As winter descends upon us, is your community prepared for devastating storms and floods?

FrankWatt_400x400This post was contributed by Frank Watt, a part-time PhD student in Birkbeck’s Department of Organizational Psychology. He retired from his job as an Assistant Chief Officer for Derbyshire Fire and Rescue Service in 2008. Frank is now a consultant specialising in coaching and re-energising stalled projects.

The media coverage of the flooding in the Somerset Levels in late 2013 and early 2014 brought the water, heartache and misery into all of our homes.

Comments about the handling of the emergency had a common theme that appeared to follow a well-beaten path to the Government’s doorstep: “they should have done more.”

More what? More dredging? Expert engineers state that dredging  would not have solved the problem and is more of a red herring that flood victims  have latched onto. More pumps? Emergency services would ask: “And pump it where?” Excess water was already being pumped into the River Parrot . More funding? And do exactly what with the funding? Probably throw it all on flood defences, and, yes, that’s what they have done. Danny Alexander, chief secretary to the Treasury, recently announced £2.3bn investment in 1,400 flood defence projects. Engineered solutions can help, but are a short-term solution to a longer-term problem.

What about less? Less incentives to cultivate land that holds vast amounts of water in check,  less building on land that was originally a marsh and less reliance on agencies and services that are stretched to cope with the on-going emergency.

Whilst the Somerset Levels may be seen as an extreme example of flooding in the UK, it is not uncommon. A flooding timeline over the past 10 years shows extreme flooding in many parts of Britain but not consistently in the same place year on year.

The Met Office weather map comparing the 2013 and 2014 rainfall shows a marked difference in location for the heaviest downpours.

So where does that leave policy makers and planners? The Environment Agency has many large projects, some already underway, to try and deal with the deluge of water produced by constant rain falling on water logged ground and an urban environment that was not designed to cope with the current levels of surface water.

Perhaps part of the solution is localised planning together with mobilising of national resources to carry out some preventative measures. But is it all up to the professionals or can local communities get together to assist the professionals? Better still, can local communities get together and prepare before the flooding has a chance to affect their properties?

A typical scenario might be: it’s been raining all night and the weather forecast predicts a storm is approaching that might last for hours. What are your initial thoughts?

Will you focus on self-preservation or just sit tight and hope everything will turn out all right? You could offer help to someone more vulnerable, or would you feel vulnerable and seek assistance from someone nearby? Perhaps you might check to see if your neighbours need assistance or even phone around to see what everyone else is doing?

I suppose what you believe you might do depends upon many factors such as experience of similar events, the risk of something actually affecting you or your property or having people around you that might get together and do something to reduce the effect of the emergency.

Much of the previous disaster research focuses on response during an emergency or the aftermath, whether that is professional emergency managers or organised groups of volunteers or residents.

Before we can ponder about the effectiveness of residents actively engaged in preparing their community for a weather-related emergency, one might want to ask the question: “Do they want to be engaged”? There appears to be an assumption at national policy level that all communities will engage with local emergency planners to undertake risk-based preparedness measures, but what if they don’t want to be engaged and view preparation for extreme weather to be the responsibility of an agency or government department?

Local emergency planning departments offer a range of support mechanisms from information to assisting in communities getting involved. There are a number of other agencies that provide information and volunteer assistance, such as the National Flood Forum, a registered charity that does some great work with communities and flood victims.

Having been engaged in research on this topic for the past six years I believe it would be useful to know if residents believe that their communities can undertake preparedness activities. Not only that but the very enquiry as to what they believe may spark something in them to find out more and get engaged with protecting their community. If you want to find out more about my research and take part in the survey please visit my web page, www.fwatt.co.uk. Keep dry and be safe!

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After the flood: finding ways to insure the uninsurable without breaking the bank

This post was contributed by Dr Diane Horn of Birkbeck’s Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies. It originally appeared on The Conversation.

More wet and windy weather arrives week after week, with the inundated areas of the south and southwest of Britain still at the mercy of the elements. Even while politicians begin the blame game, we should look further ahead to when the floodwaters recede, the clean-up begins – and talk turns to who will pay.

In most countries, the government plays a role in covering flood losses. The UK is unusual because the government does not award compensation directly to individuals. Money is provided to local authorities through the Bellwin Scheme to reimburse the costs of emergency measures taken to safeguard life or property. But this is only intended to cover uninsurable risk.

