The tragic death of Maureen Gilbert: why did a much-loved mother die in her flooded home? | Derbyshire

The flood alert was issued on the morning of 20 October 2023. Storm Babet was coming. Be prepared.

Paul Gilbert, a 47-year-old landscape gardener from Chesterfield in Derbyshire, did what he always did when a flood alert came in: he went to check on his mum, Maureen.

Maureen lived on Tapton Terrace, a narrow row of red‑brick terrace houses yards from the River Rother in Chesterfield. Everyone who lives on the terrace, as residents call it, knew Maureen: she was an institution. She had lived there all of her 83 years, first at number 19, her parents’ house, and then at number 21, the house she moved to when she married Gilbert’s dad in 1975.

Because Maureen worked nights as a cleaner in a hotel and Gilbert’s dad worked early mornings on the railways, for many years Maureen slept downstairs on the sofa. She was a sturdy, trustworthy sort of person. “She would always keep mine and my brother’s secrets,” says Gilbert. “Never would tell my dad anything. Even when we used to skive off school and she’d see us in town, she would never tell him.”

On a sunny day, if you walked down the terrace, you would find Maureen outside, sitting in a chair, smoking a cigarette. No question, she would stop you for a chat. “If any neighbours came down, she’d talk to them for hours,” says Gilbert. Nobody minded: everyone on the terrace was fond of Maureen. In the evening, and well into the early hours, you would probably see a light glowing in her living room window: Maureen in her bed downstairs, watching Sky Sports. The carers who visited her three times a day often struggled to wake her in the morning. She could easily watch darts until two or three.

Paul Gilbert in the doorway of his mother’s old house on Tapton Terrace. Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian

Maureen had arthritis, but Gilbert had long suspected that his mum wasn’t as physically challenged as she let on. Often, he would pop round – he visited every week – and find her standing at the sink or making dinner. “She’d always be going: ‘I can’t be getting up them stairs any more.’ And I’d say: ‘Who fetched that jigsaw down for you?’ And she’d say: ‘Oh! One of the carers.’” Before Covid hit, Maureen would go into town almost every day. “She’d go around the flea markets and the shops and the amusement arcades; she loved going and talking to anybody, strangers, it didn’t matter,” says Gilbert.

When she had to go into a care home temporarily while Gilbert renovated her bathroom, she absolutely hated it, he says: “She’d ring me every day. All she kept saying was: ‘I’m not staying here. You can’t make me stay here.’” The terrace, Maureen said, was her only home. She would never, ever go into a care home. “Her wish was to die in this house,” says Gilbert. Not that he expected that day to come any time soon. Maureen was stubborn and strong‑willed and irrepressible. “She just seemed to keep living for ever,” he says.

When Gilbert arrived at the terrace on the morning of Storm Babet, he set about building a sandbag wall around the front of the house and slotting together her metal flood door. He wasn’t unduly worried. The terrace had flooded before, in June 2007. Maureen simply waited it out upstairs. Afterwards, Gilbert installed flood defences at the house, including the flood door. The council put in other protective measures, such as non-return valves, which prevent liquid flowing upstream.

After Gilbert got the house prepared, he asked Maureen if she wanted to go upstairs. No, she said. She was watching the rugby. “She went: ‘If I can’t take my telly up there, I’m not going.’” Gilbert knew better than to argue with her.

Maureen called her son at 1.21pm. Water was coming into the house. He told her to go upstairs and she said she would. Then the phone went dead. When Gilbert rang back it went to answerphone. He thought: I bet you anything she’s bloody dropped the phone in water, or she’s not charged it overnight. Gilbert, who lives seven miles away, drove to the terrace to check on her, but the traffic was gridlocked. By now, Storm Babet was seething through Derbyshire. Many roads were closed.

