The first line of defence Article icon


To most people they appear like deep puddles, albeit flowing or fast moving, but to the Environment Agency they pose a danger that is just not fully appreciated by the general public.

This year the agency has once again worked closely with the AA to warn drivers of the perils of floodwater as part of its annual Floods destroy. Be prepared campaign.

Using infographics and imagery, the partnership highlights how just 30cm of flowing floodwater is enough to move a car while 15cm will knock an adult off their feet. But perhaps a more stark warning to those 680,000 drivers who admit they would ignore a ‘road closed’ sign and drive through a flooded road is that 32 per cent of all flood-related deaths are by drowning in a vehicle.

The AA attended around 4,400 flood-related call outs last winter, including 642 rescues on Christmas Eve – the largest number in a single day for five years – despite more than 450 flood warnings.

This November, with memories of last year’s wettest winter on record for 250 years, the Environment Agency launched its Flood Action campaign, which focuses on engaging target audiences in an attempt to get them prepared for the possibility of flooding.

For three weeks, the Environment Agency worked with a wide range of partners, such as the Met Office, Federation of Small Businesses and Marks & Spencer, to encourage people to view flood information online, check the flood risk for their properties and sign up for free flood warnings. Last year, between December and February, more than 27,000 people signed up for the alerts, up 300 per cent on the same period the previous year.

Despite last year’s torrential downpours and the almost Armageddon-like images that dominated British media, there is still a tendency for people to think that flooding will never happen to them. Yet one in six houses in the UK is at risk, a number that is only going to rise in the future.

But some people also have the view that, if their property flooded last year, then that will not be repeated this year. They put their faith in long-standing actuarial calculations that their properties are at risk of flooding once every 100 years, and that has now happened. ‘We have to convey the risks to them,’ says Pam Gilder, director of corporate affairs at the Environment Agency.

Today, even as Christmas approaches, it is hard to recall the bad weather that swept across England last winter. A quick recap may help. The River Medway burst its banks in December causing hundreds of people across Kent to evacuate their homes, disrupting Christmas celebrations as overhead power lines were damaged. Floodwater submerged the Somerset Levels, prompting local councils to declare a ‘major incident’ and call for military support. Ten metre high waves battered the south west coast in January and February, irrevocably changing beaches in Devon and Cornwall as centuries old rock formations crumbled to the ground. Even the River Thames succumbed in some areas, flooding luxury houses along its banks.

It was, according to Gilder, an ‘extraordinary time’. ‘We had strong winter flooding at the beginning of December, and then in January, February and March we faced the wettest winter on record for 250 years with extraordinary high tides at one point, with exceptional waves off the coast of Cornwall,’ she recalls. In total, about 6,000 properties were flooded between December and February.

The performance of the Environment Agency came under attack during this time, most notably from television magician Paul Daniels, who blamed a lack of dredging for the flooding that surrounded his Berkshire home, on the banks of the Thames.

While not dismissing the attacks – they are not the first criticisms from Daniels, whose home was last flooded in 2003 prompting him to install pumps and wells – Gilder is keen to explain the role that the Environment Agency played in communicating the risks that floods posed to properties and the Herculean efforts made by the department’s staff to help those affected. More than 600 worked on Christmas Day.

‘The sheer passion, commitment and tireless efforts of our communications staff to find new content to keep refreshing our warning and informing messages over a three month period of relentless weather was heroic,’ she explains. ‘We had no budget. Staff gave up weekends, evenings and public holidays to make sure that social media played a front line role in keeping the public safe.’ Almost 4,400 Environment Agency staff played a role, giving up their Christmas breaks, public holidays and weekends to keep people informed.

The Environment Agency plays ‘two big roles’, explains Gilder. The first is defensive and the second is informative. ‘Our role in a flooding incident is to prepare for the bad weather, making sure our assets [which can be anything from a flood gate to a tidal flap] are in good condition and undertaking the maintenance of main rivers and coastal flood risk assets, so that they do the job they are intended for,’ says Gilder.

‘From a communications perspective, we do everything we can to get warnings out to those at risk. Our flood warning service, which goes largely unnoticed to those who do not live in a flood risk area, is a communications system which pushes warnings out via the phone, mobiles, texts and emails.’

Thus, when the east coast faced the largest tidal surge in 60 years, flood risk management schemes, forecasting and warnings helped to save lives. Emergency services evacuated 18,000 people from coastal communities, and 64 severe flood warnings – the highest category possible, and meaning danger to life – were issued as the surge passed down the coast on 6 December. In one hour, 43,000 homes and businesses received flood warnings. People, who were at one end of the coast getting ready to go out for the evening, were alerted to the danger rapidly moving towards them, allowing them to change their plans.

The tidal surge flooded around 2,600 properties, but 800,000 were protected by 2,800 kilometres of defences, such as the Thames Barrier. All told, over the three-month period, 155 severe

flood warnings were issued and the Thames Barrier was lowered 55 times.

‘Our role in all major floods is to keep the public informed and up-to-date, but others take over when it comes to evacuation,’ explains Gilder. ‘You have to be very clear at the height of an incident on the roles – particularly in a multiagency response situation – that you play relative to each other. We have to be aware of what we are responsible for.’ For example, local authorities lead on recovery, co-ordinating the military and emergency services when it comes to evacuation.

