An unexpected community hub

From ex-firefighters hosing the streets to strangers arriving from all corners of the country to serve food to those without power: Miriam O’Keeffe tells us about The Calder Valley Flood Support Facebook page and how it has been essential in coordinating the volunteer response and sharing heartening stories as they unfold.

Calder Valley flood support volunteers Calder Valley flood support volunteers

In Hebden Bridge, flood warnings are transmitted by air-raid sirens – and by the The Calder Valley Flood Support Facebook page.

The group, which has 12,000 members and covers the Calder Valley from Walsden to Elland, became a central way for local people to post requests for help for themselves and their neighbours. It also became a doorway for the many voluntary and humanitarian groups that offered their services in the aftermath.

Hebden Bridge Town Hall took over the page in the wake of the flooding, and handed it back to the usual admins last week. Miriam O’Keeffe, who took leave from her job as Director of the BBC Performing Arts Fund to help run the page, explains what happened.

Which are the posts that really stuck in your mind in the early part of the floods? 
I was in Ireland with my family and watched it unfold over social media. I couldn't quite believe what I was seeing. I returned on New Year's Day and took over the social media role at the Town Hall.

What really struck me was the way that people began to share the amazing pictures of the clean up and the volunteers. There were lots of people who came to the Facebook page to ask for help for neighbours who they felt would not ask for help. We were able to direct people to where they could help the most, like a local school who needed help to clear their playground and we were able to direct teams of volunteers there immediately. Or a group of ex-firefighters from London who had equipment that could clean streets. We posted that they were arriving and within minutes had a list of places that needed their help.

How did the posts change as the clean-up started?
There was an amazing wave of people who turned up and just took on the next job that needed doing whether it was mucking out cellars, ripping out kitchens, knocking on doors to check on vulnerable residents to even cleaning the toilets at the volunteer hub. 

They came from all over – groups of friends, families, charitable organisations and they were from all different areas, backgrounds and religions. We were also able to call for specific help – such as when people needed to transport rubbish to the tip, to get mucky and clear out cellars or to deliver leaflets to people not on social media. Local volunteers manned the food bank, sorted donations of clothes, toys, food, furniture, even a box of pregnancy test kits.

The Sikh community and the Muslim charities provided hot food every day for the volunteers and for those left without power. We used the Facebook page to tell their stories and inspire others.

Were there posts from the boating community?
We had posts from people asking for individuals to be checked on, and from people worried that boaters could miss out on information as they may not have access to social media. This was brought to the attention of the Council and the other organisations that followed up with volunteers going out along the towpath to check on people.

How many people have been involved in looking after the page, and what's the workload been like for you all?
There were about twelve people involved with two of us overseeing a rota and the strategy. It was a very intense workload with lots of conflicting demands and messages but we survived! I had to wear a blood pressure monitor one day so it will be interesting to see what my results were.

Did the group help bring together the voluntary groups from outside of Hebden?
The group played a vital role in directing help to where it could be more beneficial, as well as ensuring that we could liaise between all the hubs. We saw groups organising themselves to come and help, whether it be a group of friends from Hartlepool or a Muslim charity from Halifax. Posting pictures and updates was a good way of telling the real story as it unfolded on the ground in a way that the mainstream media couldn’t.

Can you see a role for the group post-flood and ongoing? 
I think the page will continue as the floods will have effects for a long time to come. Some people may need help in a couple of weeks when they have dried out their properties and are starting to paint, look for new furniture, start thinking about what to put in place so that they can minimise the damage next time. Unfortunately the page will have to continue as it seems unlikely that this will not happen again.

Last date edited: 4 March 2016