He arrived with his 17-year-old son, Aaron, around 6.45pm. What was normally a 20-minute journey had taken more than five hours. It was dark. The road was closed. Fire and rescue were there, as well as someone from the water company. “They said: ‘We’ve evacuated all the houses.’ I said: ‘Where’s my mum then?’” The firefighters told Gilbert that they had knocked at his mum’s door, but nobody had answered. Fire and rescue were leaving; there was nothing more they could do. The water was shoulder-height. All the drain covers had popped up; there was debris and sewage everywhere. The terrace had turned into a fast-moving river. At Gilbert’s request, the fire brigade returned to Maureen’s house, even smashing a window to see if they could get in, but it was too dangerous.

Fine, said Gilbert. He would wait until they left and rescue his mother himself. A firefighter and the man from the water company patiently talked Gilbert out of his suicidal rescue mission. Gilbert remonstrated with them: “What would you do if it was your mum?”

A firefighter walked Gilbert and Aaron to a footbridge near the top of the terrace. He shone his torch into the swirling rapids of the swollen Rother. The water was 10cm (4in) over the top of the bridge; it looked like an inky‑black whirlpool. “He said: ‘Look at that. That is a torrent. You will not survive that.’”

Gilbert went home. He couldn’t sleep. He spent all night checking the river levels until it was safe for him to return – which he did at 9.30am. Outside Maureen’s house, the water was up to his knees. He pulled the window off its hinges and climbed through. “I saw something just under the window, which I thought was a blue cushion. As my leg touched what I thought was the cushion, I saw my mum roll over. I saw her face.”

Gilbert sighs. “She got her wish,” he says. The terrace was where she took her final breath.

Maureen was one of at least seven people to lose their lives to Storm Babet. In the six months since, the UK has experienced Storms Ciarán, Debi, Elin, Fergus, Gerrit, Henk, Isha, Jocelyn and Kathleen. Storms in the UK, Ireland and the Netherlands are named when they are likely to cause “medium” or “high” impact. With Kathleen, the UK equalled its record for the most named storms in a storm season, with five months to go. “These big floods are getting more frequent,” says Prof Hannah Cloke, a hydrologist at the University of Reading. “We can see the fingerprints of climate change.”

The average sea temperature for October was the highest on record. The warming of the oceans means that more water vapour is sucked into storms. It also affects the jet stream that carries weather to the UK. “It was the warmest October on record,” says Cloke. This March was the hottest recorded and the 10th month in a row to break records. Climate scientists have warned that we could be entering “uncharted territory”.

Storm Babet was not unexpected. The Met Office warned the public that it was coming five days before Maureen died. “You can see the storm coming towards you, you can see the amount of water and you know it’s going to be a problem,” says Cloke. “And yet still people die. It’s very frustrating, being in this field.” Maureen was not the first person to die in flooding near Chesterfield in recent years. In 2019, a 69-year-old woman died just 10 miles away, near the village of Matlock, after being swept away by flood water late at night.

The devastation in Chesterfield in October. Photograph: Ioannis Alexopoulos/LNP

Maureen died “in a known flood-risk area”, says Cloke. Tapton Terrace had flooded in 2007 and nearly flooded again in 2019. Why, I ask Cloke, do these deaths happen even in areas that are known to be at risk? “That’s a very interesting question,” she says. “I think it’s not always clear enough who’s responsible for what when it comes to flooding.”

So, who is responsible for flooding in the UK? To most, it seems like a simple answer: the government, specifically the Environment Agency (EA).

“People don’t realise that the Environment Agency is charged with managing flood risk, not stopping it,” says Mary Long-Dhonau, a flood-resilience campaigner known as Flood Mary. “Stopping it would mean in law that they have to build flood defences and protect everybody. Responsibility for protecting against flooding sadly lies with the homeowner.”

Long-Dhonau became a campaigner after her home in Worcester was flooded in 2000. “My neighbour had a carpet of sewage floating in her house. Another neighbour had just come back from her husband’s funeral. She lost all her wedding photos in the flood.” Afterwards, there was “no support”, she says.