Last year, more than 2,000 servicemen and women were involved in assisting those in areas at risk of flooding.

Press officers from local authorities, the emergency services and other government departments were also involved in daily media briefings, ensuring that everybody – internally and externally – was kept up to date.

The Environment Agency also works closely with the Met Office. In recent years, the two organisations have tried to identify areas at risk of surface flooding in order to alert local authorities so that they can inform residents. ‘After two weeks of rain, surface flooding was a real issue in South London,’ recalls Gilder. ‘We’d been talking to water companies and local authorities so that they could get on the front foot in terms of getting the news on local radio and other media. Those alerts would rarely get into the national newspapers, which makes local media so important.’

But Gilder is also clear that, when people’s houses do flood, the Environment Agency must reflect how distressing this can be. It is not about informing, and walking away. Staff run support groups, and even hold ‘surgeries’ in affected communities where local residents can seek help and information, and learn about the work being done by the Environment Agency. Here they can discuss potential collaborative initiatives in the event of future floods, and people can enlist as flood wardens to help efforts to alert the elderly or those living in remote areas. ‘We have funded groups in local communities,’ says Gilder. ‘We have recruited flood wardens, who are pretty self-sufficient, who knock on doors in areas vulnerable to floods. It is that personal contact that is important to many people.’ The agency has also trained volunteers with the charity WRVS to enable them to support older people in preparing personal flood plans, encouraging them to think about what actions they would take if flooding was expected in their areas. ‘They talk to them about practical things. You can’t stop floodwater and the damage to floorboards, but you might be able to put away the family photographs.’ It is about moving valuables and furniture upstairs, if that is an option, removing items from cupboards that would get ruined, stocking up on emergency supplies and even taking photographs of personal property. Local residents in some areas were simply trained in how to close floodgates in the future.

These local groups are viewed as a long-term strategy. Emotions run high when people are affected by flooding, so the Environment Agency is also keen to keep local communities informed of the work undertaken afterwards to repair flood defences and seek new ways to minimise future incidents. For example, more than 2,500 families and businesses along the north and south coasts of Cornwall will now receive targeted tidal flood warnings and fewer false alarms due to an increase in the number of flood warnings and flood warning areas.

But at the heart of the Environment Agency’s strategy is communications – doing everything it can to alert those at risk – and it is here that social media has revolutionised its approach. ‘Social media penetration is excellent. We pioneered the use of Twitter alerts and have prioritised our use of Twitter, although Facebook also plays a role,’ says Gilder.

The Environment Agency was the first organisation in the UK to use the new Twitter Alert service, which is prioritised to send public safety messages for those most at risk. Six Twitter Alerts were sent during each severe flood warning during the tidal surge.

But the agency also called on its operational teams to capture images on smartphones and iPads that could be used to highlight the nature of their responses. And it empowered members of its teams, who were well known in their local areas, to tweet information about their activities or talk to local media outlets. For example, Dave Throup, a manager for Herefordshire and Worcestershire, is a prolific tweeter, gaining more than 9,000 followers. His efforts keeping his community informed during last year’s floods were rewarded when followers set up Dave Throup Fan Clubs on Twitter and Facebook.

There was even a petition to give him an MBE. ‘We favour using operational people because they know what it is that is going on in their local communities,’ says Gilder.

‘And people value their insights. Dave Throup is now a local celebrity.’

Infographics that turned key facts and statistics into engaging content were shared on social media, and the agency’s efforts were reinforced by organisations, such as Age UK and the AA, who retweeted and shared up-to-date warnings and information.

Mindful that not all those living in affected areas will be active on social media, the Environment Agency also relied heavily on its relationships with news organisations and its own website, which carried three-day forecasts and updates every 15 minutes on current alerts.

During December, January and February, 7.8 million people visited the Environment Agency’s website, including a record 950,000 visits on 5 December – the day before the east coast tidal surge.

And a simple piece of code, created in-house, resulted in a Flood Widget, which could be downloaded for free and embedded on a website, showing live flood information and a link to the flood warning section on the Environment Agency’s website.

But, if there was any doubt that the Environment Agency has been successful in its strategy of education and urging those at risk of flooding to be prepared, it is in one stark statistic from 1953, Britain’s worst natural disaster in the last century. Nobody died during the storms that battered the south coast last year, which were higher and more severe, but more than 300 were lost during the tidal surge 60 years earlier. Making people aware of the risks reduces the likelihood of tragedies.

‘We try to learn something from every event,’ adds Gilder. Last year’s events taught her the need to ‘apply the mantra we use in our response Think big, Act early to our communications’.


Marks & Spencer is this year partnering with the Environment Agency’s flood action campaign to help educate and prepare its employees, customers and communities to the risks of flooding.

Last month, the high street retailer held question and answer sessions in ten of its stores most at risk of flooding with Environment Agency staff on hand to offer information and advice for employees and customers.

It has also installed ‘Flood Hubs’ with emergency provisions of sand bags, rock salt and pumping equipment in some of those stores worst affected last year.

And, working with the Environment Agency, it has mapped the flood risk to all its stores across the UK, as it prepares to manage its property estate to ensure it is fit for the future. New stores are now built to minimise the risk around climate change.

For example, Marks & Spencer’s Cheshire Oaks store incorporates rainwater harvesting, tree planting and sustainable drainage features.