Mary’s home in Worcester has been flooded internally with raw sewage on many occasions. During autumn 2000 she was flooded twice to a depth of about 3ft. On this occasion many of her neighbours were also flooded. Mary led the fight - and won to make the water company concerned accept responsibility for the situation. She was delighted to be asked to officially open the £1.3 million sewage pumping station, which significantly reduced the regular risk of over 80years of flooding in the area. She did, however, refuse to have the pumping station named after her! During the floods of 2007 the pumping station was overwhelmed due to a power failure and Mary’s home was flooded again. On this occasion she did not make an insurance claim and was only displaced for 3 weeks as she had made her home flood resilient. She now is a huge advocate for flood resistance and resilience.
Mary developed a blue print for best practice for communities at risk to ‘work with’ rather than ‘against’, those who manage flood risk. Mary has supported many communities either at risk of flooding, or who have been flooded to form community flood groups, to help them have a say in how floods are managed locally. She has been promoting this ethos for many years and it has now been adopted by the coalition government as ‘best practice’. Until recently Mary was the Chief Executive of the National Flood Forum (NFF) but now runs her own consultancy based on the ethos of ‘preparing, preventing and reducing’ the impact a flood can have on individuals and businesses.
Mary has made many appearances on national TV and radio representing the ‘flooded community’ and through TV has been able to promote ‘flood awareness’ and ‘self help’. She has been a studio guest amongst others on BBC Breakfast News, Sky News, GMTV, ITV’s ‘This Morning,’ 'News night’ and the ‘Richard and Judy Show’. Whenever there is a flood, Mary’s face appears regularly on TV giving immediate recovery advice. Mary is also a regular contributor to many national and local radio stations and national newspapers. She was also editor of the quarterly NFF newsletter. She is a regular speaker at flood risk conferences and promotes the use of ‘flood resistance’ (protection) and 'flood resilience’.
In her capacity of Chief Executive of the NFF Mary was responsible for facilitating the highly successful NFF conferences ~ a unique event that gives an equal platform to those who manage flood risk and those who are at risk of flooding. Mary was the driving force behind the much acclaimed ‘blue pages’ ~ a directory of flood protection products and services. She has acted as a witness to Sir Michael Pitt, who conducted the independent review of the 2007 floods. She was also invited to a ‘flooding summit’ organised by Hilary Benn following the publication of the Pitt report. Mary is a firm believer in ‘partnership working’ and continues to encourage all those effected by floods (whether as a victim or as an agency that manages flood risk) to work together. Mary was awarded an OBE for services to the environment in the Queens’ birthday honours list in June 2009.
THE FIRST LADY OF FLOODING - Mary Dhonau
By Lucy Hird
Media and Communications: Public Relations, Year Two Student Birmingham University
With the announcement of huge cuts to the floods defence budget I managed to chat to the one woman you want to talk to if you’ve been flooded; Mary Dhonau, Independent Flood Specialist. From her beginnings as a flood victim to a meeting with the Queen, Mary has made an impact on every level.
The strong, smiling woman sat before me talks brightly and frankly about how she was flooded with raw sewage on many occasions, before joining with her neighbours to campaign for better flood defences in the area of Worcester that is renowned for flooding.
‘Having being flooded myself, I know how awful it is. I had a newly diagnosed severely autistic son just as I was flooded. Next door to me lived an agoraphobic lady who hadn’t left her house in years, and the next house along an elderly lady who had been recently bereaved and lost all her photos. The compounded grief they went through was worse than mine, we all have horrible things going on in our lives and flood water just finishes you off. When I saw everyone’s sheer misery I thought this is not on, I’ve got to raise the plight of the flood victim at every level. Something in me was fired up and I got significant success fairly quickly.’
Mary has not just made an impact for flooding, but has campaigned locally to save special schools in Worcester making headlines in the papers. The 49-year-old started lobbying for a sewer pumping station for Worcester and won, forcing the water company to put in place a £1.3 million pump that she was asked to officially open( She did decline their kind offer to name it after her!) Mary continued to form ‘Worcester Action Against Flooding’ and had a close relationship with Severn Trent Water, The Environment Agency and the Local Authority. This connection meant that Worcester was selected to trial the first kite marked geo-barrier that saved many homes from flooding and kept a main road open.
‘I couldn’t believe how easy it was to get those involved in flood risk round a table to work with communities. That blue-print that I set up in the year 2000 is now heralded by government as the way forward. They know we have got to involve communities and stakeholders in the way communities are managed.’
Her career continued from there after being asked to become part of the NFF where she was Chief Executive. Mary has lobbied the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) for grants for hard hit areas, as well as being the keynote speaker at their 2010 conference, she represented the NFF at ‘flood summits’ and was the driving force behind the much acclaimed ‘Blue Pages’ flood directory. The campaigner is a regular face on TV, appearing on Richard and Judy and Newsnight, as well as on the BBC Breakfast couch. She said: ‘It’s so important getting the media on-side; I’m great friends with the media as they help me get much needed advice out to the public when they need it most!’
Mary’s hard work and determination was eventually rewarded last year, when she was awarded an OBE for services to the environment in the Queen’s Birthday honours list.
‘I was gobsmacked! I didn’t think campaigners would ever get rewarded; I have been very forthright in my campaigning. I was having a positive impact on flood victims, giving them advice on how to protect their homes. I started the ‘Blue Pages’, I’ve given many presentations and I guess they rewarded me for that, working with, rather than against people. The Minister actually said I was rewarded for my passion.’
Mary has campaigned for 10 years for better flood defences and now it has been announced there will be a 27% cut in funding. Scientists at the Met Office and Cardiff University have called for more funding as global warming increases and the Institution of Civil Engineers calculated last month that the government cuts could cost the public around £4.8bn in the future. So how does the Independent Flood Specialist feel about these proposed cuts?
‘I think that people will find insurance very difficult to get. I’m already getting reports from people saying their insurance has doubled and tripled in price, before the cuts. That will be the significant immediate impact. Also the environment agency hasn’t made up their mind which schemes that will go ahead, schemes are waiting to see if the axe is going to fall on them.’
The government has caused controversy with their cuts and as someone with a strong Liberal Democrat political background, (Mary stood as Liberal Democrat PPC for Worcester in 2005) we asked Mary what she thought of the ‘Condem’ coalition currently in place.
‘David Cameron is being very naive about the depth of the Big Society’s pockets. Everything is being piled into Joe public to pay. As jobs are cut, more will be on benefits and those on benefits won’t be able to spend money on the high-street; it is going to have a huge impact.’
For many people across the country, the fear of being flooding is real, each time we have a flood in the UK, thousands are devastated and now with so many products on the market that can help defend and protect houses and families from serious damage, how will the cuts affect those in flood risk areas?
‘Communities are being expected to reach into their pockets to pay for schemes, the Local Government will be asked to part fund it and they too have had huge cuts to their budgets. I’m very apprehensive as to how it will work; the cuts have been too deep, too quick without much thought into the huge knock on effect to society. There are middle class villages that will have the time and money to develop schemes. But my concerns lie where there is no real sense of ‘community’.
Mary has now set up independently to continue her hard work for flood defences and has already been approached by companies wanting to work in partnership with her. ‘I know it’s a brave move in this economic climate, I’ve been working long and hard on behalf of the Flood Forum, things are changing there and they need a new face with the ability to lead a commercial environment I do wish the NFF well but It’s time for me to go alone and my wish is to carry on giving people advice on how to be aware of a flood, how to prepare for a flood, advice on insurance and flood protection and resilience.’
Lucy Hird email@example.com
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