Management of Severe Weather Events: Discusssion with Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government.

As part of our report on the management of severe weather events in Ireland, we have discussed the experience and thoughts of a number of groups as to how best to provide the emergency response. I welcome today the Minister for the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, Deputy John Gormley, to discuss his views on the way we manage severe weather events.

Before the Minister begins his presentation I remind him and the committee of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that members should not comment on, criticise or make charges against any person outside the House or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

I thank the Vice Chairman and the committee for this opportunity to address it. In considering the local and national response to the November flooding and the severe weather encountered in December and January last, I understand the committee has had the benefit of evidence from many of those involved in responding to the severe weather. I am conscious that the Minister of State, Deputy Mansergh, dealt with issues concerning the flooding before this committee last December. In addition, the director and staff of Met Éireann gave the committee an understanding of the unusual and severe weather experienced from November to mid-January. Also Mr. Dowling and Mr. Hogan of my Department appeared before the committee in January while the severe weather spell was still ongoing.

I hope the committee found its visit to the Cork area informative. We have seen the levels of unprecedented damage and disruption caused to individuals, families, businesses and society in these two severe weather events. From my perspective, there are two key questions, namely, how we, as a society, were prepared for and how we managed the response to the damage and the disruption. In considering these questions, we should keep in perspective the frequency and duration of the severe weather events experienced which will have been explained by Met Éireann.

In assessing both the Irish level of preparedness and the response, it would be useful to compare this with European countries where similar issues presented to the authorities and the public alike, as well as to take account of international practice and approaches. I will begin by explaining the position about the arrangements here in Ireland for integrated emergency management. As the committee will recall from earlier meetings, these provide the basis for co-ordination of preparedness and response among all the relevant agencies. The framework was approved by Government in 2006. In the two year period 2006-08, an intensive programme was followed to develop the major emergency management capacity at both local and regional levels in accordance with the internationally accepted systems approach. This included interagency development and training and the adoption of new format major emergency plans by the local authorities, Health Service Executive areas and divisions of an Garda Síochána on 30 September 2008. The framework and other related documents are available on the Department's website and on a special web sitewww.mem.ie , while individual local authorities’ major emergency plans are on their own websites.

The framework document and its appendices, the associated guidance and protocol documents, together with the individual local major emergency plans, form the basis for integrated emergency management in Ireland, including also for severe weather events such as those we had in November, December and January. The extensive suite of documents is evidence of how the principal response agencies have prepared to make a co-ordinated response to any emergency, including severe weather events. The arrangements for receipt of severe weather warnings from Met Éireann are set out. The principal response agencies used the co-ordination and emergency management procedures and training they had recently undertaken in responding to the varying needs encountered in their individual areas

It is one of the principles of this framework that emergency response builds from the first response level of emergency services where the emergency event occurs, which in this country is the local authorities, the divisions of the Garda Síochána and the Health Service Executive areas.

In this way, the emergency response is led and co-ordinated by the people who are best positioned to know the needs of the local situation and to bring the full resources of the statutory organisations to bear on resolving the crisis. They are also best positioned to engage with individuals, community and voluntary organisations, as well as the business sector. All of these, as we saw, play an invaluable role. This local response management and co-ordination approach was very evident in both the flooding of last November and the more recent cold weather in December and January.

As a particular emergency event unfolds, the response can be escalated as required to a regional response. If circumstances further require, as we saw recently, when the situation is judged to merit it, a whole of Government approach may be initiated at national level in support of the local and/ or regional responses. It is not correct therefore to suggest that there is no national severe weather plan. The approach outlined formed the essential framework for planning, management and responding to the emergency. To underline further the relevance of this approach, one of the world's leading authors in the emergency management field recommends, among other things, that to ensure that the best or most appropriate preparedness planning is put in place, an approach should be followed which highlights a continuing planning process rather than the production of an end product, such as a written plan; adopts a multi-hazard rather than a single-hazard focus, and is generic rather than agent specific; uses a model that focuses on the co-ordination of emergent resources rather than trying to impose some kind of command and control; and focuses on general principles rather than specific details. The framework for major emergency management meets these requirements and other elements of best international practice underpinning our approach to integrated emergency management.

With regard to the local authority response, the co-ordination and interagency arrangements set out in the framework for major emergency management were used to varying degrees, in keeping with locally determined needs, as the flooding, like the cold spell, impacted differently in different parts of the country. Reports, including media coverage, indicate that the co-ordination arrangements worked satisfactorily having regard to the emerging issues. Indeed the media, particularly local media, played a significant role in many areas in providing information to the public, and channelling local issues to the public authorities. Kilkenny city and county councils held a special function recently to thank those who contributed to alleviating community distress during the severe cold. Both the local radio station, and a group known locally as the "snow-busters" — people with four-wheel drive vehicles who arranged to work together with the public authorities to assist neighbours with getting basic provisions, medicines, and maintaining contact with isolated people — were singled out for their contributions.

In the case of the flooding events, the following were the types of specific issues that had to be managed: the rescue of persons from vehicles and houses; the evacuation of persons threatened by the flood waters and care arrangements for them, as required; working to protect threatened infrastructure, including electricity substations, water and waste water treatment plants; keeping traffic flowing on main routes, or managing diversions; working to protect individual properties; the provision of temporary water supply where the mains supply was lost; and clean-up and recovery.

In the case of the ice and snow, maintaining the national transport networks was one of the core objectives. By and large our national roads, other key strategic roads and public transport routes were kept open for traffic over the 24 days that this severe cold weather lasted. These roads carry an estimated 60% of total traffic and about 80% of commercial traffic. Food and fuel supplies were maintained. The public transport system continued to function throughout, with the majority of Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann services operating throughout the period. Irish Rail and Luas services were largely unaffected and some extra capacity was provided where possible. The emergency services continued to operate, although response times were affected. Assistance from the Defence Forces was required on a number of occasions to get access to people in need of help. Hospitals continued to function effectively, although some elective procedures were postponed due to the poor weather and the increased incidence of weather related accidents. Community and public health services continued to be provided to the vulnerable in our society, again with the assistance and collaboration of voluntary sectors, the Defence Forces and the individual communities.

The local authorities, working with their partner services, deserve to be commended for their leadership and their work, which was carried out throughout the Christmas and new year periods. In all, some 10,000 km of road were gritted every day and sometimes twice or three times a day over the 24 days. More than 200 gritting trucks and 150 snow ploughs were deployed during the severe weather, often late at night and in the early morning. Around 60,000 tonnes of salt was spread over the period, more than the total annual average use in recent years.