Damage to private property is considered insurable and is not covered, which means compensation is drawn from the insurance industry, or charitable aid. The Prince’s Countryside Fund and the Duke of Westminster were among the first to make donations to help the flood victims, donating £50,000 each. As the floods continue, other businesses have pledged support. The government has also announced new measures, including a£5,000 grant to households and businesses to pay for repairs which improve a property’s ability to withstand future flooding. But most of those with property underwater will have to rely on insurance.

Unchartered waters

Big changes have swept through Britain’s flood insurance landscape. Until last July, flood insurance cover was available to households and small businesses as a standard feature of buildings and contents insurance under the Statement of Principles. Under this agreement, members of the Association of British Insurers (ABI) agreed to cover properties at risk of flooding in return for government commitment to manage flood risk.

Following extensive negotiations a new flood insurance scheme,Flood Re, was announced last June. This establishes a stand-alone, industry-run, not-for-profit insurance fund due to begin in 2015. Flood Re will provide cover for about 500,000 properties deemed at risk by the Environment Agency that might otherwise be uninsurable, or whose premiums are unaffordable. But the limitations of the Flood Re scheme need to be recognised.

While ABI members will continue to meet their commitments to existing customers, there’s no guarantee prices won’t rise between now and the implementation of Flood Re. In fact stories are already emerging about dramatic premium hikes, and the expectation is that these will rise further.

Policy recommendations

The government needs to take responsibility in the event of a catastrophic flood, but Flood Re’s liability will be capped at an expected limit of about £2.5 billion per year, equivalent to a 1:200 year flood loss scenario. As to who will bear the costs beyond this, the government has made no commitment. But this is a question that needs an answer. PricewaterhouseCoopers have estimated the insurance losses for December and January at £630 million, and while it’s too early to count the costs of the current floods, insurance industry forecasts suggest losses could reach £1 billion if the rains continue.

What is also needed from the government and insurers are incentives to reduce flood risk. Planning controls need to restrict development in flood risk areas, set higher standards for buildings on floodplains, and require that the best techniques to improve resilience against flooding are used when rebuilding and refitting after flood damage. As we argued in a paper published inNature Climate Change, using the flood insurance market to drive better adaptation to flood risk and the effects of climate change needs to be part of a wider strategy that includes land-use planning, building regulations and water management.

The Flood Re scheme needs to be clear whose insurance it will subsidise, and the effects on those not insured under the scheme. In fact many properties at risk will be excluded from the scheme. When Flood Re was first proposed, three categories of property owners were excluded from participation: small businesses, properties built after 1 January 2009, and properties in the highest council tax band.

It has since emerged that Flood Re will exclude many more properties than originally thought, with any policy classed as “non-domestic” unable to participate in the scheme, regardless of the risk. This will include housing association and council properties, many leasehold or private rented sector properties where homes are not insured individually, and properties which are both a residence and a business.

As it is, Flood Re does not reduce flood loss, but only spreads the risk, and therefore the costs, by protecting some policyholders at the expense of others. High-risk properties will be subsidised for decades by payments from low-risk households, with the financial risk still covered by the insurance industry, and government carrying no liability. Policyholders are unlikely to accept this situation without protest, and here the US experience may prove instructive.

Lessons from the US

In the US, flood coverage is excluded from property policies provided by private insurers, and is only available through theNational Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), with the federal government acting as insurer of last resort. Following massive payments for flood claims related to Hurricanes Katrina and Sandy, the NFIP is approximately US$26 billion in debt. This led to legislation to reform the program, phasing out subsidies over five years, and increasing the annual rate until premiums reflect the true risk.

But as rates rose and homeowners faced huge bills, sometimeshikes of 600-1000%, they pressured congress to delay these rate hikes. Republicans and Democrats found common cause for once, with the proposal sailing through the normally divided senate in a matter of weeks. Less than two years after the flood insurance reform legislation was passed, the senate voted to delay premium increases for up to four years while the Federal Emergency Management Agency drafts a plan to make flood insurance premiums more affordable and re-evaluates the accuracy of its Flood Insurance Rate Maps.

Flood insurance reform efforts in the US have shown the political implications of angry voters. With flooding in some parts of Britain about to enter a third month and costs spiralling, it is something the UK government is also learning the hard way, with Flood Re facing its first test before it even has come into operation.

The Conversation

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