Wednesday, 25 February 2015

Storm Surge 2013 : One Year On - Part Three : Community Resilience

In Part 2 last week, the blog looked at some of the lessons learnt a year on after the 5 December 2013 storm surge in the Humber. This week the post come from guest blogger Jazmin Scarlett. Jazmin is a PhD student with a specialism in natural hazard response and mitigation, and offers her insights from her experience in how communities respond after natural disasters. In this post we expand our look, out of the Humber Estaury and southwards along the east coast of the UK, to Boston.

By Jazmin Scarlett


On the night of 5 December 2013 the Humber Estuary experienced its worst floods ‘since 1953.’ The main natural hazard that the country must co-exist with is flooding, and this post is going to discuss how despite its rather common occurrence across the country, we, as the British people, are not considering every factor when trying to mitigate and adapt to it.

In December 2014, £2.3billion was granted to the defence against flooding to protect 300,000 homes. We have known how bad flooding can get in this country and yet, in my opinion, the response has been rather slow. Even then, throwing money at the situation needs to be managed carefully and should address all the problems, not just the ones that everyone can physically see.

The Boston Stump (by Martin Clark)

The BBC Look North special report a year after the 2013 storm surge it showed how the people of Boston have been coping with some of the often unreported effects of flooding. Some people’s businesses were still suffering, some people’s homes were still being repaired, and some, unfortunately, were experiencing mental health problems. It is not unusual for mental health problems to arise after events like 5 December 2013, in fact it should be expected and mitigated for. It depends on a certain number of factors. One depends on factors, such as the actual experience the individual had: for example, farmers who lost their livelihoods and saw the deaths of their livestock in the 2003 East Gippsland bushfires in Victoria, Australia, experienced shock and post-traumatic stress (Whittaker et al., 2012). Those in Boston who lost properties and are still waiting for their lives to return back to normal told Look North that they are experiencing depression.

Another depends on the individual’s (and the community’s) coping strategies in terms of psychosocial resilience and physical mitigation strategies (Cashman and Cronin, 2008). Physical mitigation strategies usually involve engineering solutions such as the Thames Barrier, monitoring systems such as the Flood Alerts provided by the Environment Agency and land-use restrictions (potentially exacerbated by properties being built on floodplains). These physical solutions are far more obvious than psychosocial resilience, not just for flooding but for other hazards as well. Taylor (1999, in Cashman and Cronin, 2008) states that adaptations for community recovery from a disaster largely depends on simple explanations for the occurrence of an “inconceivable” event.

The Thames Flood Barrier (by Ian Capper)

It appears only when push comes to shove, when we lose properties, livelihoods, lives and money do we react to the hazard. Why must it be only when the hazard has occurred and caused all the damage that we say “we should do something about this.”

Another angle to this could be why can we not co-exist with the hazard? Kelman and Mather’s (2008) paper looks at how people living with volcanoes can become more resilient but I believe it rings true for flooding and other hazards as well. It details a ‘sustainable livelihoods approach’ in which they state that to live with the risk means accepting that the hazard is a usual part of life and that rather just surviving or reacting to the extreme event when it occurs, living with the risk allows the community to create and maintain habitats as well as livelihoods which might lead to the hazard becoming less of a danger and more integrated into day-to-day life.

We are a very resourceful species and certainly in this country have the knowledge of flooding impacts but why are we not more proactive about it? Members of the Department of GEES, University of Hull research various aspects of flooding, and other hazards. An aspect of this is education: I have always been passionate that all individuals at risk of hazards ought not be ignorant to that risk, and part of that is engaging communities in mitigating against our 'public enemy number one'.

There are psychological means to try and explain why people are ‘caught by surprise’ by a hazard, but in reality that should not be the case. I will give an example that I touched upon in my Masters' thesis.

It is a concept called 'saliency' – we make sense and prioritise our daily issues/threats. I do not think about flooding every day. Why should I? It not is looming over the horizon right now and I have other things to worry about. I have to think about managing my money and my disability. I worry about my grandmother. I hope my parents are coping with being parents to four newly adopted kids. I hope my best friend is doing alright in her new job. I concern myself with personal aspects of my life. Every person will be concerned about different things, based on what they value most. I value the wellbeing of my family and friends most. I myself, have been fortunate enough to not experience a flood so therefore, I will take no further action until the hazard is impending and will threaten the safety of my friends and colleagues.

Aerial view of Boston (by Richard Croft)

It is not all bad. The floods in Boston fostered social cohesion and a form of community resilience. In the face of adversity, neighbours who barely knew one another came together to use their own skills, knowledge and goodwill as a joint force to help ease and spread the stress of the situation and get everyone out of danger. After the event, the common ground these people shared is the experience of surviving the potentially life threatening situation. The social cohesion will now continue and hopefully live on to continue aiding one another when eventually the authorities leave and no longer offer the short-term recovery support. The aid could be physical: helping rebuild properties. People often fail to realise that counsel is just as important as physical aid. Local practices will experience an increased number of mental health related cases but sometimes, the social cohesion, the fact that the person was physically there, experiencing what they were experiencing, can be a useful and powerful recovery mechanism.

Social cohesion is also not a new concept to the government and researchers in this country. There are several governmental reports on it. An example is: “Guidance on the duty to promote community cohesion.” You just need to read the title to know how prominent it has been on the agenda. Even the House of Commons has a collection of reports on it and there are researchers looking at resilience against flooding here in the UK.

So if the government has been trying to be proactive in fostering social cohesion as a form of community resilience, why does it appear to be reactive? In all honesty, resilience is hard to measure unlike vulnerability and risk (even then they can be hard to measure). You will not know how effective the community resilience is or where to improve it until the hazard event occurs. I am researching resilience in volcanic environments and although there are indicators to help identify its presence, I do not know how resilient the communities are unless I observe it in a volcanic crisis. And that is a little dangerous.

I believe that the floods experienced in 2013, along with every other major flooding event this country has faced, have largely provoked a reaction to them. In the short-term, money is put in to physical mitigation against it and the short-term recovery programs. If this country is to overcome these ‘surprises,’ more effort needs to be made on being proactive, actively engaging in mitigation and adaptation between flood events. A lot could get done on the community scale in that time, yet it would require the support of everyone. However, people will turn mainly to what they believe will bring them security: the physical presence of flood defences.

Let the authorities deal with that, but get the community involved as well, it will foster another form of community resilience: social networks. Giving the community a sense of empowerment and confidence to prepare will help them mentally cope with the arrival of another flood event and hopefully, lead the country into being proactive and not reactive against our main natural hazard threat.

Whittaker J., Handmer J. and Mercer D. (2012) Vulnerability to Bushfires in Rural Australia: a Case Study from East Gippsland, Victoria. Journal of Rural Studies. Vol. 28. Pg. 161-173.

Cashman K.V. and Cronin S.J. (2008) Welcoming a Monster to the World: Myths, Oral Tradition and Modern Societal Response to Volcanic Disasters. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research. Vol. 176. Pg. 407-418.

Kelman I. and Mather T.A. (2008) Living with Volcanoes: the Sustainable Livelihoods Approach for Volcano-Related Opportunities. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research. Vol. 172. Pg. 189-198.

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