms Dhonau befriended key officials at Severn Trent. But she also rallied her neighbours, launched a petition and, having lobbied the local MP, marched up to Downing Street to deliver the signatures and the evidence to number 10.

“It was in the run-up to the election,” she says wryly. “So we presented ourselves, as a group, as Worcester Woman.”

Worcester Woman won the fight. Severn Trent accepted responsibility for the flooding. It built a £1.3 million sewage-pumping station to tackle the problem.

And Mary, Queen of Floods was born.

False security

The repeat floods of 2000 had persuaded the Dhonau family to flood-proof their home, replacing the flooring with cement and raising the height of power sockets and the boiler.

And so, in 2007, when the pumping station suffered a power cut during heavy storms, the house flooded again. This time, they moved back downstairs within three weeks and made no insurance claim.

That year, 55,000 properties flooded in the UK. For the unluckiest families, it took two years to return home. That was when Ms Dhonau started to campaign for flood resistance and resilience, pushing government, local authorities, agencies and the public to act before the event.

“That made me step back and research ways to make other homes and businesses more resilient to floods,” she says. “I became evangelical about adaptation for resilience.

“A flood-alleviation scheme reduces risk – but it doesn’t remove it. It can give people a false sense of security. You get cases of overtopping, as in Keswick, of breaching, as with York.”

Climate change is bringing more extreme weather. More frequent storms will only increase flood risk. But that message has yet to hit home.

Just 6 per cent of flood survivors believe it will happen to them again. On average, Ms Dhonau says, it takes four floods to persuade people to act to prevent future damage. “I remember one woman said to me, ‘We’ve had a one-in-50-year flood. I’m 85 so it won’t happen to me again’. And two weeks later came another one-in-50 flood.”

Building in resilience matters. Working with task group one of the Defra Property Resilience Plan, Ms Dhonau launched a flood-proofing makeover, the Cumbria Resilience Showcase, to make the point. She lobbied manufacturers to supply fittings and materials for free. Now, she’s looking for a property to host a second flood-proofing makeover in York.

“Most floods are no deeper than 0.3m,” Ms Dhonau says. “Something as simple as fitting kitchen units with legs, or installing the dishwasher in a drawer can have a huge impact.”

Her ambition is a UK-wide series of makeovers, taking flood resilience into local communities – but funding is in short supply.

Learning curve

Although flood resilience does not come cheap, it costs £30,000, on average, to restore your home after a flood. Ms Dhonau estimates that protecting your property costs half that amount.

“But we need to know what works,” she says. “We need money for more research. Oxford Brookes University, working with Aquobex, has been testing the best materials for flood-resilience adaptation – but the money for that project runs out at Christmas.

“Funding is a big issue – there’s so much stuff out there, but manufacturers need help to develop products and get them to market.”

She also co-edits the Know Your Flood Risk campaign’s Home-owner’s Guide to Flood Resilience, which aims to open the discussion about products and methods to flood-proof our homes.

It’s an approach that resonates with insurance firms, who have every reason to fear rising flood-damage claims, and who have joined the DEFRA-led property resilience round table.

Although government wants the public to accept its share of the costs, insurance firms know already that they return year after year to the same properties, carrying out the same repairs and replacements that fail to protect these homes next time they flood.

Following this year’s bank holiday floods in Birmingham in May, Aviva invited Ms Dhonau to talk to its loss adjusters.

University of the West of England is working with Defra to produce a template for loss adjusters on what measures limit future damage, rather than pay out year after year for more of the same. Cunningham Lindsey has started to test the template.

“There’s a shift happening,” Ms Dhonau says. “The insurance industry is very involved in this. We’re no longer seeing floods as just a government problem – the problem should be shared by society, in partnership. But my research for Defra shows that homeowners nearly always want everything put back the same.”

She aims to work with, not for communities at risk, to develop an inclusive flood family.

Mindset

Other changes need regulatory will. The UK still does too little to support and enforce uptake of SuDS, Ms Dhonau says. “The building industry is still too focused on bunging things up and selling them cheap, and too little about adapting these properties to be truly resilient.

“We aren’t embracing the green technologies that can make our towns and cities better places to live, working with water and with nature, using grey water, adding green roofs and permeable paving… Unless we learn to embrace nature, Armageddon will happen.

“Regulations need to insist that we build in flood-proofing from the outset – and those regulations need to be policed.”

Although a new code of practice is coming soon, Ms Dhonau fears for the future of the flood-protection industry. The UK should establish a single flood-risk authority, she says, to unite different agencies and to ring-fence funding.

This has not happened.

And so the UK takes a piecemeal approach to tackling floods. At the time of writing, five UK flood-protection firms had gone bust this year, thanks to pressure on local authority budgets, short-term procurement practices and failure to plan and budget for long-term resilience.

Can matters improve? The Environment Agency and its partners are finalising the Defra-led Flood Strategy to 2050 that will open for consultation in January. This will determine how the UK manages flooding and coastal erosion in a changing world

Ms Dhonau is part of the communities and business working party. “A lot of the discussion is about what we should prioritize, what is most important, what is urgent,” she says.

“It’s not any one body, not just government, the Environment Agency, or local authorities – it’s about everyone in the flood-risk family working together to embrace a future that is definitely going to happen, whether we like it or not.

Success requires the public to buy in to the plan, she concludes. “It’s about convincing people that climate change is already here – that this is happening. Flooding is getting worse, year on year. You can’t engineer it away but we can and must adapt to enable us to cope with what Mother Nature is undoubtably going to send our way.”

“Flood-risk management is a jigsaw puzzle. It has many solutions, including natural flood management, hard engineering, SUDS and managing residual risk. But we have to think about changing people’s hearts and minds as well and that, I think, will be our biggest challenge.”


Share this article

Become a member

Whether you are studying, actively looking to progress your career, or already extensively experienced, our membership will add value and recognition to your achievements.

Become a member

View our events

CIWEM organises a wide portfolio of UK and international thought leading events, providing an industry recognised forum for debate, Continuing Professional Development (CPD) and sector networking.

Find out more