I meet Long-Dhonau in Wainfleet All Saints, Lincolnshire, outside a community event organised by the town council with support from the EA. Wainfleet also flooded during Storm Babet. Here, as in Chesterfield, there is a feeling that the powers that be don’t care about smaller or rural communities devastated by flooding. Wainfleet has repeatedly flooded. The most recent incident, in 2019, was catastrophic: 61 properties were flooded, 580 homes were evacuated, 1,000 people were displaced. A military helicopter had to be brought in to drop sand in the River Steeping, which had breached its banks.

Sofia Brown’s antiques shop, Olympia House, remains closed six months on. Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian

I climb into what Long-Dhonau calls her Floodmobile. It is a “little house on wheels”, she says. Inside are products to help protect your home: flood doors, pumps, airbricks, waterproof plaster and flood sacks that absorb water. Long‑Dhonau’s big thing is resilience: encouraging people to prepare their homes for floods, so that they can be restored easily at minimal expense.

Jean Hart, 73, drops by the Floodmobile. She flooded in 2019 and 2023. “We lost absolutely everything in 2019,” she says. “You could swim in that house.” Her positivity belies the devastating reality. “Now, we are so minimalist. It does make you focus your mind.” Everyone entering the Floodmobile is warm and welcoming towards Long-Dhonau. Many follow her on social media and are in the process of making their homes resilient, in line with her advice.

But inside the event, at a brewery on the outskirts of Wainfleet, the atmosphere is rancorous. Sandwiches are left uneaten as residents besiege a weary-looking EA representative. It is impossible to get near his stand due to the crowd around him, but I catch snippets of the conversation: people are talking about flood defences, and dredging, and they are angry.

Long-Dhonau points out that the EA, while a useful bogeyman, is frequently understaffed and under-resourced. It reported a £34m budget shortfall for 2022-23. Local authority flood risk-management departments are similarly understaffed. “Quite often it will be one man and his dog,” says Long-Dhonau. “I have a lot of respect for them. They care passionately about the people they serve and they often live in those communities.”

Even more poisonous is the mood in the room towards Matt Warman, the local Conservative MP. “I won’t talk to Matt, no,” mutters Stewart Peltell, 63, the chair of Wainfleet Flood Action Group. Peltell’s organisation wants the Steeping to be dredged and for new developments in the town to be restricted. The EA has carried out some dredging, but the group feels it hasn’t gone far enough. “More dredging would get a better flow,” says Peltell. “But it just seems as though it’s not going to happen.”

After Storm Babet, 70 residents attended an acrimonious meeting in the Woolpack pub. “He wasn’t happy, because he didn’t get invited,” says Peltell of Warman. “But I didn’t need to invite him. He could have come. It was an open meeting.” Peltell says Warman doesn’t answer emails from the group.

“Send me an email I’ve not replied to,” says an exasperated-sounding Warman when we meet later. The MP appears rattled. “I’m immensely frustrated that that meeting happened without inviting me.” He says that significant efforts were made after the 2019 floods to protect local properties and, as a result, only a few houses flooded in 2023. “We have made huge progress,” says Warman. “I absolutely agree that we need more funding, all of that stuff. But I think that one community group is not the whole story.”

Hart says: “People blame him, but he’s one person.”

Maureen’s funeral was held on 13 November 2023 at Chesterfield crematorium. Her coffin went out to the Match of the Day theme tune. Afterwards, the family went to a carvery. It was a running joke that whenever they ate out, Maureen would always bring food home with her. They laughed about wrapping up some of the spread in her honour.

When I visit Maureen’s house, Gilbert has cleared away the bulk of the mud and the muck, but a foul, earthy smell remains. A sediment line marks the height the water reached, about 1.5 metres. “I tried to save the photos, but they’re all ruined,” Gilbert says. He shows me one, a ripped black-and-white image of Maureen on the terrace. She looks to be in her early 20s; she is smiling and cuddling a small dog. Today, the neighbours have left flowers and cards outside Maureen’s door. “We’ll miss that wave you gave us whenever we came home,” reads one message.

