Overlapping disasters struck parts of England and Wales in January as Storm Christoph battered communities which were already suffering from the effects of a prolonged period under lockdown. It was the first time in recent memory that the UK authorities were required to address two such huge events at the same time.
The storm wreaked havoc, threatening thousands of homes and leading to evacuations in some areas. The costs of yet another major storm will be felt by the affected communities for months to come.
The response to Storm Christoph has revealed the UK’s strengths and weaknesses. On the plus side, the authorities are now well versed in handling major floods – learning from previous disasters in Somerset in 2014 and Storm Dennis in 2020.
Extensive early warning, planning, procedures and flood mapping are now in place. Over 300 flood alerts were issued by the Environment Agency in the three days leading up to the storm hitting. This gave communities due warning of the potential of severe flooding. In some instances, prior evacuation by citizens and communities was recommended and indeed required.
So in this sense, crisis communication was good. For the most part, UK emergency planning has become astute at dealing with single hazard emergencies. Incidents that are restricted to geographical areas where local emergency flooding plans can be enacted with more ease.
Yet despite a commitment to an “all hazard approach” – planning to meet differing types of shocks and threats – the floods have revealed that the UK is not, in practice, very successful in dealing with overlapping disasters. Multi-hazard threats require agile decision making.
In the case of Storm Christoph, initial indications suggest that there was a lack of joined-up crisis communication which linked flood advice – even evacuation guidance – with the requirements of also meeting COVID-19 lockdown restrictions.
People were, in many instances, not clearly informed about how they were supposed to evacuate their homes and meet the requirements of staying within COVID-19 bubbles. There was confusion over what people should do if they were forced to leave their homes. Could they stay with friends? Or would that put them in danger of COVID-19? As Didsbury West councillor Richard Kilpatrick told the BBC:
You have a situation where, for the last year, people have been repeatedly told to stay at home for their safety suddenly getting this conflicting advice.
Nor was it entirely clear how emergency responders would be able to provide flood-related support without making them further vulnerable to COVID-19 contagion.
Key advice was eventually forthcoming – at least in north-west England – where residents were informed that they were exempt from COVID-19 legislation in this scenario and they should not hesitate to evacuate. But the clarity of this advice was far from uniform across the country and was issued at differing times.
Effective crisis communication relies on a clear and timely framing of the challenge – in this case the overlapping disasters. It is also important to outline what the local capabilities and requirements are. And clear information about how the local population can respond to the crisis is crucial. This applies across the world, from the UK to Africa.
My own research, with colleagues at Bournemouth University, shows that poor framing (such as weak communication) can lead to a lack of compliance. This in turn leads to citizens blaming emergency managers for any failures.
People must have trust and confidence that they are both heeding critical flooding advice and staying compliant with pandemic restrictions. This cannot be ignored: flooding is here to stay and lockdowns may be something we all have to learn to live with for the foreseeable future.