The framework which I have referred to above provides for linking between local and central Government levels. The National Emergency Response Co-ordination Committee is a non-standing committee, identified by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government as necessary to fulfil its role as a lead Department. The committee is convened and chaired by the Department in the event of certain emergency situations. A working draft standard operating procedure, governing the operation of the NERCC, was prepared by the national directorate for fire and emergency management in my Department in September 2009, and forms the basis for the convening and operation of an NERCC.

I have already explained how the local response is activated. This was done quickly and in accordance with emergency response requirements. My Department was aware of flooding difficulties in areas of County Cork, following contact on Thursday, 19 November from the assistant county manager, indicating that flooding problems could emerge. Having been briefed on what had happened on the morning of 20 November, I requested that a NERCC be convened. The meeting convened at 3.00 p.m. that day. This was the first time that such a step for formal national co-ordination had been taken. The flooding NERCC met daily initially, and on 11 occasions until 8 December 2009, when it was stood down.

Staff from both the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Department of Transport were liaising with local authorities and the NRA from late December about the ongoing cold weather situation. When the severe weather was forecast to remain in place for a prolonged period, and when business and schools were about to resume after the Christmas period and there were pressures on available salt supplies for de-icing the roads, the need for a NERCC arose as issues began to emerge in other sectors. I convened the formal committee at the request of the Taoiseach at the end of the first week of the year. Two previous interdepartmental meetings had been held that week, dealing mainly with the transport related issues, before we moved to formally convene a NERCC. That committee met on ten occasions and was stood down formally on 21 January.

All NERCC meetings were held in the national emergency co-ordination centre in Agriculture House, Kildare Street, Dublin. The primary function of a NERCC is to bring together all Government support for the front line effort, and to manage emerging issues at national level during the response to an emergency. The organisations and relevant personnel participating in the NERCC differed during the two events and also changed over the duration of the emergencies, as issues arose and were dealt with. However, the same essential approach was applied to the co-ordination of the relevant Departments, agencies, specialist and technical groups and, most importantly, those managing the response at the front line. The key groups attending were relevant Departments, State agencies, specialist agencies such as Met Éireann and the front line services. The local authorities were represented by the CCMA, while the HSE and the Garda Síochána also attended. The Defence Forces also attended both committees.

Among the benefits of the NERCC operation was the collection and exchange of information, establishing national priorities, ensuring full and immediate co-operation between various organisations, ensuring that decisions on various matters were made promptly and as required, and providing information for the public. The agenda for each meeting was in a standard format, dealing with the current situation, emerging issues, public information and safety messages.

The existence of a NERCC does not abrogate or substitute for the responsibility of any Department, local authority and other agency. Rather it provides the place in which relevant information is shared to inform the decisions and actions of all, and it facilitates full contribution from all to the nationally determined objectives. Having attended the committee, and seen the interaction of the various Departments and statutory agencies, I am satisfied that there was a sound system in place at national level to manage the emergent issues, to support the front line responders, to provide public information, and to promote public safety; all of which were factors in minimising the impact of the two exceptional weather events which this country and many unfortunate people had to endure this winter.

It is important to learn from the recent experiences, and accordingly, a review of the emergency response co-ordination and inter-agency arrangements will be undertaken. This will assist in determining what further improvements can be achieved by identifying any relevant lessons that can be learnt from the two experiences here. There may well be issues which committee members believe require further investigation. I believe the committee has been pursuing its own inquiries. As such, the committee might indeed consider undertaking and completing this as its own independent review. This is a matter for the committee, which may include the utilisation of relevant expertise to complete the task. Should the committee produce a report, I believe it could be a valuable contribution to this matter and I would welcome any recommendations and observations the committee might have, following a careful consideration of the facts.

However, it is important that any inquiries or reviews must be undertaken from the perspective of seeking to learn rather than to blame. I believe that the blame-game is a barrier to better co-ordination and collaboration. That is counter to my objective of improving the solid structures, processes and systems for multi-agency co-ordination we have succeeded in putting in place in this country over recent years.

Part of the local authorities' severe weather emergency preparation includes ensuring arrangements are in place to receive early warnings from Met Éireann. The Met Éireann forecasting arrangements entail a single system known as public service severe weather warning and cover meteorological conditions and elements such as wind, rain, thunderstorm and coastal storm surge. The emphasis is on warning of weather events that will cause significant disruption or constitute a significant risk for people. Met Éireann issues a severe weather warning to local authorities where conditions are forecast in accordance with criteria set down by the authority.

It is possible to have a degree of forewarning where flood events are concerned. All the experts have emphasised the cumulative effects of a succession of very wet weeks in causing the November floods. The forecasting tools available enable an assessment of the likelihood of a particular meteorological occurrence to be made. This information needs to be used to predict the hydrological impacts which will result in a significant flood event.

When the NERCC was convened on 20 November, one of its key functions was to bring together Met Éireann, the OPW, the ESB and local authorities at national level and to ensure that local level co-ordination was in place to manage the floods over the subsequent days and weeks. This facilitated the sharing of the four perspectives on the situation, allowing it to be used to good effect to manage the flood events. This facilitation and necessary engagement by these bodies appears to be one of the big learning points from the November flooding experience.

As lead agency for implementing the national flood policy, the Office of Public Works is working with local authorities and other State bodies to reduce the risk of future flooding, both through the provision of defences to best practice standards, putting hydrometric warning systems in place and by taking steps to mitigate or reduce future risk of flooding. In accordance with this policy, and in compliance with the EU floods directive, the OPW is undertaking a programme of flood risk assessment and management studies for each catchment in the country. The flood risk management for the Lee catchment area was launched for consultation by the Minister for State, Deputy Mansergh, on 1 February.

These studies will identify and map the areas where there is significant flood risk, and will produce a plan of prioritised measures to manage that risk. In assessing risk, significant contributing factors such as drains, dykes, underground waterways, culverts and flood plains will be considered where appropriate. The studies will consider both capital works and non-structural measures. In a parallel exercise, a screening process is currently under way by the OPW to identify other areas where the flood risk may be significant.

The recent flooding events also sharply illustrate the questionable nature of some development decisions in the past, and underline the necessity for action to avoid such developments in locations in which future flooding is predictable. The new guidelines, which I published with the Minister of State, Deputy Mansergh, last November, are aimed at ensuring that development which is vulnerable to flooding will only be permitted by planning authorities in exceptional circumstances for areas at high or even moderate risk of flooding, using clear and transparent criteria.

