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The disaster after the disaster

Thirty years ago today, Britain experienced a severe storm not dissimilar to the ones that have swept across us in the last fortnight.  The North Wales coast was particularly badly hit, with a combination of a high spring tide, a north westerly wind and a strong storm surge driving the seas onto the flood defences that run along the stretch of coastline from the River Dee in the east to the River Gele in the west.

Although communities all along the coastal strip were threatened, there was particular concern about the low-lying area known locally as Morfa Rhuddlan – between the River Clwyd to the west of Rhyl and the River Gele.  Morfa is the Welsh word for a marsh; and Morfa Rhuddlan had only begun to be settled from the mid-nineteenth century after a sea wall was built as part of the construction of the railway line between Chester and Holyhead.  Further drainage works and pumping stations were built in the early twentieth century, with the first large scale development occurring in the 1930s.  However, a much larger wave of development occurred between the end of the Second World War and the 1970s; with some 2,000 properties being built on what used to be a tidal salt marsh.

According to census data, by 1990 the area along the coastal strip had the oldest population in Wales.  This helped to conjure images of affluent retirees opting to live out their twilight years in the comfortable surroundings of Britain’s Victorian tourist resorts.  This may have been true of the populations in the seaside resorts of Colwyn Bay and Llandudno.  But the coastal strip to the east was poor, containing a population which included a large number of working class retirees from the industrial towns and cities of North West England.  The area was also host to several massive caravan parks and a string of bed and breakfast accommodation which attracted thousands of visitors between March and September; outnumbering the indigenous population by four-to-one.  As a report from the local social services department was to explain:

“Prior to the recent flooding this area formed a poorly integrated community…”

Flooding had occurred in 1976, 1979 and 1983 after high seas overtopped the local sea defences.  The impact of these floods was relatively minor, with damage limited to properties immediately behind the sea wall.  This allowed for a degree of complacency which is all too common when the authorities survive a “near miss.”  Although “some flooding” was anticipated on the morning of 26 February 1990, the authorities expected more of the same – some overtopping at several locations along the coast; followed by a fairly speedy clean up.

This time, though, it was different.

Concerns had been raised about the condition of the sea defences for years prior to the flooding.  Local people walking along the beach could see that sections of the base of the sea wall had been washed away.  The problem was that nobody was sure who was responsible for maintaining the defences.  Perhaps inevitably at the end of a long period of austerity cuts in the 1980s, the local council was keen to push the cost of maintaining the defences onto British Rail, since the sea defences were originally constructed by statute to protect the railway and its property.  Inevitably, though, the railway was equally certain that since the council had approved the development of housing in the area, it was up to the council to ensure that it was properly defended.  In practical terms, this meant that nothing was done to repair or upgrade the sea defences in the years prior to the flood.

This was, unquestionably, the main reason the flood turned out as badly as it did.  The sea wall was of an outdated design with a hard stone and concrete surface surrounding and containing a clay bank. The top of the wall was concave shaped with the intention of deflecting the force of the waves back out to sea.  Today, this type of defence is referred to as “hard” in the sense that it has to take and deflect the full force of a raging sea.  The problem is that the hardness of a defence of this kind is undermined if spaces develop inside as a result of the eroding of the inner core. 

Out of sight, this is precisely what had been happening for years.  Once the base of the wall had broken, every new tide washed away a small part of the inner core; gradually hollowing it out and leaving the outer wall severely weakened.

Waves began overtopping the sea wall at around 10.00am, triggering an emergency response along the coast.  High tide was at 12.00, meaning that there would be a full two hours of overtopping before the flooding reached its height.  This already meant that the flood on 26 February 1990 was going to be far worse than the earlier floods.  However, things took a much more dramatic turn just before 11.00am when the sea wall just to the north of Towyn collapsed.

Properties immediately behind the wall were inundated within seconds; with the water now flooding across the coast road and into the estate opposite.  Further south, flood water rushed along the Ffynon-y-Ddol drainage canal.  In the process, it disabled the electrically-powered pumping stations which handle sewage disposal in the area; resulting in raw sewage mixing with the flood waters surging into people’s homes.

