Residents of the Derbyshire town that was evacuated after a dam threatened to burst have been allowed back into their homes for short, “controlled” visits to pick up pets and other essentials.
Derbyshire police took the “difficult” decision to allow one person from each of the 400 Whaley Bridge properties evacuated on Thursday to return for a 15-minute visit yesterday.
At the Horwich End traffic lights at the Buxton end of the town, cars lined up patiently to be let through the police blockade.
Officers have attempted to stop people entering the steep-sided village from all directions since Thursday afternoon, when a month and a half’s rainfall fell on the Derbyshire hills in just 48 hours, causing massive damage to the 180-year-old dam at Toddbrook reservoir.
Engineers deemed there was a “substantial risk to life” should the reservoir fail, prompting the evacuation of the lower quarter of the town.
Ania Hill had been worrying about her cat, Slippers, ever since the evacuation.
She was relieved to find him alive but distressed.
He had not gone hungry after a neighbour managed to throw him food through the letterbox.
“He was quite upset, I’ve had to put him in the dark in the boot to calm him down,” she said, after her personal rescue mission.
Police had stipulated that only one person per household would be allowed through the cordon.
Visits were to be timed, with residents signing in and out.
But in practice, many people had brought their friend or spouse and took far longer than their allotted 15 minutes, as an RAF Chinook helicopter ferried bags of aggregate above their heads to drop on the damaged dam.
Gill and Martin Shaw, who live on Buxton Road, the main road through the town, took the opportunity to pop home and move more belongings upstairs – furniture and Gill’s collection of ornaments.
Like many residents, they take seriously the warning from engineers, who said on Friday night that they remained “very concerned” about the integrity of the structure, despite an extensive pumping operation having reduced water levels in Toddbrook reservoir by half a metre.
They were also worried about looters after Martin popped back on Friday night to see two men trying to break into his shed.
“It was two fellas, their trousers all wet – I think they must have entered the village via the River Goyt, which runs right behind our house,” said Martin.
Derbyshire police said it would look into the claims of looting, with a press officer saying that she was unaware of problems of that nature following the mass evacuation.
Fred Salmon, who runs the Bike Factory shop, right in the centre of the town, arrived with his van, hoping to bundle as many bicycles in the back as he could.
Another woman, rushing too much to give her name, speed-walked to her house to pick up her passport: she was off on holiday later in the day.
Dan Curley, the landlord of the Cock pub on Buxton Road, was finally allowed back to fetch his spectacles, having spent the first 36 hours after the evacuation with a splitting headache.
Ruth George, the local Labour MP, who lives just outside Whaley Bridge, arrived to find out the latest.
She said she had written to Boris Johnson, the prime minister, on Friday night following his visit to Whaley Bridge.
He told local residents that he had flown over the dam and thought it was “dodgy but stable” and assured them they would all be rehoused should the worst happen.
In her letter to Johnson, George asked him to ensure a “proper investigation” into why the reservoir dam had been damaged and to ensure it can’t happen again.
“It’s not just about the emergency situation, as important as that is. Whaley Bridge as a town needs to be able to feel safe for the long term and we need to know what the options are.”
She commended the emergency services but warned that the situation remained critical, with poor weather expected.
“We’re expecting lots and lots of rain over the next few days so I can quite understand the authorities not being prepared to say it’s safe until those storms have gone.”
The environment minister Thérèse Coffey said the situation remained in a “critical stage” yesterday as she issued a message to residents.
“I cannot emphasise enough how patient they need to be,” she told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme. “Of course this is a distressing and worrying time for them, but if that dam were to breach it would lead to a loss of life if there were people there. There’s no doubt about that.”