Issues arose in both severe weather emergencies that showed a number of weaknesses in our water services infrastructure. The problems experienced included the loss of plant through inundation, and the need to provide temporary water supply measures for communities affected. During the cold spell issues emerged in regard to the standard of installation of water piping outside and inside premises, leakage from the water distribution system and conservation in the use of water. The initial difficulties arose mainly from frozen supplies but, as the thaw set in, further damage was caused by the moving ground. Typically, over a fortnight, demand was up by 25% and the demands for water were greater than maximum water treatment capacity in many systems, leading to draining down of reservoirs. This was as a result of leakage and some consumer usage to avoid frozen domestic pipes by leaving taps running. Demand was progressively reduced through local authority efforts to find and fix leaks and manage supplies and conservation by consumers.

I commend the many local authority workers who responded to these events, working very long hours, often in difficult conditions, to provide temporary supplies, to restore supplies and to find and fix leaks. I am also grateful for the public response to calls by me and by local authorities to conserve water during the period of shortages. This needs to be sustained.

Targeting of investment on water conservation to reduce the loss due to leakage in the distribution system will be included in the water services investment programme for 2010-12. Record levels of investment have been made in recent years and this year some €508 million has been allocated, an increase over the 2009 provision.

The Department's policy guidance in regard to taking in charge of residential estates states that the construction standards adopted by planning authorities should at a minimum comply with those set out in my Department's recommendations for site development works for housing areas, which recommend standards for the diameter of pipes and the amount of cover of the pipes. This policy document includes a recommendation that water main pipe size and layout should be designed in consultation with the local authority and that water main pipes should have a minimum cover of 900 mm, and service pipes from the mains into the houses should have a minimum cover of 600 mm.

Technical guidance document G of the building regulations (hygiene) provides that, in regard to bathrooms and kitchens in dwellings, the cisterns, service pipe and fittings and any associated cold water pipes should be adequately protected against damage by frost. The guidance also states that appropriate conditions must be attached to grants of permission for residential development with regard to ensuring appropriate standards relating to drainage services and water mains and their testing.

The Department of Transport will examine matters connected with the supply, use and distribution of salt for roads and footpaths. Extra stocks of salt and the necessary storage facilities will cost extra funding and this has to be measured against the anticipated requirements. The question of harnessing community effort by, for example, local authorities supplying salt to local communities and business parks can be examined. Another area that will be considered is the question of householders and businesses in urban areas clearing snow and ice from footpaths outside their premises without incurring a legal liability which might expose them to claims for negligence.

I know well that nothing I have said about our systems is of any consolation to the hundreds of people who have suffered misery, distress, trauma, injury and loss caused by the two extreme weather events that have been visited on this country since mid-November 2009. I indicate the Government's appreciation for all the people involved in responding to the flooding and the ice and snow conditions, and for the assistance they provided to their neighbours and friends in their communities. I know there were examples of wonderful and practical community spirit, which we witnessed, and I hope we can harness this better in future and that it will continue and grow in strength.

I hope I have been able to convey my view that, on foot of the huge collaborative effort undertaken by our local authorities, the Garda Síochána and the Health Service Executive in the years from January 2005 to December 2008 in particular, we have an integrated emergency management system, devised in accordance with international best practice and fitted to the Irish organisational context which has achieved the goal of a co-ordinated, local authority-led emergency response to the emerging issues of the November flooding and the extended period of ice and snow. We all know that this is the system that will be used to manage any major emergency which occurs here. I also hope I have been able to clarify issues in regard to national co-ordination, including the first use of the new dedicated national emergency co-ordination centre.

The committee's consideration of this subject matter is very timely and useful. I look forward to reading the committee's report and hope it will be useful for the review of the arrangements which operated at both weather events, so we all have the opportunity to learn from the experiences, as no doubt there will be other severe weather events in the future.

I thank the Minister for his contribution. I am glad he acknowledged in his concluding remarks that nothing he has said about the systems is of any consolation to the hundreds of people who have suffered misery, distress, trauma, injury and loss caused by the two extreme weather events that have been visited on this country since mid-November. We heard what he said today but we have heard it all before in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s with regard to setting up committees, preparing reports and so on. The people who have been devastated and severely affected by the floods, including those in the midlands who are not back in their homes yet, want immediate action.

What is the Minister's view with regard to the establishment of a single River Shannon authority to deal with the serious flooding on the river? At present, a large number of statutory bodies exercise authority over various aspects of management of the River Shannon, such as the 11 local authorities stretching from Fermanagh through to Clare and other statutory bodies such as the ESB, the OPW, Bord na Móna, the IDA, CIE and so on, and a considerable number of private organisations have a direct and beneficial use of the river, such as local yacht and boating clubs, the Irish Wildlife Federation, and bird watching and wild bird conservation groups — I counted more than 40 bodies which have a vested interest. These bodies should all be brought under one structure. A River Shannon authority should be set up by statute and this is also the view of many of the people who have been directly hit by the serious flooding in the midlands. It is a matter on which the IFA and other organisations have a very strong view.

I apologise for interrupting the Deputy but we are trying to confine the discussion to questions.

What is the Minister's view with regard to the establishment of a single authority with teeth to deal with the issue?

I welcome the Minister, as well as Mr. Dowling and Mr. Hogan, who have been before us on previous occasions. We are all of the view that flood risk is an issue that is here to stay. It is not a phenomenon that happens every 500 or 1,000 years and it will be a recurring phenomenon in the short term.

I agree with the Minister's point that what we need are multi-agency and interdepartmental approaches. Recent months have shown us how critical these are, and, more specifically, how important it is that rules are developed and played out by the lead role-holders in emergencies.

This brings me to my first point. The Minister stated in his presentation: "In the case of the flooding, my Department was aware of difficulties in areas of County Cork following contact on Thursday, 19 November from an assistant county manager indicating that flooding problems could emerge." I would be grateful if the Minister could inform us what time that contact was made to his Department by Cork County Council. The significant issue that was debated in this committee last week was the timeline that Cork City Council laid out with regard to information coming from the ESB. To refresh the Minister's memory, the last contact issued by the ESB to Cork City Council was at 5.30 p.m., when it was releasing in excess of 300 cubic tonnes of water per second, equating to the flood in 1986 when similar volumes of water were released from the dam. However, at 9.50 p.m., when the ESB began releasing 546 cubic tonnes, which was to continue over the next six hours, no further contact was made. Will the Minister indicate what contact was made by Cork County Council on that basis?

The Minister indicated in his presentation that a review of emergency response co-ordination and interagency arrangements will be undertaken. Who will conduct this review and what will its terms of reference and remit be? What expertise will be drawn into the report? Will it have a national scope in regard to emergency protocols or will it undertake localised examinations to do with specific areas? Will it produce a report and, if so, when will that be made available?