The one saving grace was that the flood occurred late in the morning, so that many of the residents were already up and about.  Younger people had already left for work and children were at school.  Nevertheless, those who were at home still faced considerable dangers.  Properties immediately south of the sea wall experienced around five feet of icy, polluted flood water.  This soon reached electrical circuits, sending electrical currents through the flood water and sending electric shocks through anyone unfortunate enough to be trapped in their homes.  The murky water and the lack of light entering properties also made escape far more hazardous than might be expected; with people’s furnishings now acting as floating obstacles.

Nevertheless, nobody died as a direct result of the flood (although Stuart Anderson, the local GP, later estimated that some 50 of his patients had died prematurely as a consequence of the flood and the stresses of the recovery).  This, though, would have an unfortunate impact on the relief effort later on; as the absence of fatalities caused the wider public to underestimate the needs of the victims.  Appeals for financial donations brought in far fewer funds than had been anticipated (although appeals for replacement clothing and furniture were too successful; leaving the authorities with a warehouse of rotted clothing and second-hand furniture to dispose of in the aftermath).

Local journalist Paul Lewis was to later describe the damage in his article, Towyn: the drama after the crisis:

“No-one was prepared for the scale of the damage done in February.  People in the worst affected area lost everything – not just a lot, not most things, not almost everything – everything.  Imagine a line five feet high on your living room wall.  Now imagine it flooded with cold, salty water and sewage and left for five days and four nights.  The same in your kitchen, bathroom and hall.  That’s how much the people of Towyn lost.

If the flood was the first disaster, then what came later amounts to what Australian sociologist Beverly Raphael termed “the second disaster.”  Based on the experience of the Buffalo Creek flood disaster, the term refers to the way in which public authorities can act in ways that exacerbate the initial disaster and make matters far worse than they might otherwise have been.  In February 1990, UK authorities were wholly unprepared for major flooding of a kind which has become all too common in the decades since.  Lessons had not been learned from flooding in Cardiff in 1979.  And events in major floods along the east coast of England in the 1950s were considered to be out of date.  The surprise hurricane force storm which swept across the south of England in October 1987 had rung alarm bells; but most authorities were still updating their response plans in 1990.

Communications broke down on the morning of 26 February 1990 even before the flood began.  At the time, the UK lacked a coherent flood warning system – both the internet and mobile phones were in their infancy at this point; so flood warnings were given by police cars fitted with loud speakers.  At that time, warnings were (land line) telephoned by the Meteorological Office to the (now defunct) National Rivers Authority.  These, in turn, had to decide whether to pass the warning on to the local police force which, then had to notify the local councils, whose officers had to take the decision to issue a warning to the public.  To the west, the relevant council officer was not found until the flooding had already started.  To the east, the relevant officer wasn’t contacted at all.  So people were flooded without warning and with no chance to save valuable possessions or to gather what were to turn out to be vital identification documents such as driving licences and passports.

The immediate need after 11.00am was to evacuate residents from the area.  A reception centre was established at Emrys ap Iwan Comprehensive School.  Again, however, communications failed.  Although the school had been designated as a reception centre by the local council, the headmaster of the school only found this out when bedraggled survivors began to arrive at the entrance to the school.  None of the school’s staff had training in responding to an emergency, and could only wait until council officers arrived to open the reception area.

The intention had been to set up a registration area to process evacuees as they arrived at the school before directing them to the school hall where they would be given blankets and a hot drink.  This being February, though, the victims were reluctant to stand around in the cold waiting for their names to be taken.  Nor were their friends and neighbours prepared to stand aside and allow this to happen.  It didn’t take long before someone opened another entrance to the school hall, allowing people to get into the warm without having to register.  The result was the authorities had no idea who was in their care.

With people evacuated from the area, the local authority – with the aid of the armed forces – began to decontaminate the area because of the health risk from the sewage which had mixed with the flood water.  Unthinkingly, they cleared flooded properties and loaded peoples furniture and possessions into skips.  This was to have catastrophic consequences when people returned and began to make claims on their insurance.  This was a time before digital cameras were available, and the few receipts which people may have kept were destroyed by the flood.  Very few of us are in a position to remember the entire content of our homes, and would be even less able if we were also dealing with the stress involved in being flooded out of our homes.  And yet people had only their memory to fall back on when they made insurance claims – claims which the insurance companies almost always disputed.  In the absence of independent documentary evidence, hundreds of households were to lose out.

