Category Archives: floods

Weather (again)

It’s been the longest daylight for a while.  Not so much because we’re just past the longest night (and further past the earliest dusk), but because we’ve had mostly-clear skies and bright sunshine.  A refreshing change after a very dull month with a fair bit of wind and rain.

We’ve had it easy.  Yes, a fair bit of wind and rain, but nothing out of the ordinary for the season (except the ridiculously warm temperatures[1]).  Parts of northern England and Scotland have had some serious flooding.  And with it, the Chattering Classes are at last starting to question our customary “business as usual” approach to flood risk and defences.

We’ve heard a few stories of why these floods are in large measure caused by man’s actions.  Loss of trees and intensive agriculture; engineering (including dredging) of rivers, and the concreting over of vast  areas around where most of the houses are, all create the conditions for serious flooding.  And whereas these stories have been heard before, what seems different this time is that the non-solution of building ever more flood defences is finally coming under critical scrutiny.

And I’m pleased to note that one of the ideas I’ve floated on this blog has finally been aired in the meeja.  We can, as our forefathers did, reduce the impact of flooding from a major disaster to a moderate inconvenience by building resilience into our houses.  Apparently some business owners are already doing that.

Having said that, I expect the reality will be back to business-as-usual once the floods subside.  As it was with our railway, whose problems and solution I also described in this blog just a year before it was washed out to sea in the storms of two years ago.

[1] It’s hardly dropped below 10° even at night.  A minor news story is of retailers suffering from inability to sell their stocks of winter clothes and the like.

100%

The wet weather we’ve had with scarcely a break since sometime in April seems to be ending the year by filling our reservoirs right up …

South West Water's reservoir levels reach 100% full

Reservoir levels rose through the summer when they’d normally fall, and have finally reached 100%.

There’s so much water above ground too that it’s reclaimed natural wetlands, such as the areas east of Exeter[1] that our transport routes to the rest of England have to cross.  Fortunately Dartmoor always has capacity to absorb more water and we’re not at risk of flooding here, but other areas of southwest England have had more than their share over the past few weeks.  Indeed, even back in the summer there was sufficient rain to cut us off briefly, as floods and landslips affected railways and roads.

[1] The Somerset Levels are the most famous of those wetlands, but a chunk of East Devon is much the same terrain.

The wettest summer

Last summer (2007), there were serious floods in much of central England: Yorkshire in June, and around the Severn in July.  After several much hotter and dryer summers tending towards mediterranean, and exceptionally summery weather in April and the first half of June 2007, this came as a bit of a shock.  A once-in-100-years event, or something like that, we were told.

Here in the southwest, we were spared the worst of that: the season was indeed wet, but not exceptional.  This June and July were comparable, and without last year’s early summer weather.  By August, it seemed that this year was indeed wetter than 2007, as the rain persisted.  Reservoir levels confirm this impression.

Now in September it’s still raining heavily.  And unlike last year, we’ve been one of the wettest areas this time.  We’ve scarcely had a completely dry day for weeks, and we’ve had a startlingly large number of “months rainfall in 24 hours” days.  Just to complete the non-summer, temperatures have seldom gone above about 20 degrees, and never for as much as a full week.

Fortunately, here in the southwest our geography leaves us pretty much immune to flooding on any significant scale.  It can happen very locally to some cottages, but they’re built to withstand it without coming to harm.  But now some areas are starting to get serious floods again (e.g. here), and although they’re not yet on the scale of last year, it’s still raining hard!  One might almost think that last year’s once-in-a-century event is not so very far off happening twice in two years.

A useful scapegoat

By developed-world standards, and particularly for a country with such a benign climate, the recent flooding has caused hardship on quite a large scale.

At the same time, some people will inevitably benefit from it. Most of that is entirely legitimate: builders and repairers, suppliers of food and goods to replace what’s been damaged/lost, etc – all indirect beneficiaries whose markets suddenly grew.

Will there also be direct beneficiaries? Well, there’s financial and political capital to be had. There’s damage and dilapidations, both preexisting and caused by the flood. Large figures are floating around: estimates for total damage, insurance payouts, uninsured losses, and state help (taxpayer payouts). The latter is the most controversial, with politicians and other representatives of the affected areas staking out their claims.

First up was about a month ago when Yorkshire caught the brunt of the first round of flooding. The prime minister announced help for the afflicted areas, and someone from Hull (Mayor? Council leader?) complained bitterly that it was utterly inadequate. That’s reasonable: it’s his business to get the best deal he can for his city, and he’d be failing in that if he sounded satisfied when he judged he could hope for more. Today we had a councillor for Gloucestershire telling us road repairs alone would cost £25M in her county. Same story: she wants the best she can get for her area.  And they all want to stake out positions.

All of which begs the question: what is insurance supposed to be for, if the taxpayer is going to fork up when a disaster happens? And why is a victim of flooding more deserving of being bailed out than a victim of vandalism, burglary or fire? Could it be because it’s a public/media event, and politicians need to be seen to do something? What, me, cynical?

Well, if I were from the insurance industry, I’d be looking at policies with explicit exclusions for large-scale natural disasters, on the grounds that there’s public money to cover them. Save a fortune!

Where there’s public money, corruption inevitably follows. The representatives of Hull, Gloucestershire and other affected areas have legitimate needs, but how could they resist the temptation to absorb at least some general backlogs in repairs and maintenance into the cleanup budgets? Shortfalls in funding – real or manufactured – may then become a convenient scapegoat for general failings.

And if there’s a hardship fund for uninsured individuals, the same applies. The insurance industry has ways (albeit imperfect) to detect and deter fraud. Taxpayer-funded schemes lack the expertise and manpower to detect either fraud or real hardship, so it’ll be the professional con-men who stand to benefit most from public money.

That at least could be alleviated if distribution of the public funds was outsourced to the insurance industry. Except of course, they’re already working flat out to deal with their own business.

Summer Rain

For the second time this season, parts of England have got floods. This time the southwestern Midlands, including our biggest river the Severn, is at the heart of it, and some of the pictures are quite impressive.

Here in West Devon, our weather has been more moderate. On a narrow peninsula surrounded by the warm waters of the gulf stream, it’s always moderate. We have neither hot summers nor cold winters. Normal rainfall is above average for the country, but Dartmoor has ample capacity to soak it up. Our rivers are too small to build up big floods.

The biggest river locally is the Tamar, which marks the cornish border. It actually did flood a few years ago (this century:-), though the floods were not on a large scale by national, let alone world standards. At the nearest point, Gunnislake, it runs through a deep and steep wooded valley, and can rise quite a long way in exceptional conditions.

And there are old cottages along the river, that are flood-prone. Indeed, they’re built for it, with things like flagstone floors downstairs, as well as stone walls. The original occupants will have taken occasional flooding for granted, and expected to deal with it.

What should we learn from history? We have a lot of houses built in flood-prone areas: that’s not about to change, though some of them may benefit from new flood-defences. But they fall into two categories: those built to deal with it (the older ones), and those build with no regard to their surroundings (those from the past century or so).

What can owners of unfit houses do to minimise the impact of flooding on their homes? I don’t know, but it’s a question we should be asking.

One useful thing that could go into “Home Information Packs” would be not just a flood risk figure, but also an assessment of a house’s fitness to withstand flooding. That would tend to put some kind of market pressure on builders to do a better job, as well as informing buyers.