I thank the Minister for his acknowledgment of the work done by this committee in recent months. However, I remind him that Oireachtas committees are very limited in terms of the scope of any inquiries they can conduct. Debates have taken place in the Dáil about the possibility of affording committees more power in this regard, but in the meantime those limits remain.

We must also acknowledge that the expertise needed for inquiries such as the one we are discussing is beyond the skill set of elected representatives. I assume what is required in this case are the skills of hydrologists, meteorologists, engineers and others. Does the review group set up by the Minister encompass that type of skill set? In regard to future inquiries, the Minister suggested that issues may well arise which committee members consider to require further investigation. In such circumstances, he stated the committee might consider undertaking and completing its own independent review. Again, my concerns in this regard relate to the limitations of committees' powers of inquiry and the importance of having such reviews undertaken by people with the necessary skill sets.

Following last week's meeting with representatives of the ESB, there were calls from me and other members for an independent inquiry into the events of 19 and 20 November 2009 in Cork. The same call has been made by theEvening Echo, which is the main evening newspaper in Cork, and by Cork Chamber of Commerce. If the merits of such an inquiry can be presented to his satisfaction, will the Minister facilitate the provision of the finances and expertise that such an inquiry would demand?

This important issue has been debated widely at local and national level. The Minister referred to the blame game. I am certainly not interested in that. What we should be concerned with now is the lessons we have learned from the experience not only of those devastated by recent adverse weather conditions but also from the responses of State agencies, semi-State bodies, local authorities and the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. We must have clear accountability and transparency in terms of the various responsibilities of all these bodies. In the case of the ESB, for example, there is controversy about its account of how it controlled the dams and water systems in Cork city. There must be full transparency in regard to all these issues and we must be able to measure how the responsible agencies responded to the crisis.

Deputy Ciarán Lynch asked whether a report will be issued by the review group established by the Minister and referred to the suggestion that this committee will have a role in reviewing such incidents in the future. We are certainly willing to play a part in informing the debate, seeking as much information as we can and identifying areas that pose particular problems. The report of the review group must provide clarity as to the roles and responsibilities of different agencies and services and the nature and degree of co-ordination in response to the crisis. Where problematic areas have been identified in the report, there must be a proper identification and provision of resources to address them.

I acknowledge the role of local authority staff in responding to the crisis. In many cases they went beyond the call of duty in seeking to assist people in trouble. In regard to the national co-ordination committee, the Minister mentioned it was convened at the request of the Taoiseach. I would have assumed there would be an automatic activation of the committee once a certain crisis level was reached. If the Taoiseach had been on holidays like other Ministers, who would have activated the committee or requested the Minister to formulate and convene it? It seemed to be done in an amateur way. I acknowledge that the Minister stepped into the breach and was available to convene the committee and to explain the official response to the public. However, that response seemed slow, unprofessional and not properly formulated. Will the Minister comment on that?

The response to the recent crisis was largely reactive. What we should focus on now is proactive measures. Deputy Bannon referred to the dredging of rivers, which is an important issue. I understand that is the responsibility of the Office of Public Works and is not directly related to the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government. Nevertheless, the Minister might comment on why more is not being done in this regard. Many rivers were dredged in the 1950s and 1960s but little or no dredging was done in the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s. That failure to dredge seriously affects the capacity of rivers to drain away flood waters.

Flood risk assessment is of particular importance, not only in the case of residential developments but also for road works and other infrastructural projects. In areas close to the N9, for example, which is being upgraded to motorway status near south Kilkenny, which is not even in my constituency, there was significant flooding for the first time. I have photographs with me of flooded houses in Dunkitt and Kilmacow. One of these was under almost 5 ft. of water and the 90 year old woman who lived there had to be evacuated. That type of flooding had never previously occurred in the area. In this case, the body responsible for development is the National Roads Authority. What is being done to enhance flood risk assessment not just by local authorities but also by State agencies?

The Minister mentioned the maintenance of drainage systems, culverts and other minor waterways. Local authorities should be obliged to devise a systemic process for recording maintenance of all of these. Even in the case of very basic waterways such as gullies, dykes, drains and so on, Department rules should oblige councils to include them in an electronic mapped system of waterways. Traditionally, farmers and overseers maintained those types of minor waterways. Unfortunately, many people have left farming and the overseers who retired from councils were not replaced, and the knowledge they had has gone with them. We must get back to brass tacks in terms of recording and maintaining drainage systems on a regular basis. Will the Minister consider obliging local authorities in this regard? If that type of maintenance had been kept up, the recent flooding might not have been so severe.

I welcome the Minister. Athlone, which is not far from where I live, is flooded almost every year. Fifteen miles away in Ballinasloe there was also serious flooding before Christmas, as well as in Gort and other parts of County Galway. Having visited Cork as part of the committee delegation, I can only say that my heart goes out to the people affected by the flooding there. We spoke to people in Fermoy, at City Hall and Middle Parish in the city, in Bandon, Clonakilty and Skibbereen. We must not forget Carlow where there was also severe flooding. One of my Seanad colleagues has a house in County Carlow, around which 2 ft. of water flowed. Luckily, he had installed flood doors that worked highly effectively. I have made the point previously that, depending on circumstances, grant aid should be provided for people who are not in a position to install flood doors as this certainly would help enormously.

My daughter attended a wedding in the Grand Hotel, Fermoy, and woke up the next morning to find that the hotel in which she was staying had been flooded. She did not exit in the way she had entered but was obliged to leave through the back. However, this is not a new phenomenon in Fermoy but has been ongoing for years. The same is true of Athlone, Bandon, Clonakilty, Skibbereen, Ballinasloe and so on. While the problem has been diagnosed, we now must prescribe what is to be done. Apparently, the waterways do not have the capacity to drain away the surplus water.

I met town councillors in Bandon, that is, the local representatives who know most about their town and area, and they made it clear that the river bed had to be lowered. The way to so do is clear and established, although some might frown on it. Ultimately, however, I have not heard anyone come up with a better solution regarding how to provide greater capacity in a silted-up waterway. The only way one can rid a river bed of silt is to dredge it. While this may not be the most environmentally friendly proposal to make, in the absence of a better alternative, I will raise my head above the parapet to make this suggestion. What action will be taken? This happens every year and, for example, has happened in Clonmel. The story is not all bad in that the remedial action taken in Mallow appears to have worked, which is one problem solved. Action must be taken to resolve the difficulties experienced by the other aforementioned towns and areas.