The disposal of property in this way also led to widespread rumours about looting.  This bred suspicion within the community, and quickly morphed into a more widespread feeling that some had stolen and cheated their way to a far better recovery than the majority.  Two widespread rumours at the time concerned an (unspecified) householder who had supposedly received £10,000 in compensation from British Rail, and the woman who was given a jaguar car by her insurance company.  While these rumours were easy enough to dispel, accusations of benefit and insurance fraud were far more difficult to address, with the result that the affected population was far less cohesive and supportive than might otherwise have been the case.

Some post-disaster problems are inevitable no matter how good the response; and are as true today as they were thirty years ago.  Although recent flooding in the UK has led to complaints about the Prime Minister’s failure to visit the affected area (as if people don’t have enough problems already), there is scant evidence that the appearance of politicians in yellow vests, hard hats and wellington boots does anything to alleviate the problems facing flood victims.  Indeed, such visits involve additional costs and result in key workers being pulled away from flood duties to manage the visit.  Moreover, politicians have a nasty habit of making promises that they simply cannot honour.  In the aftermath of the floods in North Wales in February 1990, for example, the local MP made the rash promise that people would not have to pay the Poll Tax (the new local tax that had just replaced the domestic rates).  This resulted in several being hauled before the courts later in the year for non-payment.

Around the time I conducted interviews in the area, a scandal broke around the charity fund which had been set up to handle the public donations received in the aftermath.  The fund itself was highly secretive.  Nobody knew who the trustees were, and it was far from clear how much money they had received or how the money had been distributed.  This inevitably played into the rumours that were already circulating about some people doing very well as a result of the flood.  It is doubtful that anyone had benefited unreasonably, but the secrecy prevented the rumours from being squashed.  Worse still, when one of the local councillors arranged a public meeting to present the accounts, there was a million pound error in the accounting.

In the end, it was far from clear how any of these people took charge of monies donated to the flood victims themselves.  Notoriously, money donated to the victims and relatives of the 1966 Aberfan disaster had been stolen by the Labour government and used to pay the coal board for removing the remaining coal tips.  Disaster funds in the years since have tended to involve similar misappropriation of funds, with the victims of the disaster for whom the money was donated excluded from decisions about how it was to be spent.  In the case of the North Wales floods it would have been simpler and fairer to divide the money equally among the affected households.

When my report into the North Wales floods – In Deep Water – was published on the second anniversary of the flood, it made national headline news.  Somewhat to my surprise, little consideration had been given to the aftermath of flood disasters prior to 1990.  There had been a casual assumption that people simply mopped up their homes and got back to normal.  By turning the spotlight on the many problems that followed the disaster, my report succeeded in getting public authorities to improve the way in which they responded to flood disasters which climate scientists and environmentalists were already warning would become far more frequent in future.

Just weeks after my research was published, the neighbouring county of Gwynedd experienced flooding as a result of severe rainfall.  I was contacted by the Director of Social Services for additional advice with the response.  My cynical response is that “if you haven’t planned for a response prior to the flood, you’re unlikely to develop a useful one afterward.”  More practically, I pointed out that the Community Response Team run by Jim Hill and Pete O’Brien in the aftermath of the Towyn and Kinmel Bay flooding was still in place (but winding down) and that the simplest thing for Gwynedd County Council to do would be to co-opt them from the neighbouring county – this was done, and no doubt spared many residents in Llandudno Junction from going through the worst of the problems in Towyn and Kinmel Bay.

Other issues have also been addressed in the years since.  Flood warnings are now far more streamlined and effective than they proved to be in 1990.  Clwyd County Council learned from the problems with registering disaster victims and developed a scheme that is now followed across the UK.  In February 1990, emergency planning was a hangover from the Cold War – there was no legal requirement for councils to plan for civil emergencies.  This was partially rectified by John Major’s government, when then Home Secretary Michael Howard reversed the purpose of emergency planning, focussing it on civilian emergencies rather than war planning.  Tony Blair’s government went much further, bringing in the Civil Contingencies Act 2003, which placed a statutory duty on councils to prepare for civil emergencies.

Nevertheless, there are some problems that cannot be avoided in the aftermath of a flood.  Settling insurance claims takes time, and it is a fool who chooses to rush.  It is only after a property has dried out following a flood that the full extent of the damage is revealed.  But drying a property takes time.  Then, as now, it might be late spring or early summer before properties are dry enough for repair work to proceed; and only then if one is fortunate enough to find a builder with access to building supplies.

