The much anticipated state of the art A&E department at Letterkenny University Hospital has been flooded twice since its opening in March 2013. On both occasions, the people of Donegal have been left without A&E facilities. Why has the facility flooded and what has been done to prevent it?
In July 17 2004, Minister for Health, Mr Michéal Martin sanctioned funding for a new Accident and Emergency Department at Letterkenny General Hospital. The A&E Department had received much criticism from hospital staff, political figures and the public for its overcrowding, and inadequate space and facilities.
The new A&E Department was proposed for the north of the hospital grounds. The location of the new A&E Department allowed for “ideal traffic flow between the old and new buildings for the patients and staff,” confirmed Fine Gael Deputy Joe McHugh. However, the location for the proposed A&E Department was below road level and susceptible to flooding, confirmed Deputy McHugh. A Letterkenny Localised Flood Study report commissioned by Donegal County Council highlighted the flood risk of the area and was sent to the Department of the Environment in 2002. However, the concerns noted in the report were taken on board and planning permission was ultimately granted for the new A&E department. “Common sense didn’t prevail,” said Deputy McHugh, “proper mitigation was not adhered to for water management in the planning application.” Eunan Quinn, Senior Planner Officer with Donegal County Council failed to comment for this article on the inadequacies in the planning application.
Construction began in January 2009, at a cost of €22 million. McNamara builders won the tender for the construction of the new Department, “there were concerns before McNamara was given the contract but it fell on deaf ears,” said Deputy McHugh. Initially expected to open in late 2010, the A&E Department was eventually opened in March 2013, by Health Minister James Reilly.
McNamara builders went into liquidation during the construction of the hospital, causing a delay in works. A flood of the department in 2011 also delayed the A&E Department’s construction. The 2011 flooding “should have been the warning” said a local county councillor. “The A&E Department was not connected to the main hospital building,” thus damage was confined to the unfinished A&E department.
A thunderstorm on July 26 2013, brought heavy rain causing a nearby drain at Errigal College to burst its banks. The resulting flood destroyed the newly opened A&E Department, as flood water gushed into it and through the corridors into the main hospital building. The flooding also destroyed the radiology department, outpatient department, pathology and medical departments, kitchens and numerous wards. €34 million of damage was caused. Minister for Health, James Reilly “was at the hospital within 48 hours of the flood,” confirmed Deputy McHugh. Deputy McHugh and Minister Reilly met with Hospital Manager, Sean Murphy. “We decided that the procurements for tender would be removed, nothing would delay the re-opening of the hospital,” said McHugh.
As emergency services pumped floodwaters out of the hospital building, Ireland’s fourth largest county was left without a functioning Accident and Emergency Department. Patients were diverted to Altnagelvin Hospital, Derry and Sligo General Hospital, over 50 miles away.
Investigations into the flooding began, with blame primarily laid at the door of Donegal County Council. “The sheuch (drain) at Errigal College was not cleared” said Deputy McHugh. It was a “collective responsibility,” he added. Eunan Quinn, denied such claims “there was an unforeseeable amount of water, the debris collected quickly.” Mr Quinn added that the “drainage system was adequate” and that the 2013 floods were “a freak incident, a natural event.”
However, since the flooding in 2013 “the HSE created an additional culvert” in the hospital grounds as an “additional means of escape” for excess water. “The geometry of the drains within the site were modified” to ensure that if “large amounts of water gather, the excess water would be diverted onto an alternative route.” The flood management works carried out cost approximately €1 million.
Fast forward 12 months, the A&E Department was once again submerged under water. The then Minister for Health, Leo Varadkar called for an investigation into the flooding. Deputy McHugh, confirmed that the investigation found “a simple solution, the sheuch (drain) at Errigal College needed to be kept clear and excess water needed to be re-diverted.”
“Between the 2013 and 2014 flood the sheuch (drain) at Errigal College was not cleared” added McHugh, “nobody took responsibility for clearing the drain.” The responsibility was passed between Donegal County Council, Letterkenny Town Council and the HSE. Mr Quinn, Senior Planner with Donegal County Council, denied that the drain at Errigal College was at fault for the hospital flooding in 2014. “The flood in 2014 was caused by surface water, it had nothing to do with drainage issues as per 2013,” said Quinn. He added, that “surface water entered on site” and “maintenance measures were required from the HSE.”
“Out patient facilities are still off site” due to the flooding in 2013, said a local county councillor. The “infrastructure need at the hospital still continues” added McHugh as the HSE continue to rent a premises on the High Road for the out patient facilities at a cost to the state. Deputy McHugh also paid tribute to the nursing staff in the hospital for their forbearance and patience and he concluded by saying “we haven’t given the nurses at the hospital enough gratitude, they were resilient and were working on a building site.”