I have spent several weeks at York Centre for Voluntary Service, helping the trustees to address some budget issues and prepare for the appointment of a chief executive. I was at the CVS when the floods happened just before the new year, causing misery for 600 families and disruption to businesses. Within hours a huge community response was generated through social media and by word of mouth. Community centres started to receive donations of food, bedding, cleaning materials and even shovels and brushes. Emails and phone calls began offering cash. The flood of water and silt from the river Ouse was followed by a second flood of human generosity, compassion and help.
By 7 January the York Flood Appeal, organised by the Two Ridings Community Foundation, had passed £250,000. Donations were boosted by £100,000 from Nestle, a major employer in the city. Initially there was some confusion when victims of the flood were told they must first seek financial assistance from City of York Council before requesting help from the appeal fund. I found myself explaining this to distressed people who had no home or contents insurance. It's perfectly reasonable to use statutory funds as the first line of support before drawing down charitable donations, but it's a hard line to give to people who are desperate for help.
The Traveller site in York was badly affected and several static homes were completely destroyed. Fortunately the York Travellers Trust had the capacity to organise a focused campaign to support these families.
After the water receded, the priority was to help people get the thick deposit of silt out of their homes. A small army of volunteers came forward to tackle this. So many offers of help were made that part of the CVS's job was to deter people from travelling to York and adding to the congestion and volunteer management burden. Other offers we had to discourage included £20,000 of chicken legs from Hull and 30 sacks of children's clothes collected in Lowestoft. A lot of donated goods had to be redirected to foodbanks and charity shops.
We have yet to make plans for the longer-term effects of the flooding. Some traumatised people will need support in the future, and this will be a major challenge to the voluntary sector in the city.
As offers of help came in, it became clear to me that we need to be better prepared to manage a future crisis of this sort. So the CVS has proposed to the city council and other agencies the establishment of a permanent Volunteer Rapid Reaction Force, with group leaders trained to organise and direct teams of volunteers as needs become clear. I hope it will become a model that could be useful to other areas of the country that face the prospect of more floods.
Kevin Curley is a voluntary sector adviser