Gilbert is a hardworking, practical man who cleaned out Maureen’s house – in freezing weather, on his own – in a matter of weeks. But it is hard for him, being here, among all the memories. For Gilbert, the terrace is full of ghosts. Maureen is the third family member he has found dead on this road. He found his grandmother’s body in her house when he was six or seven and his father’s body when he was 21. “Hopefully I won’t see any more,” he says.

When we meet for the second time, he is thinking about selling the house. “It’s just bad memories now,” he says. Going through his mum’s things – her clothes, the novelty mugs she collected when they went on day trips – is upsetting. He dreads coming here now.

Floral tributes outside Maureen’s home. Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian

Gilbert is frustrated with the council and the EA for not protecting the terrace against flooding. “I thought I’d done everything physically possible to make my mum safe and make sure her house wouldn’t flood. And it still did.” Gilbert would like to see the Rother dredged and a nearby bridge widened or replaced to enable the water to flow more easily. “The Environment Agency says dredging doesn’t help,” says Gilbert. “But why did we do it for hundreds of years? All of a sudden, we don’t do it now, because it’s too costly.”

In a statement, the EA said it “carried out crucial work on the ground during the flooding and has taken a number of steps to reduce flooding from the River Rother and [River] Hipper, including a new flood management project at Grassmoor country park designed to reduce the risk in Chesterfield”.

At Olympia House, an antiques centre two minutes’ walk from the terrace, Sofia Brown, the 38-year-old co-owner, also wants to see the river dredged. When I meet her, she is dressed in a white protective suit and work boots. She is busy hammering wet plaster off the walls – Olympia House also flooded during Storm Babet. It is backbreaking work that makes her arms ache. She is drying out the building herself, to save money, before getting in professional contractors. Olympia House was only partly insured, as it had flooded before, in 2019. The building is unheated; as we speak, our breath hangs in the air. I am very glad when someone offers me a cup of tea.

“Mental health-wise, I don’t want to talk to anybody,” she says. The business has been closed and the financial impact has been ruinous. Brown is trying to sell paint on the side, but she is burning through her savings with terrifying speed. Brown grinds her teeth in her sleep from stress. The pain is so bad that she is on nerve relaxers; she can eat only soft food, on one side of her mouth.

In November 2023, the EA, Yorkshire Water, Chesterfield borough council and Derbyshire county council organised a meeting at a community centre. “It was a bit of a slanging match,” says Gilbert, who attended. Rumours had circulated about a floodgate supposedly opening in nearby Wingerworth and contributing to damage caused by Storm Babet. These claims were unfounded and are denied by the EA.

Brown also went to the meeting. She said she asked an EA official whether they could dredge the river. “It was very much: ‘No, that won’t ever happen.’” She also mentioned the footbridge near the top of the terrace. “I said: ‘Can’t you just build a new bridge?’ And that was laughed at.” The conversation left her feeling that “we’re not worthy”, she says.

Brown is flood-proofing Olympia House as best she can, with waterproof plaster, screed flooring and metal partitions instead of wooden. Why go to all this trouble when it will probably flood again? “I can’t let go of the building,” she says. “It’s not that easy.”

Her grandfather, Abdul Latif, who moved to Britain from Pakistan, bought the building in 1986, originally to use as a sportswear factory. Brown promised him that she would keep it in the family: “I’ve given him my word.” She says that her grandfather asked the EA to dredge the Rother in the 1990s. “He started this fight. I’m going to try to finish it.”

There is a feeling among locals in frequently flooded places such as Wainfleet and Chesterfield that they aren’t high on anyone’s priority list. If they are lucky, a politician may visit in the aftermath, but they will be on the first train back to London. “At Tapton Terrace, nobody would ever have known who they were if nobody had died,” says Brown.

