Barbara Young, chief executive of the Environment Agency at the time, described how narrow the escape had been.
“The flooding event in East Anglia came within a whisker of widespread flooding, with tides in Great Yarmouth the highest since 1953,” she says. “Only luck saved us from a disaster.”
“We dodged a bullet in 2007,” says British Minister of Wildlife Richard Benyon, the minister with responsibility for flooding.
Since then, the country has seen more deluges, from the 2009 torrents in Cockermouth to last year’s flash floods that struck all over the UK, and that overwhelmed more than 8,000 homes and businesses after one of the wettest years on record. The warning is very clear — another flood as serious as 1953 is not only possible, but likely. Flooding is the UK’s second-highest natural disaster risk, after a flu pandemic, according to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. In the next two decades, more than 600,000 homes will be at serious risk, yet last year spending on new flood defenses fell to ￡259 million (US$407.5 million) from ￡354 million. Lord Krebs, a government adviser on climate change, warns that the gap between what needs to be spent and what is being spent is approaching ￡1 billion.
Just as alarming are the failures of the UK’s commercial sector to face up to the increased flooding risk. Today’s infrastructure — power grids, water and sewage pipes, mobile phone masts, roads and railways — is more complex than ever, and we are more reliant on it. In 2007, nearly half a million people were left without drinking water for days and more than 50,000 without electricity as water networks were overwhelmed and an electricity substation at Castle Mead nearly inundated. We know that flooding devastates. We know that, because of climate change, flooding is more likely than ever. So why are we doing so badly?
The Met Office in Exeter, southwest England, operates one of the world’s foremost research centers on climate change, running complex computer models to predict the consequences of global warming. Vicky Pope, a founding member of the center, is quite clear on the likely impact on the UK’s weather.
“Flooding is the real risk. We are seeing rainfall patterns changing, heavier rainfall coming in strong bursts,” she said.
Coastal storm surges are also an increased risk. Sea-level rises mean waves are more likely to breach sea defenses. As we warm the Earth, we are, in effect, putting more energy into the atmosphere. That makes storms more powerful and may make them more frequent.
“Floods that occur once in 100 years on the UK’s east coast today may happen once every 10 years by the end of the century,” the Met Office has warned.
As Hurricane Sandy proved in New York last year, when such powerful tempests strike major cities, their destructive power is immense. Sandy is estimated to have cost US$80 billion.
When our modern infrastructure falters, social chaos and breakdown can soon follow — as was vividly demonstrated after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005. An often-quoted estimate is that we are just four foodless days away from anarchy and a few days of electricity blackout away from widespread looting.