Like every other industry in the modern economy, construction works on a just-in-time basis.  There is no pool of on-call building tradespeople waiting for a phone call from a flooded town.  Nor are their giant warehouses full of construction materials and tools just on the off chance that a disaster might occur.  Rather, there are just enough builders and supplies to meet normal demand.  And that means that the additional pressure resulting from widespread flood damage cannot be addressed in the short-term.

Then – as now – it was highly unreasonable for the politicians and the media to give people the impression that they would be back in their homes at an early date.  When I conducted interviews with flood victims during October and November 1991, 150 of the 1,500 households that were badly damaged were still waiting to move back into their homes.  A few properties had simply been abandoned presumably because the cost of repairing them was more than they were worth.  Indeed, when I revisited the area in 1997, one property immediately behind the section of the sea wall that had collapsed was still empty.  A few properties had to be demolished and rebuilt, leaving their owners living in caravans on the site for another year.

But the biggest failure in the years after the North Wales floods of 1990 does not concern what happened to the people, but what they were doing there in the first place.

Britain – or at least its politicians and journalists – claims to have a housing shortage.  It doesn’t.  In fact, there are more than enough houses to go around.  They are just in the wrong parts of the country.  For the price of a semi-detached house in Islington you can purchase an entire street in Ebbw Vale.  But if you do, you will struggle to find the kind of employment needed to repay the mortgage.  What Britain actually has is an over-centralised economy: there are not enough houses in the places that still provide employment!  And since nobody has figured out how to move the employers to the regions where there is spare housing, it inevitably results in demand for development land in parts of the country which do not have any.

In Northeast Wales in the years before the flood, there was no acceptable land for development.  The land around the Dee estuary and along the English border between Chester and Wrexham had been set aside for industrial development.  The rural hinterland up into the Clwyd Hills was protected so that any attempt at development would be met with fierce opposition and lengthy court disputes.  That left the coastal strip – an area known to be at risk of flooding; but also an area where there would be little opposition to new development.

During my research, people had said over and again that they had not realised there was a flood risk when they moved into their homes.  This was, I think, the first time I realised that we have little shared meaning of the word “risk.”  A few weeks later I interviewed one of the engineers who conducted flood risk assessments for the Welsh Office.  I mentioned that people didn’t realise there was a flood risk.  His response was “How the f*** did they not know there was a risk.  They had a f***ing sea wall at the end of the garden.”

From an engineering perspective, there was no sea defence on the planet that could entirely mitigate the risk of a flood.  Even the best defences – and the ones built after the 1990 floods are some of the best in Europe – will not prevent a future flood if predictions of sea level rise are accurate.  From a political – and common sense – perspective, however, the very presence of a flood defence is taken to indicate that there is no longer a risk.  After all, why would anyone spend millions constructing defences that only partially address the risk?

As with so many risks, it turns out that we should take the engineers far more seriously than the politicians and, indeed, our own common sense.  In February 1990, climate change was not on the public radar.  Kyoto was another seven years away.  Floods like those that hit North Wales were written off as “one in a thousand year events.”  Although even this phrase does not mean what most people think it means.  As former Tory Cabinet Minister Oliver Letwin related recently:

“I don’t know if you remember the terrible floods that besieged the Lake District during the coalition government? Well, when we finally got through those, I sat down with senior experts in the field, and I asked them: why are these events that are supposed to happen every year in 100 happening each year? And in that moment, I could see it in their eyes. How, they thought, can this minister be so ignorant?”…

“Very patiently, they began to explain to me what should have been blindingly obvious. If you have 1,000 places that have a one in 1,000 chance of flooding, it’s pretty likely one will flood every year – and even more so if they have a one in 100 chance of flooding. The statistics don’t mean what the layman thinks. If we’re going to avoid flooding, we must assume it is going to happen.”

Which brings us back to the other thing that should be blindingly obvious – that if you are going to have regular flooding, and if your engineers are telling you that there is no way to guarantee that floods won’t overwhelm the defences, then you shouldn’t build homes in flood risk areas.  And sooner or later you are going to have to grasp the nettle of relocating large numbers to higher ground… because if you don’t do it, sooner or later Mother Nature is going to do it for you.

As you made it to the end…

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