6.3 How to involve the public in times of flooding?

Citizens and companies are often insufficiently prepared for floods. They often do not know what to do which sometimes leads to wrong decisions with potentially fatal consequences. For example, in the French Riviera flooding in October 2015, citizens died trying to save their cars from their subterranean garages. People need to know if they should stay in their homes, should leave the area (horizontal evacuation), or go to a local safe zone such as a high shelter (vertical evacuation). This can be communicated during an event, but this communication is far more effective when people already have a general awareness of what to do in case of a flood. It is a common challenge to keep awareness levels high, also in long periods without a flood event. Such periods occur more often in countries with defence systems designed according to high safety standards.

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Mobilisation of citizens requires clear communication of the event that is taking place, its impact and what options to take action citizens and companies have. Another challenge that came out of the research is that government need to be careful in how they present information on what to do, as they may be held accountable for giving wrong information to citizens.

Recently, the Dutch government has placed more effort in risk communication. The message to citizens is that even though there is good flood protection in place, there is also a small residual risk and people should know what to do in case of a flood. This is facilitated through national, regional and local awareness raising campaigns, informative websites (www.overstroomik.nl, see §6.3.4) and training exercises (as required under the Water Act). Similar arrangements exist in the other STAR-FLOOD countries.

Volunteers may also help to save others by executing emergency measures like placing sand bags or assisting in the evacuation. In England public participation is highly formalised and embedded within flood risk management, as described in §6.3.1. Also in Poland community preparedness activities are emerging. Public participation takes place via the voluntary fire brigades and the Flood Leaders programme in the city of Wroclaw (see §6.3.2). In the Netherlands, so-called ‘dike armies’ (comprised of citizens) have a long tradition and are growing in importance. Also in France citizens in the Fire Brigade play an important role in disaster management, as the majority of the personnel are volunteers.

6.3.1 Community Flood Action Plans and Flood Wardens: England

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Community engagement is highly established in England. For example, community flood action groups are established by members of the public. They typically work in partnership with local authorities and the Environment Agency, as well as the National Flood Forum (a registered charity) (see also §6.2.1). In an effort to enhance preparedness at the community scale, community flood action plans are developed, with supporting guidance provided by the Environment Agency (2012) and Cabinet Office (2011). Voluntary-based community flood wardens are established in some areas to facilitate communication of official warning messages.

An opt-out flood warning service also exists between the Environment Agency and telecommunication providers. At the local scale, members of the community may act as flood wardens (in agreement with the Environment Agency and community itself), providing a local source of flood information, ensuring warnings reach vulnerable groups and assisting in response efforts (STAR-FLOOD Deliverable 3.3, see §8.2.1).

6.3.2 Firefighters, volunteers and Local Leaders: Poland

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In Poland a lot of voluntary and non-voluntary firefighters are active in times of flooding. The Voluntary Fire Brigade has a ca. 100 year-long tradition and currently consists of 4000 operational bodies and 16.000 voluntary fire fighters brigades recruited from local inhabitants and financed on the local level from municipal budgets.

The professional and voluntary fire-fighters carry out regular flood event exercises in order to prepare for possible flood events and to optimise their response. They do both on-field and desktop exercises, covering different types of responses to different flood scenarios. These exercises also involve local crisis management authorities, representatives of local communities and municipal authorities. They are organized on regional and local level. As a consequence of these exercises, all involved actors are well prepared in case a real flood event.

Local and regional crisis management boards utilize volunteers in order to minimize flood damage and efficiently involve the local community. Among the organisations involved on local level are; Scouts, voluntary water rescue patrols etc. The local and regional crisis management boards supervise volunteers during the flood events.

There are also sporadic examples of good practice at the sub-national scale. For example, the City of Wroclaw established a Flood Leaders programme in 2007, as a means of accessing the local knowledge held by key individuals within the community, and facilitating effective response during flood events (STAR-FLOOD Deliverable3.6, see §8.2.1).

6.3.3 Booklet to inform on flood risks and evacuation perspectives: Sweden

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The big electricity dams of the Luleå River were built around the 1960’s. In case of a dam failure the river would flood hundreds of kilometres downstream of the dam and large areas of the cities Boden and Luleå would lie several meters under water.

Flood risks associated with a dam failure are among the most known risks in Sweden. They have been addressed in policies for a long time. Still, in the perspective of many citizens, hydropower dams are considered to be safe and any improbable failure would happen slowly.

In order to improve the risk perception of citizens, in 2012 a booklet was provided to every household in Luleå and Boden (53,000). The booklet informs about the risks of dam failure, evacuation routes, and meeting points in different cities. It also gives information on the time between a dam breach and the moment that the water will reach the place of interest.

However, providing a booklet once is not generally sufficient. In order to make sure the message will be received, it has to be distributed over and over again with certain intervals, and should preferably be combined with communication via other means such as television, social networks, internet, newspapers and street promotion. This increases the awareness of people of the risk of flooding and other natural disasters and what to do in case of a disaster (STAR-FLOOD Deliverable 3.5, see §8.2.1).

6.3.4 Website ‘Should I stay or should I go’: the Netherlands

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Until recently, in the Netherlands very little information was provided to citizens regarding flood risks and actions that people can take. Research shows that citizens have very low levels of awareness regarding floods as protection levels are high. General perception is that the government will take care of people, while in fact the government has limited powers in case of an emergency situation. Recently, especially after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, more attention has been given to consequence-managing measures. A publicity campaign was started to better inform citizens on their local situation regarding possible floods.

To inform citizens on what actions they can take in case of a flood, a webpage has been designed. The website, www.overstroomik.nl, provides specific information per postal code area on the risk of flooding, consequences of flooding (e.g. maximum water depths) and advice on what to do in case of a flood and how to prepare (e.g., take blankets, drinking water, food, radio and medication). The question ‘should I stay, or should I go’ is prominent on many locations in the Netherlands. Vertical evacuation – such as moving to the higher floors of buildings – can result in less casualties than horizontal evacuation in certain circumstances. This is also a relevant option in many other low-lying countries and regions, where the road network is also at risk of flooding (STAR-FLOOD Deliverable 3.2, see §8.2.1).