Learning lessons from the 2007 floods: the final recommendations of the Pitt Review

After ten months, an interim report, and additional flood reviews from government and the insurance industry, the Pitt Review has reached its final conclusions. The Review calls for greater information sharing and understanding of the decisions made in previous emergencies to enable future planners and responders to learn and adapt for the future.

By Jennifer Cole, Editor, RUSI Homeland Security and Resilience Monitor

The recent publication of 'Learning Lessons from the 2007 floods: An independent review by Sir Michael Pitt' (also referred as The Pitt Review) will be rightly welcomed by those directly affected by last summer's events and those who may be at risk from similar events in the future. At more than 500 pages, with detailed chapters on weather prediction; flood mapping and future modelling; the maintenance and management of local drainage systems; flood risk legislation and flood insurance; and the communication of severe weather and flood warnings to emergency services and the public, it is a comprehensive and extremely thorough document which will prove invaluable to those tasked with assessing flood risk, planning flood resilience, responding to flooding events and managing the recovery from serious floods in the future.

The Pitt Review must not, however, be seen 'only' as a document on flooding, read only by those interested in the effects that excessive and unexpected floods can have on our communities. The lessons identified in it need to be learned not only by those who may need to respond to future flooding events: they are relevant to the management of all large scale emergencies and to multi-agency responses in general. Many of the recommendations it makes would relate equally to pandemic flu, storm damage, concurrent terrorist attacks, CBRN incidents or a plethora of other potential threats against which competent emergency managers should be making plans and building resilience.

Many of the problems faced over the summer of 2007 could have been caused by any one of the scenarios listed above. In a large number of cases, as the Review's ninety-two recommendations make explicit, problems were caused or exacerbated by the absence of clear leadership and/or by a lack of clear guidance and advice from central government. A deficiency of national or upper-tier local authority co-ordination – with no way for actions to be implemented or managed across more than one area – led to confusion, uncertainty, delays and inefficiency. This confusion needs to be addressed as soon as possible, before similar uncertainties cause comparable confusion in other emergency situations. The Review points to the need for a visible, easily recognisable, single leader (23.10) to reassure the public and give the impression, at least, that everything is under control. Advice given out to both the public and the emergency responders needs to come from a single, centralised, non-conflicting source.

The Review is rightly damning of the clarity of information available during the 2007 floods, which in many cases is describes as 'uncoordinated', 'unclear' and 'conflicting'. There was confusion over health advice (ES.113) and severe weather/flood warnings (10.21) as information that was given out by multiple sources often conflicted with each other. Responsibility for drainage assets was unclear (3.32) and there was an equal lack of clarity over which organisation(s) were responsible for surface flooding or for carrying out and coordinating inland flood rescue (11.33). A lack of awareness of which organisations may be able to help (11.45) and confusion over whether, and in what way, they were qualified (11.67) also hindered the response. In general, there was a lack of understanding of the potential role of the voluntary sector, leading to, ‘patchy integration’, a point also raised in the Emergency Response report published by RUSI in February 2008. The lack of pre-arranged mutual aid agreements (11.28-11.31) caused difficulties, while data on the impact and effect of the floods was ‘fragmented and replicated', with conflicting figures being given by the Environment Agency, the Cabinet Office and other central government departments. The responsibilities of the owners and operators of those sections of the critical national infrastructure which lie within the private sector are also uncoordinated and confusing. All of these might be made clearer and better harmonised by a more centralised, national approach.

In many areas, recommendations call for more robust, national, permanent structures and for more, centralised, national advice. The Review suggests that in the case of flooding, the answer is a clear lead agency – Defra, with the recovery phase handed over to the Department for Communities and Local Government (26.7). In addition, and relevant to any emergency, the creation of a National Resilience Forum would ‘give the kind of multi-agency strategic oversight that we believe is necessary to make the recommendations in this Report work’ (ES.133). The Review calls for a fully-funded national capability for flood rescue, with Fire and Rescue Authorities playing a leading role (R.39) and also highlights the need to plug the existing information gap between security threats and natural disasters to the CNI, caused by the CPNI's focus on counter-terrorism only.

Also addressed is the question of how much, and to what extent, the public can and should be expected to help themselves, with a recommendation that the Government should establish a programme to support and encourage individuals to be better prepared and more self-sufficient during emergencies (R. 70).

Learning from Experience

Too many of the lessons identified in 2007 were not new. Most have been noted before. They echo from and draw parallels with similar issues identified from the response to Hurricane Katrina and, closer to home, the North Cornwall floods of 2004.

People need to learn from others' mistakes as well as their own if they are to avoid repeating them out of ignorance. Donald Rumsfeld's much-maligned unknown unknowns play a vitally important role in resilience planning; these are only discovered by experience – but this may well be the experience of others.

Perhaps the Review's most important recommendation comes toward the end, in paragraph 26.27, which states that responders' experience is valuable and should be captured and shared with others in the immediate aftermath of an emergency. It recommends (R. 79) that Government Offices, in conjunction with the Local Government Association, should develop arrangements to provide advice and support from experienced organisations. An annual summary should be prepared, and made publicly available, of actions taken locally to manage flood risk and to implement the recommendations of the Review (R.91). This, like so much else in the Review is pertinent to the management of any emergency, not just to flooding. Only by sharing and understanding the decisions made and actions taken in previous emergencies will planners and responders be able to learn from them. The most important lesson from the Pitt Review should be this: most of what was learned last summer does not only relate to floods.

Jennifer Cole, Editor, RUSI Homeland Security and Resilience Monitor
Homeland Security and Resilience Department

A longer version of this commentary will appear in the October issue of RUSI's Homeland Security and Resilience Monitor.

Further Reading

Emergency Response and Civil Defence Workshop Report

Interview with Hugh Fogarty, RNLI

Jennifer Cole

Associate Fellow

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