Early Warning

One evening in 1953, Robin Herbert’s father took his young family on a surprise evening visit to the cinema. This quiet removal of the family kept them safe from the great sea storm surge that came that evening. Whilst Robin’s family home did survive the pummeling, that storm remains the worst natural disaster in the history of modern Europe. More than 2,000 people were killed.  .

At the end of 2013, a storm surge of even larger magnitude hit England’s east coast but fewer than a dozen people lost their lives. Sound investment in science and engineering over the years worked. Carefully thought-out sea defences protected the eastern seaboard, and accurate weather forecasting allowed people to take defensive action. Civic society worked to its best effect. Flood procedures operated by local councils and emergency services prevented major loss of life.

This is in stark contrast to the news that, back in June 2013, floods caused more than $1.7 billion in damages in a city caught unawares with no fore-knowledge and a poor understanding of the flood plains. Where was this? Bangladesh? The Philippines? Mozambique?

No – it was Calgary in Canada.

In recent decades, the Canadian government has trimmed its budget on hydrological research, paring down the science activities at The National Hydrological Research Centre, and ending the mapping of floodplains. As a result, Calgary was unprepared for the wave of water out of the Rocky Mountains that swept away roads and railway lines and submerged the suburbs of Calgary. Despite a small contingent of scientists continuing this important research, £5 billion pounds of damage was caused, several people were killed and 100,000 were evacuated from their homes. There was no official early warning system so there was no way for the state government to know that this would happen. This is a result of the virtually non-existent investment in environmental monitoring and alleviation of severe weather events in Canada.

While Britain avoided this major damage, the government is still facing serious difficulty.  There has been a terrific furore in the Somerset Levels which are still inundated after weeks of widespread flooding but the government is floundering in its response. Locals bemoan the lack of river dredging which was greatly curtailed due to budget issues a couple of decades ago. However, even had this process continued, it is not necessarily the best way of managing water flow, particularly in flood plains.

The immediate reaction of the affected public has been for the Prime Minister to promise a resumption of dredging. But should we be following the impassioned demands of a small number of farmers in a natural flood plain? Or should we be following the best science research findings and engineering practices?

We have excellent science in this country, and excellent institutions that produce world class information. The flood prediction, mitigation and mapping of flood plains has helped to prevent disasters on the scale of the Calgary floods in this country.  It is vital that the institutions which provide these services are protected and given the freedom and funding to produce the best forecasts and mitigation protection possible. Flood fore-warning and mitigation can be the task only of government and civic society. In an era of tight government budgets it is tempting to cut funding for science, research and monitoring.  Calgary’s experience proves that doing so would be a mistake.



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