Britain must brace for more storms

By Luca Pavoni 

February was a turbulent month for British weather: five consecutive storms brewed an onslaught of disruption and destruction across the country. The month was ushered in by blustery winds from Storm Malik and Corrie which swept through Scotland and the north of England, stretching the capabilities of British infrastructure to the limit and bringing the country to a standstill. These same regions, which were still recovering from Storm Arwen in November 2021, were then hit by Storm Dudley a couple of weeks later. Powerful gusts quickly made their way down the UK via Storm Eunice, which battered London and the south of England. Franklin became the third named storm to hit the UK in a week and made its landing in the west of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland. Finally, Franklin dissipated and Brits waved farewell to a stormy February.  

Although the Met Office swiftly imposed rare red weather warnings to keep people inside and Prime Minister Boris Johnson quickly assembled an emergency COBRA meeting on the day of Eunice hitting, the Government still received widespread criticisms for an unprepared and insufficient response to the storms that battered Britain and left 1.4 million without power at their peak. A day before Storm Eunice, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng published the interim report for his Storm Arwen review in which he conceded that it was ‘completely unacceptable that thousands of homes were left without power for so long’ and vowed to take lessons from Arwen to ensure a swifter return of power after outages. Yet 56,000 households faced at least three nights without power after Storm Eunice – barely an improvement on the 60,000 households during Storm Arwen.

Similarly, the Department for Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) was accused of leaving the UK unequipped to handle the severe flooding caused by the February 2022 storms. In January 2021, Environment Agency (EA) inspectors found 3460 flood barriers in England alone to be ‘unfit for purpose’. A year later the EA commended its improved ‘powerful flood defences’ along the River Severn that supposedly withstood the ‘full force of Storm Eunice’ and saved 2000 houses from flooding. However, these warm words were dampened by criticisms that DEFRA struggled to get vital food, water, emergency accommodation and power generators to rural areas cut off by the floods. Helen Morgan MP, whose county of Shropshire saw intense flooding, said the February storms confirmed ‘what the rest of the country already know: whenever a storm hits, the Government do not seem prepared’.

A fundamental shift in the Government’s attitude towards extreme weather events is required to avoid similar criticisms in the future. In the lead-up to COP-26 at the end of last year, the EA appeared to understand this by publishing a press release titled ‘Adapt or Die [to climate change]’. Similarly, earlier that year the Government launched its Flood and Coastal Erosion Management (FCERM) strategy in which it made promises to invest heavily in coastal defences and adapt buildings and infrastructure to withstand flooding. While promising in theory, the strategy has faltered in practice. For example, despite plans to avoid ‘inappropriate development in the floodplain’, another 5000 homes have since been built in flood zones in England alone – evidence that the Government has a short memory when it comes to the devastation of severe flooding.

Scientists and opposition MPs have called on the Government to take concrete steps to take the wind out of the sails of future extreme weather events. These include:

  • Bolstering coastal and river defences to properly match the threat of flooding – every £1 spent on flood defences is thought to prevent £5 of damage.

  • Improving the capabilities of rapid emergency responses, such as the swift restoration of power and public road infrastructure after powerful storms.

  • Adapt city and urban planning to avoid floodplains where possible and build resilient structures in areas at risk of flooding.

  • Provide greater financial and technical assistance to farms in low-lying rural and agricultural areas to enable them to protect their land from flooding.

  • Simplifying compensation procedures to cushion the blow dealt to households – Northern Powergrid’s compensation scheme was so flustered during Storm Arwen that it falsely awarded 74 customers with cheques of trillions of pounds, only to hastily withdraw them.

As an island nation, the UK is particularly vulnerable to strong winds and high waves from the North Sea and Atlantic Ocean. And with climate change threatening to increase the severity and frequency of extreme weather events like storms and floods, there is increasing pressure on the Government to adapt to these growing dangers. The storms of February 2022, which took multiple lives and inflicted hundreds of millions of pounds of damages, proved that the Government still has a lot of work to do. Indeed, if there is no fundamental shift in the way the Government mitigates threats posed by extreme weather, the price tags and death tolls will only become higher the next time a storm batters Britain.

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