This perception isn’t wrong. It is harder for smaller communities to make the case for hard flood defences, meaning engineering solutions such as dykes, levees, reservoirs, barriers, flood walls and embankments. When determining whether to allocate funding, the EA scrutinises how many households would be protected and what damages would be avoided. “The prioritisation of where the EA spends its money on flood improvement schemes is very interesting,” says Cloke. “It needs to have a really high return on investment in order for it to get off the table.”

She highlights the forthcoming £176m flood scheme in Oxford, which has the second-fastest-growing economy of any UK city. “It seems that there is this divide between the people the EA care about and the people that they don’t,” says Cloke. “But it is very difficult, because there is not enough money to go around and there has to be some mechanism to decide where the investment happens. However, if we just base it on money and we don’t base it on people, that’s not good enough, is it?”

In Shropshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire, some communities flood from the River Severn multiple times a year. Heather Shepherd of the National Flood Forum knows one woman in Shrewsbury who has been flooded more than 20 times. “A lot of people would say: ‘Move.’ But it’s her grandparents’ home. It’s a family home,” she says. “She has spent over £30,000 on resilience measures and she still puts up with water.”

Brown at work inside Olympia House. Photograph: Jill Mead/The Guardian

Britain used to build its way out of flooding with hard defences, such as the Thames Barrier, which protects London from storm surges and was completed at a cost of £461m in 1984. But in the 1990s and 2000s, the UK shifted towards a strategy of living with water, instead of fighting to keep it out. “What we have at the moment is a huge emphasis on people’s personal resilience, which undoubtedly has a place, but needs to be dovetailed into a bigger, bolder government vision for flood mitigation,” says Shepherd.

Many people can’t afford flood-resilience measures and government grants, such as the £5,000 made available to those affected by the 2019 floods, often aren’t sufficient to cover their costs. (The government-backed Flood Re scheme will also pay up to an extra £10,000 towards resilience measures for eligible households.) Shepherd, who lives in north Shropshire and whose home has flooded repeatedly, has spent £70,000 on resilience measures. “Aren’t I lucky that I can afford to do that? What about people in deprived areas who flood? They are the people we need to think about. It’s unfair.”

Shepherd is despondent about the longer-term vision for protecting Britain from flooding in an age of climate crisis. “There is no plan,” she says. A report from the independent Climate Change Committee recently warned that the UK’s plan to mitigate the worst effects of the climate crisis “falls far short of what is needed”. A 2023 National Audit Office report found that the government will protect 40% fewer properties from flooding than previously planned by 2027.

The Thames Barrier is designed to protect London until 2070, but most experts believe it will have to be updated by 2050 due to rising sea levels. The tube is particularly vulnerable to surface-water flooding, which is when excessive rainfall causes drains to overflow. In 2021, nine stations on the network were forced to close due to flash flooding; Pudding Mill Lane resembled a swimming pool. Cloke references the July 2021 flooding in Henan province, China, in which 12 people died on the subway in the city of Zhengzhou. “It wouldn’t take much to create quite a large disaster in this country,” she says.

In other developed nations, sewage and rainwater flow through separate pipes. But in most places in the UK, they go through the same drains. If a downpour causes the drains to overflow, all the water, including the sewage, is discharged into our rivers; sometimes, it comes out on to the streets. It is for this reason that Britain’s rivers and coastlines are stinking, polluted and biologically hazardous.

Privatised water companies are responsible for our drains, but unwilling to invest enormous sums of money to upgrade sewers. (The Thames super-sewer, recently completed at a cost of almost £5bn, is a notable exception.) In 2022, a parliamentary committee warned that “water companies and regulators … seem resigned to maintaining pre-Victorian practices of dumping sewage in rivers”.

