Flood lessons already being forgotten

Like the gradually subsiding waters after a deluge, the lessons learned by those who fought the summer floods in 2007 are already seeping away.

This was the concern raised by Defra’s Colin Berghouse when he spoke at CIWEM’s Extreme Flooding event this week.

Mr Berghouse spoke about the problem of embedding lessons into those organisations that need to learn them, lamenting the fact that it was all too common to see a flurry of action immediately following a flood but it would then drop off as the disaster became a more and more distant memory.

“Once you’ve identified the lessons you have to go back and make sure you learn them,” he said, flagging up several areas that time and time again cause authorities headaches, despite the fact the problems are well-known and well-documented.

Advance planning, the management of resources when floods do happen, public relations and leadership were often disasters themselves, he said.

So if those responsible for predicting floods, minimising their impact and dealing with the aftermath are aware of these potential pitfalls, why do they keep stumbling into them?

“One reason is the denial of failure, people have this fear of retribution,” said Mr Berghouse before going on to outline a number of key causes for organisations getting things wrong.

First on the list was other priorities and agendas getting in the way – the staff tasked with drawing up emergency response plans are usually asked to do so as an addendum to their core responsibilities, and it simply doesn’t get the attention it requires.

The next problem was staff turnover, he said. Plans are drawn up, exercises and training is carried out but before you know it, those trained and prepared staff have moved on to pastures new and the new intake no longer know what to do.

Linked to this is resource constraints, he said, with organisations unable to commit the time and funding to ensure plans and training are up to date.

Political apathy was also a problem, he say, saying that democratic politicians were by their nature swayed by the demands of public opinion and while the public might want to see action on flooding immediately after a major event, a few months or years down the line the people would have different priorities and would want to see resources spent elsewhere.

General misunderstanding was the last obstacle he flagged up, saying the terminology of the flood risk management world often left people confused or blissfully ignorant of future threat.

“Terms like hundred year flood make people think ‘well, it’s just happened to us so it won’t happen again for another hundred years’,” he said.

He warned against producing an emergency response plan then leaving it to gather dust and advised those who were involved in disaster management to focus on training and exercising and to keep refreshing their script.

Sam Bond

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