The 2007 Floods: ten years of thinking big and acting early

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.

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Tewkesbury is situated in Gloucestershire and was one of the worst affected parts of the county when the floods hit in July 2007. Source: Panoramio

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”.

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Strensham Services on the M5, July 20th 2007. Source: flickr

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”.

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July 2007 floods at-a-glance. Source: BBC

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”.

Resilience through disaster risk reduction in Nigeria

In April, Michael Clark reported on work to improve disaster management in Ghana. This month he reports on a new project in disaster risk reduction in Nigeria.

Way back in January 2005, with the world still in shock following the devastating Indian Ocean earthquake & tsunami and with the horrors of Hurricane Katrina still 8 months away, the United Nations was setting out how we would go about making the world safer from natural disasters – it’s timing could not have been more significant.

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The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. Picture credit: STR/AFP/Getty Images via CNN.com

The 2005 Hyogo Framework for Action (HFA) was the first time a global plan had been developed to detail the work required from stakeholders across the public, private and charitable sectors to reduce disaster risk. Thanks to the HFA, governments, intergovernmental agencies, international and national NGOs, disaster experts and at-risk communities were starting to work together to coordinate their preparation for disasters.

The HFA was the first significant step taken towards placing an emphasis on mitigating and preparing for disasters; the essence of resilience. It moved away from the traditional disaster management methodology – simply focussed on dealing with the aftermath; response and recovery. The subsequent Sendai Framework built on this and placed an even greater emphasis on mitigation and preparation through disaster risk reduction. It is the Sendai Framework that will shape how we go about disaster management and building resilience up until 2030.

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The seven global targets of the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction

In many facets, the Nigerian National Emergency Management Agency (NEMA) is seen to be a regional spearhead in disaster management across West Africa. The scale and scope of the hazards experienced across Africa’s most populous nation are vast – from flooding to oil spills and infectious disease outbreaks to an Islamist insurgency, the demands placed upon NEMA are significant.

The ongoing Afri-Gate project, which is led by the Bournemouth University’s Disaster Management Centre (BUDMC) and supported by RAB Consultants aims to support the growth of disaster risk reduction and resilience across West Africa. Much like my work in Ghana, the initial phase of the project sought to identify where there are challenges for disaster management and disaster managers in Nigeria in their attempts to improve disaster risk reduction.

I spent 5 days in the federal capital of Abuja, working closely with NEMA’s senior team to understand the disaster management structure and the strategic direction of the agency. Despite being in its infancy, a dedicated department to advocate and coordinate disaster risk reduction efforts across the country has ensured that Nigeria is making huge strides in the right direction.

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Michael Clark is a resilience consultant who has worked across West Africa over the last 7 years. He is pictured at NEMA Headquarters in Abuja, Nigeria.

Despite the best efforts of NEMA, recent flooding events in Oyo State have highlighted the challenges faced by the agency in their promotion of disaster risk reduction. Dredging operations undertaken by the state government to reduce the risk of flooding are being negated by the persistence of communities building homes on water courses. This is one of the areas that the Afri-Gate project will continue to explore as we investigate how NEMA can better engage communities to highlight the importance of disaster risk reduction.

The Afri-Gate project continues to grow in its impact and significance across West Africa.

Building good practice to support engagement with flood risk communities

Paul Laidlaw, Community Resilience Manager with the Scottish Flood Forum, reports on efforts to support engagement with communities at risk of flooding.

The Scottish Flood Forum (SFF) recently launched a pilot Good Practice Framework (GPF) to support engagement with flood risk communities. The work is being developed in partnership with the National Centre For Resilience in Scotland (NCR) who were established in 2016 to ensure communities across Scotland are fully and adequately prepared for natural hazards such as flooding and landslides.

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Stonehaven (pictured) is a community where examples of good practice can be used to support others involved in engagement with flood risk communities. Source: Metro

The GPF is made up of lots of useful information to support organisations think about the different ways they can engage flood risk communities such as case studies, information notes, check lists, templates and more. The four case studies outline a range of successful methods to engage flood risk communities to take positive action and work in partnership. These case studies include examples of the SFF supporting partnership working with flood risk communities and concrete examples of communities working to increase their resilience to flooding in Stonehaven, Edzell, Aberfeldy and Menstrie.

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Launch of the new good practice framework, a partnership between the Scottish Flood Forum and the National Centre for Resilience.

Our work at the Scottish Flood Forum is committed to supporting engagement with flood risk communities and the GPF offers a range of soft guidance to support local authority staff and others with an interest in high quality engagement. The GPF offers information on starting community flood resilience groups, setting up a flood warden scheme, partnership working, developing community flood plans and a set of draft principles that can help to provide a strong foundation to develop engagement with flood risk communities.

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Paul Laidlaw (left) pictured with others involved in engagement with the community of Menstrie in Clackmannanshire.

The framework can be viewed at Resilience Direct under the NCR page and by accessing working groups. The SFF would love to hear feedback from those involved in community engagement on its usefulness and any suggestions to improve the GPF. For more information contact paul.laidlaw@scottishfloodforum.org

Being prepared for flood emergencies: behind the scenes of a major exercise

Daniel Eldson, assistant resilience consultant, reports on his experience in supporting a major flooding exercise in England.

Storm Desmond caused an estimated £1.3m of damages when it struck on the 5th and 6th of December 2015. Disasters such as this provide context as to why agencies involved in emergencies must continually improve their readiness for major natural hazards, and in the case of the Environment Agency, being able to ‘think big, act early, and be visible’ which is core to their role. Exercise CERTUS was an example of flood planning and preparation with an exercise to test winter readiness plans, incident management, command and control, communication and reporting arrangements.

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Picture credit: Carlisle was one of the worst hit places during Storm Desmond with rescue teams evacuating many people from their flooded homes, BBC

The exercise involved 1,000 participants across England, including the Environment Agency’s National Incident Room, National Operational Incident Management Team, Executive Directors and operational field staff.

Part of my role while developing the exercise was to consult all the area teams and develop unique scenarios for their area to respond to, depending on the level of response they wanted to simulate. This was one of the most rewarding aspects of the project for me, with the steepest learning curve, building realistic incident scenarios that we could work into the overall exercise. These ranged from simulating media interview requests, to managing damage to major flood assets. We then worked these scenarios into the larger CERTUS exercise. All of this area level information would then need to be managed at a national level, testing the EA’s command and control, communication and reporting arrangements.

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Incident management teams taking part in Exercise CERTUS.

During the live exercise, I provided telephone support to our facilitators and managed injects to each of the 16 areas from the Environment Agency’s National Incident Room with over 500 emails and supporting documents being sent to participants via an exercise messaging system.

The exercise allowed us to test the deployment of temporary flood barriers, pumps and other mobile incident response equipment to support communities remaining at risk of flooding. This activity in turn allowed the new Major Incident, Temporary Defence and Pump Deployment plans to be tested. What struck me with this exercise was the ability to effectively test winter readiness and being prepared for the next major flood. In particular, making sure everyone is prepared to respond when the time comes: 10% of those who took part in CERTUS were new to incident management, and almost all reported that they felt more confident in their role as a result.