‘The only way to get about was by boat’

Strabane Council chairman, James O'Kane, centre, surveys the fllods by boat on Railway Street. (1610MM07)
Strabane Council chairman, James O'Kane, centre, surveys the fllods by boat on Railway Street. (1610MM07)

Veteran Strabane councillor James O’Kane has said the floods which hit the town in 1987 are something he will never forget and something never likely to be repeated.

Colr. O’Kane was chairman of Strabane District Council in 1987 and therefore centrally involved in co-ordinating the emergency response to the floods.

The floods attracted large corwds of sightseers at Abercorn Square. (1610MM10)

The floods attracted large corwds of sightseers at Abercorn Square. (1610MM10)

Even now, a quarter of a century later, he has clear memories of that night in October when the River Mourne burst its banks sending surging flood water into the town centre.

“I still remember it like it was yesterday. It definitely doesn’t seem like 25 years ago,” Colr. O’Kane said.

“I remember the water wall bursting and the water gushing through the town.

“I was chair of the Council at the time and I got a call in the middle of the night and went out to see what was happening.

With milk floats unable to get through the floodwaters this kayaker became a milkman for the day. (1610MM04)

With milk floats unable to get through the floodwaters this kayaker became a milkman for the day. (1610MM04)

“It had been raining really heavily for a couple of days and the river had been rising.

“People were actually standing on the bridge earlier that night to get a look at the river. No-one expected what was going to happen,” he explained.

Colr. O’Kane said the flood water spread quickly after the river burst its banks. “The water was gushing through gaps in the wall because it had weakened and then when it collapsed it poured through and spread through the town, right up to Abercorn Square.

“There were people trapped in houses down on the Railway Road and Lower Main Street. People were trapped down near the Farmer’s Home and had to be rescued in boats,” he recalled.

The Independent councillor said the emergency response to the flooding began within minutes.

“The British Army came out with boats to rescue people and individuals who had boats also came out to a lend a hand.

“I remember the following morning being taken across Abercorn Square in a boat with the council chief executive to survey the damage. I’d walked across that Square so many times, probably everyday, but I never imagined I’d be crossing it in a boat. I usually had to avoid buses and cars to get across but that morning the only way to get around was by boat. That’s something I’ll never forget,” he said.

The veteran representative said Strabane had witnessed minor floods prior to 1987 but not on such a large scale.

“The Bridgend was notable for flooding but it was never as bad as that. My father told me about flooding in 1947 but I don’t think it was as bad as 1987.

“Then it was just around the Bridgend but twenty five years ago it came right up to Bradley Way, right up to what used to be known as Mavis King’s Corner. It was really unprecedented,” he explained.

Colr O’Kane said after the initial shock of the floods the long and arduous task of cleaning up began.

“It really was a disaster. There was water everywhere. Shops and houses were ruined. Pubs and car dealerships were flooded and so many people had to leave their homes and go to emergency centres set up by Council.

“Foodstuffs were destroyed, stock had to be dumped, it was a nightmare for the local business community. The floods were a disaster but the clean up was really bad too as the town struggled to get back on its feet,” he remembered.

A campaign then began to help homeowners and business owners recover from the floods and Colr. O’Kane was again centrally involved.

“I contacted Tom King, who was the Secretary of State at the time, to see what he could do.

“He came down to visit the town and met with local people. We also took our campaign to Westminster. People had difficulties getting compensation. Some people got crisis loans but didn’t realise they would have to pay them back,” he said.

Despite all the problems caused by the floods, Colr. O’Kane said his abiding memory of the time is how the people of Strabane came together to help out.

“Everyone rallied round. People came out to try and help save some of the properties and everyone who had a boat helped in any way they could. The army were out in their boats and rescued people from their homes. People came from all around with boats. I remember meeting people who came from Porthall [near Lifford] to lend a hand.

“A fund was set up and many people came forward to give money and it was distributed to those most affected.

“That’s what I remember, people coming together to do what they could, he said.

He also said the Strabane floods of 1987 will most likely never be repeated. “In the aftermath of the floods the new water wall was built and it was much bigger, so the scenes witnessed 25 years ago when boats crossed Abercorn Square will hopefully never be seen again.”