Those images on Monday 28 December were horrifying, and remain unforgettable. Like most people, Chris Milner had been tuning into TV news channels over the Christmas period, gripped with cold fascination as the rising waters of flood-hit Britain made news headlines across the UK.
But the images of cars, wheelie bins and furniture bobbing in the waters of West Yorkshire two days after the big day were not from the TV. And Milner wasn’t watching it happen to someone else from his armchair. This was happening to him, and it was happening to his firm Vermillion Graphics.
The dreaded message came on Boxing Day, when a colleague drove past the business premises at Burley Bridge Mills and texted what he saw: water everywhere. What used to be the staff car park was under four feet after the River Aire burst its banks along 12 of its 71 meandering miles.
Like many businesses, to say nothing of thousands of homes, Vermillion Graphics took the full force of the cumulative effects of storms Desmond, Eva and Frank. Insurance claims for damage caused so far this winter across the UK will reach £1.3bn, say the Association of British Insurers.
The floods in West Yorkshire meanwhile were the worst in 70 years and a major incident was declared for Leeds on Boxing Day.
Locals were urged to stay safe, upstairs and away from roads and bridges that were closed and dangerous. At 2.30am on 27 December production director Milner received a call from his security firm to say a power shortage had tripped the alarm. Needs must, and he ventured out of his home.
Milner made his way the few miles to Burley Bridge Mills, but the water had risen to five feet by now and was lapping at the walls of the mill and no doubt beyond. The electric perimeter gates were down and anyway Milner was damned if he was going to wade through flood water possibly contaminated with sewage, chemicals and goodness knows what else.
“My heart sank when I saw the water level,” he recalls. “What made it worse was we couldn’t get into the building because of the water, so we didn’t know the damage to the building and equipment. I could say I was heartbroken but I wasn’t because I didn’t yet know the extent of devastation.”
In its 11 years, Vermillion Graphics has amassed an impressive list of mail-order catalogue clients and hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of computers, servers and proofing equipment to offer reprographics, pre-press, design and data services. All of this was jeopardised by the water.
On Monday 28 December the water levels receded enough to allow access. Milner and colleague John Armour scrambled over the still-broken gates and jimmied open a side door. What Milner saw inside the offices of Vermillion Graphics were those unforgettable images.
“It was like a tsunami had hit the place. Desks, chairs and job bags had been washed all over the place, while partition walls had been knocked down by the weight of lapping water. Water had reached the motherboards of our four Epson proofers and our GMG software was destroyed.”
Milner slopped and trudged across the mud-drenched carpets and made straight for the comms room – the high-tech nerve centre of the business, crammed with Apple Macs and servers worth tens of thousands of pounds. They too were down.
“That’s when my heart sank even further; I became quite...,” he trails off, lost for words. “There was no power, all the servers and back-up were off, everything was off. I did the only thing I could at that moment, I went to the local store and bought several pairs of Wellington boots.”
So while many people in Britain tucked into cold turkey offcuts and snoozed in front of BBC repeats on bank-holiday Monday, Milner mustered his 14 staff for a monster clean-up operation. And not just staff, but their families and friends too.
If Milner was moved almost to tears by the floods, tears of another kind almost welled up at the sight of his staff and their families giving up precious holiday time to shift what furniture and and kit was saveable and try to rid the building of mud across 600m2 of office space.
“It was a very humbling experience, watching everyone pull together for the good of the company and it makes you realise how great people are when the chips are down. Having shifted the desks and chairs, we were confronted with ‘where do we go from here?’”
Fortunately Burley Bridge Mills, a red-brick building with prominent gables, is on three floors, all of them owned by Vermillion Graphics’ chairman Bill Weir. This was to be the company’s saving grace, as was Milner’s determination to get the business back up and running ASAP. Those unoccupied upstairs rooms were where the team headed laden with boxes and salvaged desks.
“On late Tuesday, 29 December, we finished all the cleaning we could and next day moved upstairs. We managed to save some of the Macs and a few other bits and pieces, but needed to replace lots of kit, so had to ring around loan companies and our IT support teams.”
Milner needed to order more Macs, plugs, sockets, chargers, network cables and Wi-Fi tech, costing £50,000 in total. He also needed new servers and proofers and is still totting up the total cost of the damage. But 75% of kit was destroyed and the final bill will easily run well into to six figures.