I echo the sentiments expressed by the Minister and other members regarding local authority employees and departmental officials, all of whom responded as best they could. Moreover, many local representatives and Oireachtas Members also stood into the breach to assist their friends and neighbours who were trapped in their own houses. There was a severe complication in that the flooding was closely followed by severe icy conditions which caused people even further hardship. Consequently, both the joint committee and, in the higher sense, the Government must bring forward proposals to end finally the flooding of these areas. Otherwise, members could sit here year after year and have the same conversation about the issue. As we must get down to solving them, what are the proposals to resolve these difficulties?

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire, an tUasal Dowling agus an tUasal Hogan. I thank the Minister for his attendance. I commend those involved in the front-line services. I will begin by directly asking the Minister the reason he is afraid to commit the Government to holding a public inquiry into the events surrounding the flooding in Cork. Why is the Government afraid? While I noted the Minister's comments about the joint committee, as Deputy Ciarán Lynch stated its members have limited powers. However, there appears to be confusion in this regard. During an Adjournment debate in Seanad Éireann on 15 December 2009, in which I called for an independent inquiry, the responding Minister of State said the Department was awaiting a report from Cork City Council:

...which I am sure will cover the recent events relating to the release of water by the ESB. Separately, the national director of the National Directorate for Fire and Emergency Management has been asked to carry out a review of the operation of the procedures of the framework for major emergency management during the flooding event.

Has the Minister received reports from Cork City Council and the ESB on the events in Cork last November? Similarly, has the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, in conjunction with the Office of Public Works, evaluated the evidence provided for the joint committee by the ESB and the response thereto by the Cork city manager, Mr. Joe Gavin?

I note the Minister has stated more time is being given for the publication of the review for further investigation. The cynic in me might ask whether the Minister is copping out. However, I will give him the credit of stating I do not believe he personally would do so. However, ministerial responsibility and governmental accountability must take leadership in this regard. A semi-State organisation has stated it has no responsibility and is not accountable for what happened during the flooding. However, something caused the flooding in Cork to happen and it cannot simply be rainfall. How will an answer be found? In all comments I have made about the flooding in Cork I have been at pains to stress that I am not interested in apportioning blame. I have made this point both on radio and television. I am interested in putting in place a process whereby, in so far as is humanly possible, what happened in Cork can be avoided.

That said, I refer to the Lee catchment flood risk assessment and management study, CFRAMS. There is an acceptance that a new flood defence system is required. However, there have been an abdication and confusion on the part of the Government regarding a commitment to provide funding. Cork needs an early flood warning system and if one speaks to Cork city residents, as the Minister did, they will make the point that there was little or no communication. While the joint committee was informed at its last meeting that a Mrs. Frances O'Callaghan had received notification from the ESB in mid-afternoon, people in the Mardyke and the Middle Parish had to be awoken from their beds at 3.30 a.m. Surely the Minister will agree that the system in place in England and Wales, whereby citizens are notified directly in their homes and workplaces via telephone, text, e-mail or pager, should be put in place here.

Senator Coffey made a very good point regarding local government, for which the Minister is responsible. At local government level, application of the simple cliché that a stitch in time saves nine appears to have been abandoned. While this might sound simple, let me explain what I mean. It appears as though councils are not operating preventive maintenance programmes owing to the cutbacks imposed by the Government. This is the reality, despite the exasperated look the Minister has directed towards me. Preparedness at Government level was lacking and I will be political. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Dempsey, went AWOL. He went away on holiday and was in subtropical temperatures while people here were experiencing Arctic conditions and temperatures below freezing. This pertains to leadership in government which was not "pretty good," The Minister can engage in spin and ministerial hyperbole and, with all his officials gathered around, write great press releases and paint a great story. However, my point is that some people still have not been able to return to their houses. I visited Ballinhassig last night with the Minister's colleague, Senator Boyle, and met people who had been flooded twice and who had not yet returned to their houses. We were lucky that no one was drowned and that no one was killed. However, we ran out of salt and could not grit roads. Moreover, the Minister has commented that only now is the question being considered of householders and businesses clearing snow and ice from footpaths outside their premises without incurring legal liability.

Will the Senator ask his final questions?

This is important.

It is important that the Minister attend to be held to account. Moreover, it should not be him alone, as there should be full transparency and openness in respect of the events in Cork. The most annoying matter for us as public representatives is when people pass the buck. When will it stop and when will we get answers? Forget the political bull and hyperbole. We need answers. This must start with a commitment from the Minister and the Government to hold an independent investigation into what occurred in Cork.

I am not a member of the committee, but I draw the Minister's attention to Fermoy and Mallow. As a colleague stated, the works in Mallow succeeded and I commend everyone involved. Works are ongoing in Fermoy. The Minister is aware of an issue with the weir and the fisheries in Fermoy. I understand that the town council recently declared the weir a protected structure and was told that repairing it was the council's responsibility. Money was available to install some sort of rock race, which Europe has told us is not required.

If the Minister made approximately 50% of the overall funding available, it would be enough to repair the weir and the fisheries. The rowing club should also be taken into account. I visited Fermoy yesterday morning. The Minister is a man with much common sense. The solution is straightforward and staring everyone in the face. The OPW and the contractors are on-site now. Will the Minister consider this suggestion and have a chat with the Minister of State, Deputy Mansergh, and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Brian Lenihan, to resolve the problem?

That section of the river has no fish counters, so we do not know how many salmon go up and down it. The barriers must be erected as planned, but they need to be demountable. They also need two fairly large openings to allow the rowing club to access the river with their longboats. I am sure the Minister would not like it if that activity did not go ahead. The weir must be repaired, as it is at risk of collapsing. If that occurs, it will be a disaster for the town. The fish race also needs to be repaired, as it has worked for nearly a century. Will the Minister examine these suggestions? They would cost less than what was originally planned and would solve the problem for good and all. I thank the Vice Chairman for his time.

I thank members. Before I call the Minister, I have a question. On page 5 of the report, which deals with what we will do about the problem the OPW is undertaking a programme of flood risk assessment and management studies for each catchment area. I have experience of a similar situation in my constituency. After the 1995 flooding in south County Galway, a report was commissioned and took approximately six or eight months to be completed at a cost of £1.2 million. Not a spade has been stuck in south Galway since except for the few spades I stuck in it. What is the purpose of the OPW undertaking a programme of risk assessment when piles of programmes are gathering dust in every OPW and county council office? Why are we going through this formality again when we cannot use the existing material to solve the problem?

