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The Blame Game

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The government blame game about the floods is in full spate. Eric Pickles is a penitent convert to dredging. ‘For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple and wrong,’ H.L. Mencken said. The Somerset Levels have been flooding regularly since well before the Domesday Book. Pumping has been going on for almost 200 years. But once the media have got a grip, scapegoats must be found. I expect that a Public Inquiry will be announced soon, ostensibly ‘to get to the truth’ but really to kick everything into touch.

To dredge or not to dredge is not the only issue. In Kent, local politicians are worried about sewage germs in the water. Cases of flood-associated infection are very hard to find in the developed world. The risk is extremely low, though extremely low doesn’t mean non-existent.

Leptospirosis is contracted by exposure to fresh water contaminated with rodent urine. In 2012 there were 72 cases in England and Wales. Only one was fatal; 22 were infected abroad; 25 occurred in people engaged in water sports, canoeing, swimming, fishing’; one was in an attempted suicide by drowning; 18 were classified as occupational – farmers, water sport instructors, a local authority road kill collector, and a pub manager ‘cleaning out flood water’.

On 30 May 2005 there was a cloudburst at Salzburg. A party of American tourists helped to clean up their hotel. Toilet paper and faeces were evident. Six firefighters and 26 tourists who assisted in the clean up came down with norovirus gastroenteritis.

I live in the north-east of Scotland. We have been getting the tail end of the depressions that have been inundating southern England and taking out Brunel’s 1840s railway engineering. Our ski slopes have had more snow than Sochi. But we have not escaped tragedy. Peter Trudgill was watching the sea at Stonehaven Harbour on 18 January. He was swept away and died. Fraser Carrington was night fishing at Tangleha, near St Cyrus. The sea claimed him, too. Its ferocity has been our problem. I have a house near Banff. It is about 60 feet from a wall built after the great storm surge of 1953. But on the night of 5 December the sea came through my front door.

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