Today's debate is opportune and I wish for a constructive debate on this most serious issue. The Government's primary concern is with the families and individuals who are suffering the effects of flooding of their homes and property and businesses whose viability and whose workers' livelihoods are put in jeopardy.
I wish to record, and I am sure all Members of the House will agree, our appreciation for all the personnel of the various authorities and agencies, both public and voluntary, individuals and communities for their outstanding work in assisting in the rescue of people and the protection, where possible, of homes and premises from the effects of flooding.
The response to the flooding has been multi-faceted and impacted on the responsibilities of a number of Departments, authorities and agencies. We will work to move from an emergency response footing to one of recovery. In this context, other Departments and agencies come into the picture. Many areas of the country have been affected to a greater or lesser degree by the cumulative volume of rain that has fallen over the past four weeks. In addition to what I saw during my visit to affected areas in Cork, Clare and Galway on Saturday, we have all seen the media reports on the widespread damage caused and the disruption to road and rail transport by these floods.
Regrettably, weather conditions remain threatening, and last night we saw flooding extend to several additional communities. It is generally accepted by all the bodies concerned that the volume of rainfall last week, coming on top of the rainfall in various river catchments over recent weeks, was unprecedented and resulted in the major flooding we saw in many parts of the country especially in Cork, Clare, Galway and in the towns of Ballinasloe, Carlow and Clonmel and other areas.
I take this opportunity to outline the measures that are in place to respond to, and co-ordinate, the efforts of all involved in dealing with such serious and widespread flooding. I witnessed these inter-agency co-ordination arrangements in action myself last Saturday in the four local authority areas I visited. I saw the same structures in use, and the same generic mechanisms deployed to gather and share information, to identify key issues and quickly agree priorities, and to direct the staff and resources of the various agencies to the points of greatest risk. This is as it should be — locally co-ordinated emergency management meeting the greatest needs of local communities.
This flooding has been the first real test of a new inter-agency co-ordination system that my Department, working closely with the Departments of Health and Children, and Justice, Equality and Law Reform, developed in 2005. I refer to the Framework for Major Emergency Management that was created to enable the Garda Síochána, the HSE and local authorities to prepare for and make a co-ordinated response to a variety of major emergencies scenarios, including flooding. The Government approved the new system in May 2006 and it was introduced successfully across the entire local government sector, the Garda Síochána and the HSE over the years 2006-08.
The widespread and successfully co-ordinated local response we have seen did not occur by accident. The purpose of the new framework was to put in place arrangements that enabled the three principal response agencies, the local authorities, the Garda Síochána and the HSE, to prepare for and then co-ordinate their efforts when a major emergency occurs. The year-long process of developing the new framework in 2005 was overseen by an international expert to add assurance that what we did in Ireland was up to current international best practice. Each of the principal response agencies now has a new format major emergency plan, based on this framework, which was formally commenced on 30 September 2008.
The evidence and benefits of this inter-agency response have been clear for all to see over the past few days. The various authorities, agencies and voluntary bodies used the preparedness steps of a carefully sequenced major emergency development programme over the two years from September 2006 to September 2008 to underpin their response to this flooding. These steps included writing the new local major emergency plans, which include severe weather plans as a subset, the procedures to carry out their task, the fitting out of selected co-ordination facilities, mostly located in local authority headquarters and which I saw, the inter-agency training for key roles, and the exercises they ran and participated in.
The flood response aspect is supported by two further specifically flood related documents which were produced as part of the major emergency development programme — A Guide to Flood Emergencies and Protocol for Multi-Agency Response to Flood Emergencies. These documents were produced in conjunction with the Office of Public Works, drawing on lessons learned from previous flooding experience, in particular in Dublin, and they compare well to any similar literature.
Part of the local authorities' severe weather emergency plan preparation includes ensuring that 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.
In general, it is possible to have a degree of forewarning where flood events are concerned. However, while the forecasting tools available enable an assessment of the likelihood of a particular meteorological occurrence to be made, it is not always possible to predict the hydrological impacts that will result in a significant flood event. All the experts have emphasised the cumulative effects of a succession of very wet weeks in causing these floods.
My Department's further role, following on from the work we have done over the past four years in developing and strengthening our major emergency management system at local level, is to co-ordinate the national level response, where there is such serious and widespread flooding. Deputies will be aware that I formed a new national directorate for fire and emergency management in my Department in June of this year. The staff of the directorate, led by the designated national director, Mr. Seán Hogan, have been very active also in this case. They have convened all the relevant Departments and agencies each day since last Friday. This national emergency response co-ordination committee have used the new national emergency co-ordination centre, which was developed for this specific purpose. Their work has included assembling the daily reports, identifying and addressing national level issues arising, briefing both the Taoiseach and myself and other members of the Government on a daily basis on the situation and on the response effort.
It is most distressing to see the impact which these floods are having on so many people, and I recall most vividly the distress which my constituents suffered some years ago in the floods in Dublin. The Government is not responsible for the rain that has fallen or the resulting floods, but we are responsible for the fact that our services prepared carefully, diligently and consistently and made a properly co-ordinated multi-agency response at both local and national level. Most important of all, there has been no loss of life associated with these floods.