Xaver tested flood defences severely

Thousands evacuated and one in six properties at risk – the flooding which hit the UK in December 2013 was the worst since 1953. This review by Zurich experts looks at measures taken and structures put in place over the years. It also shows why it is important to maintain flood protection investments and to make protection part of an integrated flood risk reduction.

This paper was produced as part of Zurich’s flood resilience programme – Post EventReview Capability (PERC). It provides an overview and four key insights into the storm surge-induced flooding that took place as a consequence of the large storm known as ’Xaver‘ in the United Kingdom on December 5 and 6, 2013. While the UK saw an unprecedented series of floods in various parts of the country over the winter of 2013/2014, this report focuses only on the distinct Xaver event. It draws on public information and Zurich’s own experience as an insurer in the affected areas.

Worst event since 1953, thousands evacuated, one in six properties at risk

Hurricane Xaver hit northern Europe with severe force and led to the worst storm surge since the disastrous surge following a big storm in January 1953. In the UK more than 10,000 people had to be evacuated and around 1,400 properties were flooded. Power outages affected over 500,000 people across Europe. One in six properties is at risk from flooding in the UK. Changes in climate mean that in some areas, up to 50 per cent more properties could become at risk from coastal flooding. Luckily, during Xaver there were no fatalities attributed to the surge, and financial losses were far less than they could have been without defences.

Some 800,000 properties protected by defences

Over 2,800 kilometres of defences – some of which were severely tested by Xaver – protected the English coast and 800,000 properties from its surge. The current defence system proved more successful than the performance of the defences in place during the 1953 storm surge, or those used to counter other recent river and surface water flooding. This report provides an overview of the effectiveness of flood defences’ cost relative to performance. The value of assets including homes, businesses and municipal structures is increasing. So is population density. We also face numerous future uncertainties, including climate change. Thus, it is important to maintain flood protection investments and to make protection part of an integrated flood risk reduction approach for entire watersheds. Innovative partnerships are required to develop and finance long-term flood resilience solutions.

Enhance risk awareness and heed flood warnings

Based on the findings from this research, we believe that risk awareness in the UK should be increased. More education and better-targeted warnings are needed to make people aware of the risk. It is vital to know how and when to act if a large event is forecast. The UK’s Environment Agency (EA) and Meteorological Office (Met Office) issue storm and flood warnings. In most cases, these warnings have been adequate and timely. Improvements can be made where losses occurred or where losses were aggravated by the fact that people were not aware that a general warning would apply to them. Some had not signed up for targeted warnings and did not take action to protect themselves or their assets.

Early warning and contingency plans can reduce losses by 40 per cent

Zurich’s post-event investigations show that just a few hours’ warning is sufficient to move a significant portion of sensitive assets out of harm’s way, as our customers’ success stories demonstrate. On average, approximately 40 per cent of losses for building contents can be avoided when early warnings are received. Key to this is being aware of the risk of flooding, preparing a flood contingency and emergency plan, heeding warnings and executing the plan immediately when all indicators show that a flood event is imminent.

Incentivise risk reduction opportunities and build back better

Improvements need to be made to implement ’building-back-better‘ strategies, and reinstatement should also increase resilience. Overarching policies should provide incentives to encourage risk reduction. Current limitations and restrictions – the time needed to make decisions, getting building permits and investment permissions – make it difficult to increase resilience. The difficulty is exacerbated by a short-term focus on cost rather than looking at the long-term financial benefits, and the goal of reducing risk. Every flood loss offers an opportunity to learn and to increase flood resistance and resilience in the future – the opportunity is lost if properties at risk of flooding are just rebuilt as they were, rather than improving them.

Disclaimer: Views expressed on this page and in the reports are not necessarily those of the Zurich Insurance Group, which accepts no responsibility for them.

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