And yet more intense and frequent rainfalls soak our crumbling infrastructure. Provisional figures from the Met Office, released last month, showed that England experienced its highest-ever amount of rainfall in the 18 months prior since records began in 1836. But preparing the country for the climate crisis does not appear to be on the political agenda. “We need someone at the top who cares about the environment, because, quite frankly, Rishi Sunak clearly doesn’t,” says Long-Dhonau. “We need someone to say: ‘This is happening, this is real.’”

When you speak to flood victims from smaller communities, one sentiment emerges. “We feel alone,” says Gilbert. “The government is not helping us. The Environment Agency is not helping us.” He has been told, in a letter from his MP, Labour’s Toby Perkins, that the EA doesn’t believe there is a cost-effective way to protect the terrace.

When communities feel abandoned, their instinct is to fight. Often, this fight is for hard flood defences or visible measures such as dredging.

“Every time I do a community thing, somebody’s going to say the D-word,” says Lauren Murtagh, a flood-resilience coordinator for the council in Hull, where 98% of the city is at risk of flooding. Among flooding experts, “dredging is a swearword”, she says. We meet at Hull’s Ferens art gallery, at an exhibition about the city’s history of flooding.

Also with us is Dr Steven Forrest, a lecturer in flood resilience at the University of Hull. “Dredging is something visual and people might be reassured by it and think that, in the past, it worked,” says Forrest. “But what we had in the past is not what we have now.” Although dredging can sometimes be appropriate, it can also destabilise riverbanks, have a negative impact on biodiversity and speed up the water flow, increasing the flood risk for communities downstream.

In the June 2007 floods, nearly 10,000 businesses and homes in Hull were damaged. A 28-year‑old man died after getting caught in a storm drain. In 2013, it flooded again. Afterwards, Hull implemented a holistic approach to flooding, called Living With Water. Hard flood defences were installed along the Humber estuary, at a cost of £42m.

We walk down the Hull Frontage, as the defences are called, on a blustery day. Outside The Deep, an aquarium shaped like a shark’s fin, children play on raised concrete steps that form part of the flood defences. By Victoria Dock, metal floodgates protect houses. We go to the tidal barrier, opened in 1980 to protect the city from storm surges. Many think it is a bridge; they don’t realise it protects them from the unrelenting North Sea. “It’s hard to see something when it works,” says Forrest.

In addition to hard flood defences, water is allowed into Hull in a managed way, often using nature. Aqua greens – essentially fields connected to a drainage system – collect rainwater during storms, draining it away slowly. In east Hull, seven hectares (17 acres) of woodland have been planted to absorb excess rainfall. Murtagh is in the process of distributing 1,000 water butts to residents. “One of the things that we’re really trying to get across is that flooding is everyone’s responsibility, but it doesn’t mean it’s just your responsibility,” Murtagh says.

The Dutch, who perhaps more than any other country have learned to live with water, have two words for flooding: wateroverlast, meaning water nuisance, and overstroming, meaning flood disaster. Hull is a model for how a city can learn to live with water: to see water as an occasional nuisance without tipping into disaster.

But whether there is the political will to replicate Hull’s success nationally, for smaller and rural communities, is doubtful. In Chesterfield, on the terrace, residents are selling up and moving away. Gilbert sold Maureen’s house at auction – it went for £66,000, less than neighbouring houses have sold for, but he was relieved to get rid of it. “It was a sad day, to see it go, the amount of time we’ve had it in our family. But I’m glad it’s gone now, because of the memories,” he says.

Visitors to the terrace won’t see Maureen sitting outside on a chair in the sun any more, or her light glowing in the window in the early hours of the morning. Tapton Terrace has claimed its final ghost. For Gilbert, it is time to move on.

This article was amended on 17 April 2024. A quote from Mary Long-Dhonau about understaffing – “Quite often it will be one man and his dog” – referred to local authority flood risk-management departments, not the Environment Agency, as an earlier version said. Also, the date of the 2023 flood alert was 20 October, not 21 October.

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