By Nicola Howe
While natural hazards are inevitable, their impact on any given community is not. This is the thrust of the #NoNaturalDisasters campaign.
There’s a truth behind the hashtag. Modern societies are increasingly capable of determining their resilience to natural hazards. We nowadays know enough to prevent extreme weather events from escalating into full-blown disasters. In developed nations, sophisticated forecasting systems, social media networks and engineering capabilities can make any weather-related death seem like pure bad luck.
So, if it’s all down to chance, no particular group in society should be at higher risk. The truth, however, is rather different.
Aged Defenses and Aged Communities
On February 28, 2010, at 2 a.m., Cyclone Xynthia pushed a destructive surge onto the French Atlantic coast, devastating the town of La Faute-sur-Mer. Twenty-nine residents lost their lives. Over 70 percent of the fatalities were aged over 60. Almost all of them resided in bungalows built in the flood plain, protected only by defenses dating back to the Napoleonic era.
Are such disasters inevitable? Or can they all be avoided, as the hashtag suggests?
Half a century earlier, the United Kingdom experienced its own devastating coastal surge event – the famous North Sea Flood of 1953. Like Cyclone Xynthia, the storm surge hit overnight, early on a Sunday, as people slept in their beds. A storm tide of more than 5.6 meters (18 feet) ravaged the east coasts of England and Scotland. Over 300 people were killed in the U.K alone. Belgium and the Netherlands bore the brunt of the impact, though, with more than 1,800 fatalities.
Data collected in the U.K. after the event showed that Jaywick, a small seaside village on England’s Essex coast, had the highest proportional death rate, with 36 out of 700 residents losing their lives. Over 80 percent of the fatalities were aged over 60. Of the remaining victims, two were reportedly disabled and one was a woman in the advanced stages of pregnancy.
Canvey Island – a retirement hot spot further down the coast towards the Thames Estuary – was another location where fatalities were concentrated. Sea defenses failed. Several cheaply built single-story retirement homes collapsed. Almost 60 residents died.
Canvey Island in Essex, England, during the North Sea Floods in February 1953. Image credit: Wikimedia
Learning Faster from Disaster
After the 1953 event, the U.K. took a much more sophisticated approach to flood risk management. This led to a major upgrade of the coastal defence network (including the eventual construction of the Thames Barrier), the development of a storm-surge prediction system by the Proudman Laboratory in Liverpool and continuing coastal research to inform the regional Environment Agencies.
However, despite over half a century of research and investment, an inequality in social vulnerability to flood risk in the U.K. remains. The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, in collaboration with the University of Manchester, mapped the Flood Disadvantage – the combination of flood exposure and social vulnerability factors.
The key finding: the U.K. Government needs to do a better job of addressing social vulnerability in its flood protection investments.
Factors of Flood Disadvantage
Social vulnerability to flood is caused by personal factors, social factors and environmental factors. As highlighted in both the 1953 flood and Cyclone Xynthia, personal factors, such as age and health, significantly increase fatalities in coastal floods. Also evident is the impact of so-called environmental factors, such as poorly constructed, one-story homes behind inadequate defences. Social factors, such as income, mobility, isolation and access to insurance, are significant drivers of peoples’ adaptive capacity, influencing their ability to act before, during and after an event.
For many U.K. coastal communities, vulnerability due to these factors is actually increasing. A general trend of youth outmigration coupled with inward migration of older people and an overreliance on tourism leads to high numbers of both retirees and benefit claimants with low incomes. Transient populations lacking local knowledge may also be less aware of flood risks. Aligning expenditure on flood protection with areas of significant Flood Disadvantage has, therefore, become increasingly important.
In the aftermath of Cyclone Xynthia, the French Government produced a plan to upgrade their flood risk management. Initiatives included decreasing the number of homes in high risk flood zones, strengthening coastal defences, raising awareness of flood risks and improving forecasting. This was undoubtedly a positive move and has reduced disaster risk.
However, unless social vulnerability is considered when risk is modelled and funding is allocated, it seems likely that the inequality faced by disadvantaged social groups to flood risk will remain. The concept of Flood Disadvantage, appropriately applied with the relevant local social vulnerability factors, can help to prevent future natural hazards from becoming disasters. By layering socioeconomic data over cat model results, we can better characterize a community’s resilience profile, better prioritize investments in resilience and come closer to delivering on the promise of #NoNaturalDisasters.