What were the lessons from this year’s flooding crisis and how should care home managers plan for future floods? Martin Hodgson reports.

The flooding in many parts of the country last winter caused widespread disruption and damage. Transport links were severed, land was inundated with water, and many people were driven from their homes and businesses.

Communities had to act quickly. Local authorities implemented emergency protocols to ensure the safety of their populace and there were widespread evacuations. These included people who were vulnerable because of age, disability or illness, and those in receipt of domiciliary care.

The Government has promised extra money for repairs and for flood defences but few believe that the risk of flooding will go away.

The scale of the problem

Floods are one of the most common natural disasters that affect the UK. It is estimated that over 2.4 million properties in England and Wales are at direct risk from river or sea flooding, with a further 2.8 million properties susceptible to surface water flooding.

The human costs include deaths, loss of homes and businesses, and the misery of evacuation and prolonged relocation. It takes time for a flooded building to return to habitation. Some people still cannot return home, and may not be able to for some time.

Financial costs are considerable. In Somerset alone the cost of this winter’s disaster is already estimated at well over £100 million, and the total cost of insurance claims for homes, belongings, businesses and infrastructure destroyed or damaged across the country may reach £1 billion.

The causes of flooding

Last winter saw record levels of persistent rainfall inland and storms battering the coastline, along with abnormally high tides. It was inevitable that such a combination of events would cause flooding and damage.

Some people blame the growing frequency of these events on climate change and global warming. They believe that this has affected weather systems around the world and that we should prepare ourselves for more trouble in years to come. Others say that the patterns of extreme weather events merely follow a historical cycle. This year was severe by any standards, they argue, but next year may be better.

Flood defences are of paramount importance, and there is evidence they have been neglected in recent years. Defences include coastal sea walls, flood barriers and dredging to increase the capacity of rivers.

Modern buildings and developments

Whatever the cause of the weather systems driving the flooding, some aspects of modern building may contribute to the problem. In recent years, many 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. Buildings in such areas are obviously at greater risk.

This problem of increasingly high-density occupation means that large areas of ground 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.

The Flood and Water Management Act 2010 was introduced to address some of these issues. It includes:

  • measures to ensure that risk from all sources of flooding, not just rivers and seas, are managed more effectively

  • requirements for surface water systems and sustainable drainage systems that affect all new building developments

  • the creation of approval bodies for surface water drainage design.

Risk assessments and flood plans

The first step in planning for flood risks is to carry out an appropriate risk assessment. This involves assessing the actual likelihood of flooding affecting the work of the agency, in the vicinity of a client’s home and around the agency office.

Where a risk is identified managers should:

  • prepare a plan of how the service will respond if flooding looks likely

  • put in place appropriate measures to protect service users

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

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

Flood warnings

Care managers should monitor the situation during periods of bad weather and listen out for any flood warnings.

In England these can be obtained from the Environment Agency or via the national Floodline telephone service on 0845 988 1188.

Flood warnings are issued using three different types of warning:

  • flood alert (flooding is possible — be prepared)

  • flood warning (flooding is expected — immediate action required)

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

An online interactive map is provided and managers can also register for the free flood warning service, Floodline Warnings Direct, which will send flood warnings automatically.

In Scotland the Scottish Environment Protection Agency (SEPA) offers a similar service and in Wales flood alert services are the remit of Natural Resources Wales.

Contingency plans during flooding

Visits to service users during flooding may need to be increased in frequency and should be co-ordinated with social care and emergency services where necessary.

Local authorities keep lists of vulnerable people and need to be assured that all such people are accounted for and have support.

Many domiciliary care clients will be stuck indoors during the floods and will require supplies of medication, food and water. They may also need help keeping warm, particularly if the emergency is prolonged and heating affected. Good inter-agency communication is the key to ensuring that this is achieved and during the most recent floods home care providers were singled out in many areas as “going that extra mile” to ensure the safety of their clients.

Help can be accessed during floods from local emergency resilience controls, which will be available to co-ordinate activities between the police, fire and rescue services, and emergency health services if needed.

Flooding usually occurs in the winter and can affect power and water supplies and sanitation. Contingency plans should therefore be in place in each of these events to keep service users safe and warm during power cuts. In flood-risk areas sandbags are usually made available by local authorities for the defence of specific homes.

Floods not only cause damage to buildings and property but disrupt transport services too. This can cause problems for community health services in areas most severely affected, including home care workers who may not be able to get to clients as arranged. Telephone and internet links can also be disrupted.

Domiciliary care staff should not be placed at risk and should exercise extreme caution when moving about in flooded districts to clients’ homes. Driving through even shallow water can be dangerous and any damage done to a car may leave someone stranded and cause insurance disputes. In addition, flood water can represent a serious health hazard and is often heavily contaminated with sewage.

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 it may become necessary to relocate some of the residents.

Evacuation

In some cases service users may have to be relocated with family and friends or in some other place of safety until the waters subside. In many areas during the last floods local care homes offered spare beds to elderly people in crisis.

Vulnerable service users in high-risk areas should have evacuation plans agreed with their GP and case manager and with their families. In all cases, action plans should be based on an assessment of needs and risk.

Clients’ homes

If a client lives in a high-risk area they should be encouraged to make their property as resilient as possible. This can either be done privately or through their landlord.

While it is impossible to completely flood-proof a property, there are many things that can be done to reduce the damage flooding can cause.

Environment Agency guidance Prepare for a Flood and Get Help During and After gives advice on simple, low-cost measures to limit damage to property, as well as suggestions on building alterations and designs that help keep water out or reduce damage if flood waters enter the building.

Living on the Edge: A Guide to your Rights and Responsibilities of Riverside Ownership provides advice for the owners of riverside properties.

Increasing national and local resilience

In addition to improvements and reinvestment in flood defences, a number of changes are being considered to increase the resilience of the country as a whole to flood risks. These include:

  • making it harder to build on flood plains

  • development in flood-risk areas only allowed if they are flood resistant and resilient

  • new planning guidance for local authorities and strict flooding “tests” for planners.

Insurers have asked for a zero-tolerance approach to flood-plain building and rural campaigners have asked for added protection for green-belt land.

More money has been promised at a national level to combat flooding, and flood defences in many parts of the country are being upgraded and rivers dredged to increase their capacity.

However, despite these changes flooding looks set to be a long-term seasonal problem in some areas and will require flood risk assessments and plans to be regularly reviewed and updated by care managers.

Last reviewed 19 June 2014