Technical issues threw up complications: “It’s not just copying all back-up data to another box, we had to reconfigure the new servers.” The suppliers rallied around: GMG supplied an Epson SC P7000 and software, while OpalCS and London Graphic Systems worked on servers and back-up.
By New Year’s Eve around 3TB of data had been restored and a back-up was in place. Vermillion Graphics was nearly ready for business.
“Within three-and-a-half days of having no business we were up and running – a momentous effort – and working the weekend in full production. Fortunately we had the option to move upstairs, but without that I don’t know what we would have done – probably try and find space somewhere else.
“Luckily our insurance is in order and the company, Aviva, was very prompt in coming out to visit us and assess damage. We needed their go ahead to replace kit, but in some cases we had to have some pieces of equipment so fast, we went ahead and bought it before sorting the insurance.
“Again, we are in the fortunate position of having no real debt. I imagine some companies that aren’t so lucky would be in a tricky situation. But we can dig deep to fund replacement kit before any insurance payouts. This in turn leads to another possible pitfall: organising replacement kit.
“In some ways we were fortunate this happened between Christmas and New Year, as a number of clients were closed. But so too are support teams and suppliers. Without the flexibility of GMG, OpalCS and London Graphic Systems we would have been struggling.”
Some costs will be covered by grants from Leeds City Council, which is offering £2,500 for costs such as skip hire, and a £5,000 grant to put in place protection such as embankments or bund walls. Milner is still toying with what to do to protect against future floods.
“It’s hard to know what to do: you can’t stop rain and laying sandbags or building walls can offer little protection. We may put waterproof seals around doors and glass partitions and are still undecided on whether to develop the upper floors of the mill to become our permanent home.”
In the meantime he wants more action from the government, which pledged £150m during the last big floods in West Yorkshire, in 2011. As far as Milner is aware only about £40m will be spent, yet Leeds has become one of the biggest financial centres of the North.
“What will happen to all those businesses along this stretch of the river if there’s a repeat of this weather? We are keeping an eye on the river levels, but so far and since Boxing Day they have steadied down.
“The memory of those few days is still heartbreaking. Thinking back to my initial reaction when I opened those doors and saw the carnage, those water levels, is frightening. It was unprecedented and witnessing what water did to those chairs and desks was scary.”
Location Leeds, West Yorkshire
Inspection host Production director Chris Milner
Size Turnover: £1.2m; Staff: 14
Products Catalogues, packaging, POS and promotional marketing materials for blue-chip FMCG brands and home-shopping companies. Services include reprographics, design and artwork, product photography and digital asset management
Kit Epson 9900s, Epson 9880, Epson 7800, GMG Colour Management Software, numerous servers including tape libraries, photography studio equipment and numerous Macs and PCs
Inspection focus Coping with a flood
Find out if you are at risk Contact the Environment Agency to see if your business is in a flood-risk area - enter your postcode on its website to see if you are in a danger area.
Flood warnings Sign up to receive free 24-hour flood warnings via an automated service run on the Environment Agency website or call its floodline on 0845 988 1188.
Prepare a flood plan It should include protective actions and a map locating service shut-off points such as fuse boxes and stopcocks and protective materials such as sandbags.
Improve flood resilience Raise electrical sockets, fuse boxes and wiring 1.5m above floor level and put valuable or irreplaceable items on high shelves.
Fit guards When flooding is imminent, stop water seeping through gaps in external doors and ventilation bricks, and use ‘non-return’ values on drainpipes to prevent water backflows.
Train staff Ensure every member of your staff knows correct flood-safety procedures and can act quickly to protect themselves and the business.
Step-by-step actions These could include turning off gas and electricity supplies and moving portable equipment such as computer drives to a higher level.
Disaster recovery Compile a list of local disaster-recovery companies who can help in times of flooding such as repairers, suppliers of pumps and kit-hire companies.
Be insured Association of British Insurers estimates protecting properties can range from £2,000 for flash flood to £40,000 for prolonged flooding – ensure you have the right cover.
After the flood Your first priority is safety; avoid re-entering your premises until you are sure they are safe from contaminated water, structural damage and faulty mains electricity. Photograph flood damage to the building and equipment and check with your insurer before salvaging goods and repairing damage – they may recommend tradespeople.