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Experiences of flood response during a pandemic

Steve Wragg

Flood Risk Manager, City of York Council

Flooding features highly in the UK Government National Risk Register (2020) indicating the potential for wide scale impacts across many parts of the country, we have of course witnessed this on many occasions over recent years. Many locations such as York have experienced historic flood events and are fully aware of the likelihood for the impacts to continue for many years to come as the effects of climatic change take hold.

With our partners at the Environment Agency, Yorkshire Water and others we have developed a range of flood risk infrastructure that reduces the impact of repeat flood events and further investments are planned. In addition to this we are working with wider partners to begin the long process of appraising and implementing whole catchment measures that will make our city and many North Yorkshire neighbours resilient to future events.

The River Ouse in York is formed by the Rivers Swale, Ure and Nidd which drain a catchment of more than 3000km2, rainfall in in the Yorkshire Dales and the headwaters of the upstream rivers cause levels to rise in the Ouse over subsequent days, a well-established network of telemetry informs Environment Agency forecasting and Flood Alerts and Warnings are triggered giving advance warning of flood risk to communities in and around York.

Long established, tested and implemented flood response plans are in place for the Environment Agency, Yorkshire Water and City of York Council with specific triggers aligned to the escalation of alerts and warnings. The councils Emergency Planning Unit coordinate the delivery of each plans actions and a number of key services across the authority – highways, communications, transport, public health etc – deliver actions and key roles to ensure the plans are implemented. Links to the North Yorkshire Local Resilience Forum and localised command and control groups are formed as the flood levels rise, all partners work together to deliver a coordinated response to the event.

Flood response in York. Image: City of York Council

Storm Christoph hit the UK in January 2021, heavy rainfall, snow melt and an already saturated catchment led to significant flood levels across many parts of Yorkshire. Early forecast levels initially challenged the defence heights in a number of locations in the city and we were readied for the need to enact evacuation plans for as many as 150 people. Although York is impacted by regular flooding evacuation is thankfully not required on many occasions due to the city benefitting from existing flood defences, current investment in these defences will make them more resilient to future flooding and further reduce the likelihood for evacuation but this is always a risk as defences cannot manage all flood events and the potential for failure, no matter how small, is still possible.

Flood evacuation in York in 2015. Image: City of York Council

Like all other plans evacuation plans are well established and practiced, they establish the location of centres, supplies and equipment to service them and the support and emotional welfare resources to run them effectively. However, on this occasion we found that the convergence of two of the highest risks on the National Risk Register required a re-think and reactive response to how we could effectively provide this service. The city, like all parts of the UK, was operating within the controls and limitations required to manage the impacts of Covid-19, our response to evacuation had to be tailored to ensure it supported social distancing, isolation of household or support groups and recognised the needs of those more medically vulnerable.

As the flood escalated internal flood groups established and managed all aspects of the event. Colleagues across a number of services in the council responsible for health and welfare of our citizens are often present in the meetings but their role and input was called upon more than ever before. It was quickly established that the usual co-mingling of households in evacuation centres would not deliver an acceptable response and other options were considered. A call out was made to local hotels and other accommodation providers to request ways in which they could house evacuee’s if required. As a leading tourist destination York’s occupancy room rate across all accommodation types is usually very high throughout the year but with travel restrictions in place due to the pandemic this led to a successful request and sole use of a single hotel was secured and all agreements were made to ensure it would provide a Covid-safe provision.

With peak flood levels expected at 4am and forecasted temperatures below freezing decisions were made to provide information to potential evacuee’s the day before peak levels. Revised peak river level forecasts had reduced the likelihood of the defences being overtopped but it was still a possibility, hand delivered letters and targeted communications informed residents of the small potential of this occurring and invited self-evacuation in advance of the peak river levels to the hotel.

High river levels on the Ouse. Image: City of York Council

With all plans in place teams continued to monitor the rising river levels which eventually peaked below the defence levels and the areas of concern were not impacted. A small number of households had chosen to utilise the hotel accommodation.

As flood levels receded the council’s recovery plans were put in place and reviews of response were considered, whilst the amended approach to evacuation was bespoke and reactive to the pandemic crisis of the time the way in which information was provided to those at potential expose to flood risk and the assessment of those most vulnerable to its impacts provided an insight into a number of ways in which flood plans could be adapted and procedures changed to accommodate future response needs.

All involved had to work quickly and decisively to adapt and change plans on this occasion but the outcomes brought new ways of thinking and formed a stronger bond across a number of service area in the authority.