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  1. ITV Report

Residents refusing to leave Whaley Bridge despite threat of dam collapse with thunderstorms forecast

  • Video report by ITV News Correspondent Stacey Foster

Thunderstorms are threatening to hamper rescue efforts to a Derbyshire town where a damaged dam is feared to be at risk of collapse - but some residents are refusing to leave.

Dozens more homes were evacuated in Whaley Bridge ahead of expected bad weather on Sunday, as emergency workers continue their efforts to prevent the dam giving way.

There remains a threat to life in the town and 55 further properties were cleared in the Horwich End area this weekend, on top of around 1,500 residents who had already been evacuated.

Forecasters had warned of the potential for up to 40mm of rain to fall in just an hour or two on Sunday afternoon but the feared bad weather had not arrived by early evening.

Despite the warnings, 31 people are refusing to leave.

A senior officer said there could be “catastrophic” consequences if the dam at Toddbrook Reservoir collapses and there are people within the evacuation zone.

The dam has collapsed in parts but its structural integrity is still in tact.

A “small number” of people who were initially evacuated have since returned to their homes in Whaley Bridge, during a brief period when police allowed them to do so to collect vital items, but then failed to come back outside the cordon.

Residents of 22 homes, thought to be a mix of those who have gone back to their properties and those who never left following the first evacuations on Thursday, are now refusing to leave despite police warning of a “very high” threat to life.

Deputy chief constable Rachel Swann told a residents meeting on Sunday evening that, as a result, the decision was taken to stop people returning to their homes to pick up essentials.

She said: “We’ve not evacuated this for no reason.

“We’ve evacuated this because there is real prospect the dam could fail and if it fails it is catastrophic. People would die if they if they were in that evacuation zone.

“So those people who remain in that zone are putting their lives at risk.

“They are also putting the lives of the responders, primarily the police, at risk because we have to keep going in and speaking to them and asking them to leave.”

Some people have refused to evacuate Whaley Bridge, risking their lives, police have warned. Credit: PA

Water levels at the Toddbrook Reservoir in the town have been reduced by little more than three metres, Derbyshire Police have said.

Once a satisfactory level has been reached, engineers will view the damage and decide if residents can return.

Deputy Chief Constable of Derbyshire Constabulary Rachel Swann said the condition of the 180-year-old structure is still critical and the "threat to life remains very high".

She said: "I want my officers to be able to return to their families at the end of their shifts, not be put in harm's way.'

"The spirit shown by the community has been absolutely fantastic. Volunteers are helping at the scene and for that we are enormously grateful.

The fire service said 35% of the water had been pumped out by Sunday morning, but would not give further details on the level that must be reached for the dam to be considered safe.

A Met Office yellow weather warning is in place for much of northern England and the Midlands, including the area around the threatened reservoir.

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Derbyshire chief fire officer Terry McDermott told the Sunday meeting in Chapel-en-le-Frith that a seven-day estimate for how long people would be out of their homes was a “worst case scenario”.

He said specialist engineers have monitored the dam wall 24 hours a day with lasers and are reassured by their assessment.

He explained that the sluice channel around the reservoir was “coping well” with both the water being pumped out by 22 pumps and the inflow to the lake which has been blocked off by Chinook drops.

Six rescue boats have been deployed in the region in case the dam bursts.

An RAF Chinook has dropped more than 400 sandbags, and around 150 firefighters have been using high-volume pumps to remove excess water from the reservoir.

The dam wall has been packed with 530 tonnes of aggregate which is being cemented into place to reinforce the structural integrity of the spillway, police said.

  • On Saturday, ITV News Correspondent Ben Chapman reported on the evacuations taking place in Whaley Bridge

Deputy Chief Fire Officer of Derbyshire Fire and Rescue Service Gavin Tomlinson said crews were working to get “ahead of the curve and remove as much water as possible” in order to “minimise the impact of any bad weather that does materialise”.

Speaking about the prospect of the evacuated people moving back in, he told BBC Breakfast: “At the rate we are pumping, we are hoping certainly towards the end of the week we be in a position to be able to do that.”

Huge pumps are currently being used to reduce the level of the water, with teams working around the clock to ensure it no longer poses a threat as soon as possible.

But that threat still looms and is very real.

Engineers have prioritised protecting the clay core of the 180-year-old dam Credit: PA Graphic

Meteorologist Mark Wilson predicted bad weather for Sunday afternoon: “There is the potential for some thundery showers which could give some very unwelcome rain (in that area).

“There is the potential for 30-40mm in just one to two hours.”

Daniel Greenhalgh of the Canal and Rivers Trust said the organisation is "seriously concerned" about the impending deluge.

He added authorities are doing "everything they can" to reduce the water level.

Engineers have prioritised protecting the clay core of the 180-year-old dam

Police said the added evacuations on Saturday evening were due to “a potential increase in risk of adverse weather in coming days and the ongoing risk of the Toddbrook Reservoir breaching”.

On Saturday, some Whaley Bridge residents who had been evacuated were allowed back into the town to collect essentials and pets, but only for short periods of time and at their own risk.

Police counted residents in and out, giving them just 15 minutes to collect vital belongings.

Joan Pass, 78, was in tears after she went back for the first time since the mass evacuation of the town, describing it as “terrible”.

She said she thought there had been an explosion when first told to evacuate.

Mrs Pass said: “The bells were ringing – I didn’t know what the bells were ringing for. My daughter said get out, get your passport and your medication.

“I thought it was a bomb.”

Residents are expected to be updated on the situation at a meeting on Sunday evening.

Around 1,000 people from Whaley Bridge, which is close to Toddbrook Reservoir, has been evacuated. Credit: ITV News/Google Earth

The Government has moved to reassure local residents about the security of their homes, with newly appointed Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers visiting the area on Saturday.

She said: "Sadly I wish I could come on here and tell people there's a time estimate for when people can go back to their homes" but was unable to do so.

She added she has been "impressed" by the progress of teams so far.

She followed in the footsteps of Prime Minister Boris Johnson who visited Whaley Bridge on Friday.

He met a number of families affected by the evacuation earlier, telling them he had flown over the dam twice and it was "dodgy but stable".

At the Chapel-en-le-Frith High School, he said: "I flew over the dam and it looks pretty scary.

"I can see the problem."

He assured residents "you will all be properly housed" if the dam were to burst, and praised the "impressive" operation and the "huge amount of work going on" to shore up the damaged wall.

Nearby Chapel-en-le-Frith High School has been converted into a reception centre for hundreds of residents, though many are choosing to stay with friends or relatives.

A helpline for residents is open until 10pm on 01629 533190. Or they can email emergency.planning@derbyshire.gov.uk.