My question relates to the OPW. Do any of the planned and approved new flood relief works involve so-called non-engineering measures, for example, wetlands and so on? Will the Minister provide specific examples?

There were quite a number of questions and I will try to deal with all of them, but some of them would be properly directed to my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Mansergh. I will try to specify which as I go through them.

Since the committee is carrying out an investigation, I ask it to consider the experience of other countries. I am more than happy for the committee to compare the way we carried out our duties with the way other countries do. The committee would find that we emerge favourably. For example, we had more salt available than our nearest neighbours in the UK. Mr. Gordon Brown was grilled in the House of Commons about this matter. The UK had six days' supply, but we ensured we had ten days' supply. Given the difficulties, we needed to get more.

I did not do so in my contribution, but I commend the significant effort made, not just by local authorities and the NRA, but by the Department of Foreign Affairs. I have held ministerial meetings since. People in our embassies searched for places from which to get rock salt. A superhuman effort was made.

In any comparisons, the committee should consider Germany and places that should normally be ready for snow. For the past three weeks, Berlin has had snow and ice. We had exactly the same. One of the reasons the HSE attended our emergency meetings was the large number of fractures owing to people slipping on ice. Berlin has been having the same problem for the past three weeks. It will always be a problem. Ironically, Berlin has an ordinance requiring people to remove snow from outside their front doors, but the snow has turned to ice and there are debates on whether the ice can be removed.

The point I am trying to make is that we are not isolated. We experienced a severe bad weather event, but I commend the committee for not making comparisons with 1982. They would not have been valid. In 1982, we had two snow ploughs. Now, we have at least 150. Compared with other countries, we kept our primary routes free and goods and services were able to travel back and forth. This should be commended and recognised by the committee.

I wish to deal one-by-one with the issues raised. Senator Bannon's main question was on the Shannon. I addressed——

The Minister is not thinking right. I am Deputy Bannon.

I apologise. There was no intention to demote the Deputy.

The Minister should be more observant. He is either not thinking right or he was out late last night.

I am confusing the Deputy with Senator Buttimer.

I would gladly be a Deputy next time.

Perhaps the Senator would like to change places at some stage.

The Minister should be more focused on dealing with the issues I raised.

Allow the Minister to continue, please.

No insult was intended.

I hope he does not confuse Senator Buttimer with Senator Boyle.

I could not confuse anyone with my colleague, Senator Boyle.

Only on Twitter.

Deputy Bannon asked a question about the River Shannon and a single authority. It was also raised in the House by way of parliamentary question, where I answered it. Many agencies, including the local authorities, the ESB and the OPW, have responsibilities in this regard, but the best way to deal with the situation, as proposed under the water framework directive, is through the river basin management plans and river basin management districts that are now in place. One of those districts is the Shannon. The Department has invested millions of euros and put offices in place to address the matter. This is the best approach, as the structure is already in place. Creating another quango is not the way forward.

I would not see it as a quango. The Minister could give it teeth.

The Deputy's party would be opposed to setting up another quango.

I would see it as a tool to allow local authorities, State agencies, and so on to work together.

That is precisely what we have in mind.

It is not currently the case in the midlands.

Will Deputy Bannon give the Minister a moment?

Deputy Lynch raised a number of questions. I have been trying to clarify the time of the call. It came on Thursday afternoon from an official in Cork County Council. I will try to get a more precise time if that helps. It did not come from the city council, it came from the county council. We were active the very next day. I met the county and city managers the next day at the airport. When I visited the Cork area the next day they raised the matter of money. They wanted to know what we could do to deal with the situation, which was very bleak. Since then we saw the situation was exacerbated by the cold weather spell, which caused even more damage. We quickly provided €16 million to deal with the flood damage. This was provided not just for Cork but for Clare and Ballinasloe. I visited those areas but I could not get to every single area in the country. I wanted to get a real feel for what was happening on the ground. I saw the fantastic work done by various agencies. I also saw the emergency planning room at city hall. The emergency plan was on the wall, detailing who would do what and people's roles. This kicked in very effectively.

Members raised the matter of the review, which is being carried out by my officials. Mr. Des Dowling has primary responsibility for this. Mr. Seán Hogan is also present. They have expertise in this area but they can call on other experts. There is no difficulty with that. Senator Buttimer asked if we had received reports from local authorities. We have received a report and my officials will examine that in detail. The question then arises whether we should have an independent inquiry.

My question was more than who was heading the inquiry and whether they can draw on expertise. It also referred to the remit and the terms of reference. Is the inquiry just examining how the emergency plans responded or will it go deeper than that and point out difficulties that warrant further investigation?

The investigation is examining the emergency response and whether we can improve on that in future. It is considering whether there are lessons to be learned in the future. How quickly should we convene and under what conditions should we convene? Was everyone who should be present at the meetings in attendance? I have no doubt there are lessons to be learned and I have asked my officials to be as self-critical as possible. We will not learn from any experience unless we are self-critical. If there were gaps in the response, let us see what they were.

As far as I can determine, Deputies and Senators from Cork are concerned with the major issue of the ESB and what occurred in respect of the dam. I believe that is a key focus.

Let me clarify that for the Minister so he does not summarise what Cork Deputies and Senators are interested in. We are interested in a series of issues and the committee is dealing with a series of issues. A particular issue relating to Cork is coming to the fore. The Minister spoke about risk assessment and emergency plans. These are based on communication of information between agencies holding significant information in emergencies.

Perhaps Deputy Lynch can wait until the Minister completes his response to other members.

I will conclude on this point if the Vice Chairman indulges me. I want to remain on the theme of the question and allow the Minister to respond. Will the review group be able to identify localised areas such as Cork or Athlone where there were indications of problems with regard to communication, risk assessment and emergency plans and make recommendations? Some of those recommendations warrant further investigation.

I hope this will be the remit of this committee. I will supply it with all the information we have. It would be useful for the committee. It was suggested that committees in the Oireachtas are somewhat hampered but I have no difficulty in supplying the committee with information at my disposal. The committee can examine it and come to a determination. The question raised by Senator Buttimer is the independent inquiry. While not ruling it out, it would be premature to instigate one before hearing from this committee. It would be wrong to prejudge the outcome of this committee's deliberations. I would be criticised if I did so. This committee has a mandate. Oireachtas committees have an important function. No one has refused to come before this committee. The committee is entitled to scrutinise the documentation and put people through the wringer.

What has emerged today is that committee members do not believe they have the appropriate expertise on hydrology to deal with this. At the time of the banking inquiry we were told an Oireachtas inquiry was entirely the correct vehicle. We took the view that people here did not have the necessary expertise in financial matters and we needed financial experts before giving the matter to an Oireachtas committee to examine. That is another way of doing business but it was heavily criticised.

