Russell Burton is an expert in flood risk and incident management, Managing Director of RAB Consultants and a former flood warning team leader in the Environment Agency. Russell looks back at changes in flood resilience since the 2007 floods.
I read John Curtin’s blog Flood risk management 10 years on – a journey of high and low tech improvements with great interest this week and found the list of improvements and the progress made impressive, especially against a backdrop of economic uncertainty and austerity.
It also got me thinking back to my own experiences and how the changes are not only in the tech we use but also in the way we think and respond to floods. Like John, I have my own story of what I was doing on the day of the 2007 storm. In July 2007, RAB was one year old, so it was a time of optimism and hard work for me to get the company off the ground. On that day in July I had a meeting with Environment Agency Wales (remember them!) in Cardiff, to start planning a flood exercise of all things. I planned to drive from Lichfield to Cardiff via the M50 with RAB’s first ever employee as a passenger. To be fair the Met office issued severe weather warnings for the west midlands up to 2 or 3 days ahead of the storm but it would only be on the homeward journey for us and who was to say it would be that bad and in that location anyway? I blush at the thought of my gung-ho attitude but I think I reflect the mindset of the times, “Think maybe, act if we have to”.
So off we set and had a great meeting, but by the time we were heading home reports were already coming in of flooding and travel disruption. Nevertheless we made pretty good progress on the M50 till we were approaching the junction with the M5 at Stroud. By now the downpour was a monsoon, the motorway came to a standstill and gradually the road became a river as torrents of water flowed off the fields. The hard shoulder and lane one were impassable but after a two hour delay we were able to crawl past in the “fast lane”.
To be fair I wasn’t the only one “thinking maybe and acting if we have to”, at some point I probably passed the lorry full of flood barriers bound for Upton upon Severn but stuck on the other carriageway of the flooded M5.
So what’s changed? Personally, I take Severe Weather Warnings very seriously now and adjust my travel arrangements to suit. But 2007 was also a watershed in mindset for flood risk managers in the UK. For the Environment Agency, it was the birth of the mantra “Think Big, Act Early”. This simple phrase has stood up to challenge (Think big, Act Appropriately was one watered down suggestion I recall) and I believe it’s helped drive the high and low tech improvements listed by John. It’s made us ask questions like, how big, how shall we act and when is early enough? The Flood Forecasting Centre quantify the scale and timing of the impacts through the Flood Guidance Statement, which now gives flood managers up to 5 days notice to decide how and when to act early. The new extended flood outlook offers a 30 day window for flood risk managers to prepare and plan the response. The 2013-14 floods (amongst others!) highlighted that Thinking Big didn’t always result in Act Early. There was a need to plan what early actions could be done with this extra lead time for unprotected communities, and so came Temporary Defence Deployment Plans and Major Incident Plans to set out the strategic and tactical actions flood managers have at their disposal. Although these are just a couple of examples, the other improvements in John’s list are also driven by the need to “Think Big, Act Early”.
So in summary, the high and low tech improvements that have been made over the last 10 years are all fantastic but for me the biggest change is in our mindset, to “Think Big, Act Early”. To bring this into sharp contrast, this week the Met Office predicted that Britain is heading for “unprecedented” winter rainfall after their new super computer predicted records will be broken by up to 30 per cent. Time to “Think Big, Act early”.