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Fatalities prompt independent review on flood warnings

THE ENVIRONMENT Agency is to launch a wide ranging independently- chaired review of its sophisticated early flood warning systems after failing to meet performance targets in the Easter flash floods.

This first test of the Agency's performance came just 18 months after the Agency took over from the police the task of alerting the public to the threat of flooding. The Agency's main target under this new arrangement was for zero lives to be lost in floods.

However five people died in two days over the Bank Holiday weekend when sudden heavy rainfall in Herefordshire, Worcestershire and Northamptonshire caused rivers and canals to overflow and engulf residential areas. Home owners and car drivers had little warning of the potential catastrophe, now thought to have cost the insurance industry between £500M and £1bn.

In appointing an independent chairman for the nationwide performance review, the Agency is demonstrating that it is taking its failings seriously and learning from many of the problems identified by the floods.

A spokeswoman for the Agency confirmed: 'We now know that the rainfall prediction seriously underestimated the intensity of the flood. We are carrying out a review of all our techniques and procedures for flood prediction and warning in the light of what happened and will try to learn from what we did.'

The Easter flood was the first big test since the police handed the flood alert role to the Agency in September 1996. Since then, the Agency has spent around £1M on its flood prediction and warning systems. These include ultra-modern weather radar and computerised river flow and flood modelling linked to extensive surveying to identify flooding zones.

In local high risk areas over 14,000 properties are hooked up to an automatic telephone dialling system which rings a warning directly to residents. The Agency also now has agreements with local radio and TV stations to broadcast vital warnings.

However, despite this apparent high technology approach - previously the police simply sent officers out with loud hailers after receiving a warning from the Agency - many residents in flood-hit areas complained of knowing nothing about the disaster until they woke up the next morning. The Agency appears to have put great faith in a public consultation and leaflet campaign warning households in flood risk areas of potential dangers rather than more direct measures.

'It is important to stress how unusual the pattern of rainfall was,' said the Agency spokeswoman. But she added: 'We will be looking at our flood warning arrangements. If you give the public information there is no guarantee they will act. There is no guarantee the message will be heard.'

The review will identify whether the Agency's limited cash resources are being spent correctly and will set out more clearly defined flood warning procedures.

Antony Oliver

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