We have economists at our disposal on the Front Bench and within the Fine Gael Parliamentary Party. They would have been quite able to do it. The Minister is being disingenuous in saying that. It will be proven that the Minister does not have NAMA right yet. Events at AIB this morning are an example. Let us not be political. We were not being political earlier but we can be if the Minister wishes.

Senator Buttimer should let the Minister——-

The Minister is provoking a response by making a political charge regarding a particular event.

Please allow the Minister to conclude and I will provide Senator Buttimer every opportunity to speak.

I was not trying to make a political point but questioning how the Oireachtas should approach this and how the committees deal with this matter. It is important that we have a combination of the expertise required and that the Oireachtas has the opportunity to put questions to people in the open. That is what people want. That is right and proper.

Senator Coffey raised the question of dredging. This is a matter for the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Martin Mansergh, and the OPW. The Minister of State and the OPW will come to those conclusions.

Does the Minister have a view on it?

We must respect the science and expertise in these matters. That is what I do. One must go on the facts, expertise and science. I say the same to Senator Glynn. If scientists told me to dredge in a certain area I would accept it. If they said not to, I would accept that as well. It is as simple as that. I am aware of the call to do this and to increase capacity. It it works, I am happy to do so. I have spoken to hydrologists and others on this matter. There are different views on this. The engineers and experts convened for "The Frontline", which was an entire programme devoted to this topic, took the view that dredging is not a panacea for flooding ills.

Senator Coffey referred to the NRA and development. I agree with him that any development, whether a road, housing development or other, must be assessed in terms of flood risk. We must consider the immediate effects for the development and the downstream effects. Will the development cause flooding elsewhere? That is what flood risk assessment is about and I, along with the Minister of State, Deputy Mansergh, introduced these new guidelines so that we could in future look at these because, as has been stated, this will be a real problem. Climate change will change weather patterns and will do so in ways we have not foreseen. It would be helpful if the committee invited Mr. John Sweeney to come before it — perhaps he has already been invited — to discuss his prognosis and how he sees the Irish climate changing over the coming 25 to 50 years.

Why are culverts not left under new roads so as to not interfere with the natural flow of water? We also have a problem with flooding in certain areas affected by the new N6 to Galway.

That is a matter for the Minister of Transport.

Transport. Pass the buck.

I am sure allowances have been made for floodwaters. I know the run-off from the roads must be effective to avoid flooding on the roads themselves. However, that can lead to a build up of water elsewhere. A huge run-off from roads will build up. In the case of that lady——

On that point, the Minister stated that he depends on scientific analysis and engineering and professional advice. Surely the best of engineering advice was available during the development of roadways. They are evaluated by State agencies but we have huge knock-on effects. The Minister cannot have it one way for one point in the argument and have it the other way for another. The Minister's arguments do not stack up.

They do. Let us be very clear with regard to the rising floodwaters; there was unprecedented rainfall. I have spoken to many experts on this and there are times when no matter what is put in place there will be floods. We saw it throughout Europe in recent years in countries that consider themselves well prepared. We saw it recently in Madeira with tragic consequences. We were blessed in that nobody died. One point that has not been highlighted, and I did not mention it in my speech, was that in other countries many homeless people died on the streets from exposure to the cold but not a single homeless person died here and that is a credit to the Department and to the homelessness agencies who worked together on this. We managed to maintain the budget for homelessness despite the huge downturn.

No, you have not. Speak to the Simon Community in Cork and you will hear a different story.

Homelessness has nothing to do with the debate we are having at present.

I am speaking about——

The Minister should speak to the Simon Community in Cork about it.

If the Minister deals with the questions that have been asked there will be no interruptions.

I will take your word for that and do so.

Senator Glynn asked about——

The Minister did not answer my question on dykes and drains and systematic maintenance systems for local authorities.

That is a good point. I have noticed, and the matter has been raised, that many drains are allowed to block up and that this a regular occurrence. It used to happen quite regularly when much building was taking place but that can no longer be used as an excuse. I have urged local authorities, in meetings with the managers, to ensure that drains are kept clean and free so the water can flow.

Unfortunately it is not happening. It needs more enforcement from the Department or resources.

That was a point Senator Buttimer made earlier when discussing the cutbacks made. I made the point previously to the committee that we have tried to provide additional funding through the second home tax. We negotiated a good deal with the Department of Finance whereby 60% of the wage reductions could be kept. I do not think the cutbacks at local authority level have been quite as severe as is sometimes portrayed.

Senator Glynn spoke about dredging. The point I made earlier is that it is a matter for the Minister of State, Deputy Mansergh. He must obtain expert advice on whether it is worth dredging. I take the point that the Senator visited all of the areas susceptible to flooding, including Cork and Athlone. I also visited such areas. I did not make it to Athlone but I made it to the other areas.

I have tried to answer most of the points made by Senator Buttimer. He spoke about prevention measures. We have invested in flood prevention measures. Senator Buttimer may dispute this but it is a fact. That budget has been increased and is set to increase even further despite the cutbacks. We are determined to make that investment because it is not acceptable that certain areas continue to be flooded. It is a very traumatic experience for people to see their shops flooded and to know it could happen again. We want to ensure that increased investment continues.

I visited Fermoy Rowing Club and I am aware of the difficulties it faces. The local council has taken a certain view on that. It is not an issue for my Department but for the OPW. I will certainly speak to Deputy Mansergh about the issue again when I have an opportunity to do so.

Deputy McCormack mentioned the 1995 report with which I am familiar. I visited the area close to Coole Park and I saw the devastation.

Did the Minister visit Kiltiernan National School where a small local scheme was carried out in 1995? In 1995, there was two feet of water for nine weeks.

I did not get an opportunity to visit the school.

It was an official scheme, by the way.

I had an opportunity to view it from the air. What happened was that the water in that area, because of the local topography and geology, was coming from below. The flooding had to do simply with the amount of water that fell and, as I stated to other speakers, no amount of flood prevention and money can deal with that. There are times——

The Minister spoke about commissioning reports. The report from that time cost £1.2 million but was not used. What is the point of commissioning reports if the Minister states that the problem cannot be solved? The problems in those areas of south Galway, less than four miles from the sea, are solvable if there was a will to solve them.

