Last year's floods were devastating, and record-breaking. Are we prepared for flooding in Covid times?

This time last year, heavy rain across the Midlands heralded the beginning of what became a winter of flooding misery.

Businesses were closed for weeks, and thousands of people were evacuated from their homes.

But this year, there’s an added complication. People may not be able to stay with family or friends due to Covid restrictions; and even rescue operations may have to be carried out in a completely different way.

“We’ve got a team of people almost dedicated to developing new ways of working with Covid in mind,” Paul Reeves, from the Environment Agency in the East Midlands, told me.

“So there’s a lot of extra guidance and things that we can implement should we need to in an emergency situation.”

Local councils have had to draw up renewed emergency response plans, in case the worst should happen.

For businesses, too, it’s looking like a tough winter.

Michael Perks and his wife Gail opened Cleo’s Cocktail Bar in Ironbridge just last year. Situated at the top of the hill, their premises escaped water damage - but with the roads closed, business shut down just the same.

“We weren’t even allowed to come to the building at one point,” he said. “It completely devastated the trade.”

Michael Perks said he's worried about what another winter of flooding would mean for his business.

They were closed for four weeks in the end, finally managing to reopen in February.

But then Coronavirus took hold, and lockdown was announced within weeks.

“We’re holding on by our fingernails,” Mike added. “And there’s a lot of premises along the whole street that are doing the same. Two or three are actually gone.

“We’ve put ourselves in a position where we can probably hold ourselves going until probably end of February. 

“But after that, it’s something you’ve got to look at and say, well, do you just take everything out and sell it or just move on.

“Another winter like the last one would devastate us.”

We're holding on by our fingernails

Michael Perks, business owner

Heading down the hill, and others like him had to clear their premises of flood water and sewage before being able to reopen.

Chris Harrison runs the Dale End Café, which was flooded four times in as many months.

He was able to get back on his feet, and keep going through lockdown, thanks to the generosity of the local community, he says. One company even loaned him a catering van so he could continue to serve customers.

Now, everything besides the fridge is on wheels, ready to be moved out of harm’s way at a moment’s notice.

He said he wants to see a long-term plan from the council on how to tackle the problem of flooding.

“We recently had a letter from the council giving us some sort of answers to the questions that we asked, but that dialogue needs to continue,” he said. 

“We as a community need to keep pushing at the council and the council need to keep coming back to us, not necessarily with the overnight answers, but with a long term plan on how this can be sorted.”


repairs to flood defences in East Midlands this year

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repairs to flood defences in West Midlands this year

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Since the floods in the winter of 2019/20, the Environment Agency has spent some £8m in the West Midlands repairing the flood defences, on top of £1.17m in the East Midlands. 

There’s also ongoing work to improve and expand existing defences, such as an £800,000 scheme to add another metre atop one which runs alongside the River Lugg, protecting around 250 homes.

Last year, the water came within 20cms of breaching the existing barrier.

“Without doubt we are seeing flooding on a scale we haven’t seen before,” Dave Throup, from the Environment Agency in the West Midlands, said.

“[This] is largely down to significant rainfall events, and prolonged rainfall as well. So we are concerned going forward what that means. 

“It means we’re going to need plenty of flood defences like these, we need to be more resilient to flooding. We need to be looking after the landscape, we need to be thinking about how rain comes off the land, and slowing the flow down, and people also need to be resilient in terms of understanding their own flood risk and taking actions where there isn’t a flood defence.”

Millions of pounds have been invested in flood defences in the region.

These schemes, however, are often concentrated on urban and residential areas - focusing resource on protecting homes and businesses.

It doesn’t help farmers such as Peter Gadd, in Nottinghamshire, who lost an entire crop when his land was swamped by the rising water.

A wet end to August, and a miserable autumn - including the wettest day since records began at the start of October - has added to his problems this year.

“This autumn has been particularly challenging. Because of the spring-sown crops we had for harvest 20, we had a much later harvesting spell, and harvest time when the crops were ready, the showers we got towards the end of August were interfering with getting on with the harvested crop and of course that had an impact on quality,” he said.

“If we had another winter like we did last year, given the state of where we are now, it would impinge on potential yield at harvest. It would prevent the crop from putting enough roots down to survive any drought we might get next spring and compromise yield at the end of the day. So no, that’s the last thing we want. We do everything we can to help the crop through, to optimise its output, but we can only do what we can do - and we can’t control the weather.”

And councils have had to adapt their action plans, too. 

Last winter saw flood barriers buckle in Bewdley and Ironbridge.

Nottinghamshire County Council told us: “If it is necessary for people to evacuate their homes, all possible measures will be taken to limit the risk of spreading of the virus. 

"As it may not always be possible for people to stay with friends and family, due to Covid restrictions, we may need to evacuate people to a place of safety, in which case we will make sure that all social distancing and hygiene guidelines are adhered to, and make sure that the numbers do not exceed the ability to social distance - opening multiple venues if necessary.”

Derbyshire County Council said: “As part of our multi-agency approach to the Covid epidemic, plans have been drawn up around safe evacuation and shelter arrangements which details how partners including Derbyshire County Council will manage evacuations during any emergency.”

Worcestershire Council Council said it was working with its colleagues in district councils to find Covid-secure rest centres, should evacuation need to occur.

Cllr Tony Miller said flooding was a "high priority" for the authority.

"We have worked hard in recent years together with our partners and communities to improve our multi-agency response to flooding, to increase our resilience to flooding and to build flood schemes in places like Upton-on-Severn and Tenbury," he said. "As well as continuing this work, since the devastating flooding last winter we have been developing ways to ensure that we remain prepared for flooding in the light of the current restrictions due to Covid-19. 

"After the flooding in February and March this year, we worked closely with the National Flood Forum, the Environment Agency and Shropshire Council to develop an online platform where residents and businesses could contact us to seek support directly from us and our partners to assist with getting back in their homes and getting businesses up-and-running again."

Meanwhile Telford & Wrekin Council said it had already identified Civid-Safe hotels, as well as investing in extra PPE.

Shropshire Council said it would be considering the latest government guidance at the time, and would be looking into the options of hotels and rest centres.

Herefordshire County Council has not yet responded.

Flooding in the East Midlands hit homes and businesses hard.

Flooding resilience expert Mary Dhonau, herself a flood victim 20 years ago, urged all authorities to share their Covid-specific response plans for flooding.

She also had some words of advice for anyone living in a high risk area.

“Plan what you’re going to do - where you’re going to put your car, where you’re going to put your belongings,” she said.

“And also what you’re going to do if you do flood. Especially if you’re over 70, or if you’re vulnerable, arrange to be able to go and stay with relative or friends that are in your bubble.

“Because the most important thing is your life.”

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