Last reviewed 1 November 2023

Floods are one of the most common natural disasters that affect the UK. The human costs include deaths, loss of homes and businesses, and the misery of evacuation and prolonged relocation. So, how can care home managers plan for this? Martin Hodgson investigates.

According to the Environment Agency as many as one in six homes in England may be at direct risk of river or sea flooding, which is about 5.9 million properties. More may still be at risk of surface water flooding.

In some areas floods can also bring disruption to healthcare and adult social care services. Care homes and sheltered residential facilities that are in flood-risk areas may be in danger, just like other property nearby, as can the homes of people receiving domiciliary care living in the community. In addition, where floods affect roads and transport systems the water can stop staff getting to and from work and prevent relatives, carers and other health and social care services from supporting vulnerable people.

The causes of flooding

Storms, gales and periods of severe weather can bring heavy rainfall which may cause rivers, lakes, reservoirs and local water courses to become swollen and burst their banks. Storms and tidal surges can also cause additional flooding in coastal areas, and even areas not associated with water courses or coastlines can be affected by local surface water flooding caused by rainfall running off the land.

Flooding is most common in the winter. However, weather patterns have grown more unpredictable in recent years and many blame the increasing occurrence of floods on climate change and global warming. They warn that this has affected weather systems around the world and may bring storms and unseasonal flooding to the UK more often in future.

Modern buildings and developments

Whatever the cause of the weather systems driving the flooding, some aspects of modern building may also contribute to the problem.

In recent years houses and businesses have been built on flood plains, and it is estimated that over five million people now live or work in flood-risk areas in England and Wales. Such buildings are obviously at greater risk.

The problem of increasingly high-density occupation elsewhere means that large areas are covered by buildings, concrete and tarmac. Such areas are reliant on the capacity of both private and municipal water management and drainage systems to be able to cope with water run-off during periods of high rainfall.

Risk assessments and flood plans

The first step in planning for flood risks in residential social care is to carry out an appropriate risk assessment. This involves assessing the actual likelihood of flooding in the vicinity of a care home.

Where a risk is identified managers should:

  • ensure that buildings are designed and managed to be as safe from flooding as possible

  • put in place emergency plans for coping with both minor and major flooding disruption — these should include evacuation plans agreed with local authorities and emergency services

  • constantly monitor the situation during periods of bad weather and look out for flood warnings

  • ensure the home has the right insurance cover for damage and business interruption

  • train employees so they know what to do in the event of a flood.

Managers can use an online service to inform their risk assessment. For instance, they can check the long-term flood risk for an area in England on the GOV.UK website. Entering their postcode will provide information on flood risks in their area, including maps.

Flood warnings

Managers of care services in flood-risk areas should pay close attention to flood warnings.

In England, you can check for flooding from the Environment Agency on the GOV.UK website. Managers can also use the Floodline telephone service on 0345 988 1188.

Three levels of warning are used.

  • Flood alert (flooding is possible — be prepared).

  • Flood warning (flooding is expected — immediate action required).

  • Severe flood warning (severe flooding — danger to life).

In Scotland, SEPA (the Scottish Environment Protection Agency) offers a similar service on their Flooding webpage. In Wales, flood alert services are the remit of Natural Resources Wales.

Larger businesses in England or Wales can also register for a Targeted Flood Warning Service to get warnings for more than one place. The service is free for not-for-profit and public sector organisations. It costs £4700 a year for other organisations.

Flooding contingency plans

Help can be accessed during floods from local emergency resilience controls who will be available to co-ordinate activities between the police, fire and rescue services, and emergency health services. In flood-risk areas sandbags are usually made available by local authorities.

Flooding can affect power, water supplies and sanitation. Contingency plans should therefore be in place to keep people safe and warm, especially where flooding occurs in the winter. A supply of blankets and flashlights should be on hand, as well as high-vis cold weather clothing for staff.

Floods not only cause damage to buildings, property and services but also disrupt transport as well. This can cause problems for staff getting to and from work and for domiciliary care staff in getting to people receiving care. Care homes should have plans in place to call local staff in and enable staff to stay overnight if necessary. Where staffing levels fall below safe limits, or where flood waters endanger occupants, it may become necessary to relocate the people who use the services.

Homes should obtain specialist advice wherever possible, and contingency evacuation plans from at-risk buildings should be carefully co-ordinated with local authorities and emergency response services.

In all cases, action plans should be based on an assessment of the needs of people receiving care and the likelihood, probable severity and duration of floods in the locality.

In domiciliary care, staff and managers should work closely with other agencies and healthcare partners to ensure that any vulnerable people are given appropriate support.

Care home staff should exercise extreme caution when clearing up after a flood. Flood water can represent a serious health hazard and is often heavily contaminated with sewerage. Sandbags contaminated with hazardous substances, eg sewage, must be disposed of as hazardous waste.

Increasing the resilience of buildings and communities

Care homes where a flood risk is identified should be constructed to be as resilient to flooding as possible.

Environment Agency guidance, Prepare Your Property for Flooding, gives advice on simple, low-cost measures to limit damage to property caused by floods. It also provides suggestions on building alterations and designs that help keep water out or reduce damage if flood waters enter the building.

Where new care home premises are being designed or built, developers should be aware that sustainable drainage is a mandatory requirement in new building design.

Improving community resilience to flooding has been a high-profile planning consideration in recent years. Measures include making it harder to build on flood plains and strict flooding "tests" for planners. More money has been promised to combat flooding and flood defences in many parts of the country have been upgraded. These include coastal sea walls, flood barriers and dredging to increase the capacity of rivers.

Managers should keep informed about flood risk and local resilience actions in their area. However, despite these changes, flooding looks set to be a long-term seasonal problem in some areas for the foreseeable future and will require flood-risk assessments and contingency plans to be regularly reviewed and updated by care managers.

Further help

Help and support can be obtained from the National Flood Forum which provides advice and specialist flood recovery services. Many communities have Flood Action Groups which work in partnership with flooding agencies and local authorities to manage risks in their area.