Flood defences will be installed in those areas where they can be. The Minister of State, Deputy Mansergh, is ensuring investment in flood protection and I made it a priority in the renewed programme for Government. The OPW has spent almost €190 million in capital projects since 1996 with more than €100 million being spent in the past five years. We have profiled expenditure on approximately 15 major capital schemes running up to 2014. The total capital spending on flood relief activities in 2010 will be in the order of €50 million. That is considerably more than was ever spent previously.

Deputy Tuffy made the important point that sometimes hard engineering is not the only solution. A combination of hard engineering and flood prevention must be put in place and we must also allow natural flood plains to absorb waters. We must not lose sight of that fact because if we continue to build on flood plains we will cause huge problems downstream. Likewise, if we only put in place the hard engineering solution we will often push the wall of water downstream to flood areas of population. That has been the experience in the UK. We have to bring the best experts, including hydrologists, around the table to ensure we do not create these problems.

I thank the Minister for his detailed response. I am aware that we have been here for almost two hours and will try to be brief, but important issues remain to be addressed. Has a deadline been set for completing the Department's review and publishing the report?

I do not know. Work on the flood review was under way when we had the snow. It will be later this year but I will revert to the Deputy with a specific date.

I have two further questions relating to my earlier remarks on the committee's powers and expertise. Given that we are operating to a timeframe, we face difficulties where additional information has to be examined. One such item of information which we received in advance of today's meeting was that SI 321(1949) set the water level in Carrigadrohid dam at 66.14 m. However, a spillway installed in 1991 reduced the level to 65.2 m. That is equivalent to a decrease of 9 million cu. m. of water in the dam's holding capacity, or a release rate of 416 cu. m. per second over a six-hour period.

Does the Deputy have a question?

I have a question. This type of significant engineering information is coming before the committee. I agree that the recommendations of the research project cannot be written until the investigation is completed but the Minister should be able to surmise the direction in which the conclusions are going at its halfway stage. This committee's recommendations will ultimately determine the report but I believe we will be conducting further investigations in a number of areas. What happened in Cork on 19 and 20 November will require expert examination. I can understand why the Minister would be reluctant to comment on a finding before it is presented to him but when the committee finalises its work on the report, will his Department support and finance any significant recommendation it may make?

There is a fair bit of toing and froing on the Minister's part. He mentioned the Minister of State at the Department of Finance, Deputy Mansergh, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Dempsey, and the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism, Deputy Cullen.

When I made representations on behalf of the Shannon action group regarding flood alleviation measures, I was told that the Minister's Department is establishing a joint working group between the OPW and certain county councils to examine the causes of the flooding in the Shannon catchment area and identify interim flood mitigation measures. I was also told that any proposals arising from these deliberations will be discussed with residents and other stakeholders. This is the constant spin we are getting but no real action is being taken to deal with the serious flooding problems in the Shannon catchment area.

We should establish a River Shannon authority which would be endowed with sufficient powers to implement the necessary measures to address this serious problem, as well as pollution and other issues. It could also facilitate the transportation of water from the River Shannon to the Dublin region during periods of flooding. I understand a proposal to that effect is before the Minister at present. Such a proposal would make good business sense both in terms of efficiency and cost. I would not consider the authority as another quango. An authority of this nature has been successfully established for the Merseyside catchment area in the UK. An authority which was set up by statute would have the power to deal with these matters.

I ask Deputy Bannon to clarify whether he agrees with the idea of transporting water to Dublin.

I never made a comment on it but water could be extracted from the Shannon at times of flooding and brought to Dublin.

A lot of people in the Deputy's area have lobbied against that proposal.

A lot of people changed their minds in the aftermath of the recent floods.

So have they changed their minds?

They have changed their minds since they were flooded.

We will not discuss that issue.

I am seeking clarity because I get lobbied about these issues all the time.

That is not relevant. I call Senator Buttimer.

I am glad that the Minister is agreeable to establishing the facts. In regard to his comments on flood relief and the enhanced Government grants scheme, why did the OPW rule out construction of the €100 million flood defence system for Cork city? Given that he does not agree to an independent inquiry, will he give his firm commitment that he will support the committee's recommendations in its final report? Does he think his Department did a good job in managing January's severe weather crisis? Have we learned lessons from the experience? It appears that no preparatory work was done and I am concerned — I intend no pun — that we skated along the ice and then inched our way to the end of the crisis before catastrophe struck. If he could revisit the issue would he change anything in terms of how he dealt with it?

I did not say that we do not need an independent inquiry but that I want to await the outcome of the committee's investigations. I can neither prejudge nor anticipate the committee's conclusions.

Does the Minister support the committee?

Of course, I try to support all Oireachtas committees because they do very good work. In respect of the report, which is not yet complete, I will have to await its conclusions. What we experienced was unprecedented and this has been confirmed by Met Éireann. The hardship people experienced was very real and I saw it at first hand. It was traumatic. Flooding, in particular, is a phenomenon people do not forget. The days and weeks following floods can be traumatic.

The emergency response at local level was very effective and the national co-ordination response worked. We need to make comparisons with what happens in other countries. If there is no benchmark, how can one draw conclusions? I urge the committee to examine what occurred in the Untied Kingdom, France, Germany and elsewhere to determine whether we were up to scratch and how quickly we reacted. All the aspects should be considered, including the issues about which people were concerned. Flood defence is a major issue; however, it is not related to the response but to the infrastructure. We certainly need to continue investing in this regard. The committee must ask the fundamental question as to whether the emergency services kicked into action quickly once difficulties arose. During the period of snow and ice, to what extent were we out of sync with the response abroad, particularly with regard to the supply of salt? Did we keep the primary roads free of snow and ice and were people able to get to and from their places of work? I believe the answer is "Yes".

The responses of the HSE, voluntary organisations such as Civil Defence, the Army, the Garda, communities and local authorities were in some cases above and beyond the call of duty. They were working day and night and I commend them on their efforts.

Civil Defence.

I mentioned it. I met its members in towns such as Ballinasloe in which they were doing tremendous work.

We must be prepared to learn from these experiences. If there were gaps in the response, they will have to be identified and acted upon. I saw the local responses at first hand. Let us see whether we can improve. It must be a learning process. If there were deficiencies, let us ensure we learn from them.

Let me draw to the Minister's attention a report that will bring itself to bear in his review work. I have examined the EU reports, particularly the Pitt report of 2007. There are two significant statements made therein, namely, that flood risk is here to stay and that the floods of 2007 were a wake-up call for the emergency services in Britain. I hope that what happened in Ireland in November 2009 served as a wake-up call for us in determining what we needed to do.

I thank members for participating in a robust debate. I also thank the Minister and his officials.

The joint committee adjourned at 5.55 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 9 March 2010.