Preparing for and responding to the autumn-winter storms

Wales has certainly endured a particularly wet and windy autumn and winter period. Since the arrival of Storm Agnes in September - the first named storm of the 2023/24 season - the UK has now felt the force of 10 named storms to date.

The frequency and ferocity of such weather events are increasingly being considered in the context of the climate emergency, triggering important discussions about how we prepare for such incidents now and how we must adapt to what the future will bring.

Jeremy Parr, Head of Flood and Incident Risk Management at Natural Resources Wales (NRW) reflects upon these events and how our teams work with partners and communities to prepare for, respond to and recover from more frequent extreme weather.

From our warning and informing teams to our operational teams on the ground, preparing for and responding to the extreme weather events we have seen over the autumn and winter period has meant an exceptionally busy period for NRW.

Storm Jocelyn, which hit UK shores in January, was the 10th named storm to hit the UK this season. It marked the earliest the country has hit the letter J in the Met Office’s alphabetical naming system since it was introduced in 2015-16, when 11 storms were named in total. With this current season not due to end until late August, there is a real possibility that the 2015-16 record for named storms could be broken in the weeks and months to come.

The storms and their impacts

Many of the storms we’ve experienced this autumn-winter have arrived in quick succession, bringing strong winds and extensive rainfall which has saturated the land and topped up already swollen rivers.

Storms Babet and Ciarán, which impacted communities across Wales in October and November respectively, led to the issuing of a combined total of 185 flood alerts, 60 flood warnings and two severe flood warnings.

Approximately 160 properties across Conwy, Flintshire, Wrexham and Powys reported flooding during Storm Babet and several more during Storm Ciarán in Pembrokeshire, Carmarthenshire, Neath Port Talbot and Wrexham. In addition, there was yellow weather warning for heavy rain in between the storms which led to a further 26 properties flooding in Carmarthenshire.

Our thoughts are with those impacted by these, and any other flood events over recent months.

The unsettled period continued into December as Storm Elin was quickly followed by Storm Fergus.

Gerrit and Henk arrived over the festive period, bringing the total number of flood alerts issued in December to 145 and flood warnings to 23. It certainly was more of a case of a wet Christmas rather than a white Christmas.

At the turn of the New Year, Storm Henk’s damaging winds and heavy rain lead to flooding in some of our communities and severe disruption for many people. We issued 40 flood alerts, 30 flood warnings and 1 severe flood warning as the River Ritec in Tenby broke its second river level record in three months. Initial indications were that around 40 properties flooded as a result of Storms Gerrit and Henk.

Putting the preparations in place

In the lead up to any significant rainfall event, we engage with our colleagues at the Met Office and the Flood Forecasting Centre (FFC) by producing the Flood Guidance Statement for partner organisations and share a version of this through the 5-day flood risk forecast for Wales on our website. We also attend briefings and share information on potential impacts with the Welsh Government and our partners to ensure swift and appropriate measures are put into place as required.

This collaborative working with the Met Office and FFC is invaluable – particularly when the trajectory and impacts of the storms are as unpredictable as some of those we’ve experienced over recent months.

Before, during and after the rain comes, our teams will also be working 24/7 carrying out inspections and maintenance work on our network of flood defences to make sure everything is in good working order and the defences can do their job.  We also make sure our nature reserves and our miles of walking and mountain bike trails are safe for the public.

While several rivers reached worryingly high – and sometimes record-breaking - levels during the storms, our network of flood defences – which benefit 73,000 properties across Wales – and our dedicated colleagues did their job in helping to reduce the risk for thousands of people.

Our forecasting also relies on information from our network of river and rain gauges, which are looked after by our hydrometry and telemetry teams.  Their expertise also informs how we communicate potential risks to the public. Our colleagues have regularly featured on national and regional media outlets, warning and informing listeners and viewers on the evolving risks and what they needed to do to ensure their own safety and that of their loved ones. We also engage those directly at risk of flooding across Wales through social media, including the community flood volunteer network who help their communities be better prepared and take effective action during and after flooding.

A key component of our flood risk management work is our free Flood Warning Service, which provides vital information to signed-up customers in areas at risk from flooding from rivers and the sea. It provides those registered with advance warning (via email, text or voice call) and the time needed for them to take action to reduce the impact both on themselves and their property if flooding is expected.

Anyone can check if they are at flood risk via the postcode checker on our website. If that area is covered by our flood warning service for river and coastal flooding, then you can sign up to receive warningsvia our website or by calling Floodline  0345 988 1188, Type talk: 0345 602 6340

All catchments and coastlines in Wales are covered by the Flood Alert service and our Flood Warning Service covers around 60% of the properties at risk of flooding from main rivers or the sea in Wales.  We are continually working to improve this service and encourage everyone to check their flood risk by postcode and sign up to our flood warning service if they are at risk.

Reducing and adapting to future flood risk

But while we have seen some property flooding and the devastating impacts this has had, Wales has so far escaped the severe and widespread impacts that have been seen in Scotland and England. But it has been a pretty close call at times and if just one storm had brought more rainfall to Wales, it would have been much worse as catchments have been saturated leaving further rainfall nowhere else to go but rapidly running off the land and into watercourses and rivers.

The prolonged period of wet weather has meant rivers are particularly responsive. If one rainfall event had been more significant, we could well have seen a repeat of the devastating flooding experienced in February 2020 when more than 3,000 properties flooded across Wales. Thankfully, this has not yet been the case.

It does, however, bring to the forefront of minds the need to continue the national conversation about how Wales prepares itself for more frequent and more extreme flood events in the face of a changing climate.

It is undeniable that we will see more severe weather events and flooding in future. Rainfall is getting more intense, and we can expect more severe flooding throughout the year, not just in autumn or winter. How we collectively adapt to these challenging occurrences needs constant consideration to ensure we are able to manage the threat posed.

Future investment

We know that stopping or preventing all flooding is not possible, but we are taking steps to build resilience to such weather events.

The Welsh Government has allocated over £75m in Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management in Wales, which is the highest ever annual spend on flood risk management in Wales to date. And we are working solidly with our partners to deliver a programme of work to benefit communities around Wales.

Yet heavier and more frequent rainfall is likely to result in greater impacts from flooding. We need to be prepared, making sure our decisions, operations and advice is underpinned by sound and quality-assured science and evidence.

Our latest report looks at the level of investment required in flood defences to manage Wales’ future flood risk from rivers and the sea against the backdrop of a changing climate over the next century

The report underlines that, while maintaining and investing in flood defences to keep pace with climate change has a large part to play in reducing the risk to communities in Wales, they cannot be the sole focus, and Wales will need to be ambitious and look at a range of ways to work holistically to manage the increasing risk.

There is no denying that climate change is happening now, and we are seeing the evidence all around us.

With a few more weeks left of winter, it is likely that we may indeed see another storm and I would urge people to check the information we have on our website at Natural Resources Wales / Flooding about flooding.  The information includes advice and action on what individuals and communities can do to help themselves lessen the impacts from flooding. 


We also have a 10-part podcast series which provides more information about how NRW manages flood risk in Wales, looking at a range of topics including coastal adaptation, flood forecasting and the management of flood defences. 

We will not be able to stop all flooding, but we in NRW are working hard to take action to lessen its impact.  Communities and individuals also have a key role themselves, and we encourage you to find out to more through our website or podcasts.

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