Warning over flood risk as wetter conditions forecast in new year

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The next couple of months are likely to be wetter than normal in the UK, experts have warned, raising the prospect of flooding on top of the ongoing battle to contain coronavirus.

Environment Agency executive director of operations John Curtin said teams around the country are prepared for dealing with floods this winter in a Covid-safe way.

But he urged people to check if they are at risk and prepare for potential flooding, to protect precious keepsakes such as old photographs and reduce the mental health impacts of the trauma of being flooded.

He also warned of the challenge of keeping up with the rapidly increasing flood threat posed by climate change.

A tractor puts in temporary flood defences in Swanage in Dorset in October
Stormy weather in October saw efforts to deliver flood protection in the face of the ongoing coronavirus battle (Steve Parsons/PA)

“Beyond that, though, our longer range forecasts for January and February have been consistently suggesting that wetter, windier and milder conditions are more likely than normal, so that wet weather will return again,” he said.

Groundwater levels are slightly above normal and there is not much capacity in the soil to take more rain, leaving the country more “in the gift of the weather going forward”, Mr Curtin said.

While the forecast is not certain, it must be taken seriously in case of more wet weather on top of the current conditions, he said.

Mr Curtin said the Environment Agency had carried out repair work or put measures in place to protect communities where defences were damaged by floods brought on by record wet conditions in February, which flooded 8,000 properties.

Equipment, including 25 miles of temporary flood barriers and 250 high-volume pumps, is ready to be deployed, and 1,500 military personnel and 6,500 EA staff are trained to handle floods this winter.

“We have done a lot of preparedness, a lot of testing to make sure we can still respond this winter under Covid conditions, but it’s really important that people prepare their own flood risk.”

He urged householders to take time to prepare for the possibility of flooding, which he said would be beneficial to their mental health and ensure they save their precious keepsakes such as old photographs.

Local emergency response teams have planned for managing evacuations in a Covid-safe way, he said, adding that the potential risk of the virus would be secondary to a real threat to life in a flooding situation

“All of that has been well rehearsed, it’s just whether or not people are aware of that.

“What we don’t want is people’s hesitancy to leave if their life is in danger from an immediate approaching flood, worrying about what the Covid risk is, so that’s one of the elements we will have to keep communicating through this winter.”

Dr Lang also urged people to keep up to date with weather forecasts and warnings.

He said changes to lives because of the pandemic, such as being less used to driving in winter conditions, could make people more vulnerable – though he added that a greater awareness of risk could help make people more prepared.

He said: “We are doing our best to keep up, but it will need a significant shift if it carries on like this.”

Mr Curtin warned baking hot summers and wet winters could damage the earth banks that form the majority of the UK’s flood defences, while the risks of coastal flooding were increasing because of sea level rises.

“Even if we get to net zero, which let’s hope we can decarbonise this quickly, climate change is locked in, sea level rise will keep happening, the rainfall patterns are changing, we do still need to be looking at adapting to climate alongside decarbonising the economy at the same time,” he warned.

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