Responding and recovering from Storms Dudley, Eunice and Franklin
Two years on from the devastation caused by the February 2020 floods, the UK faced the onslaught of three named storms in the space of less than a week (16 - 21 February 2022).
Storms Dudley, Eunice and Franklin hit UK shores in quick succession, bringing damaging winds and rain which would lead to widespread disruption in communities right across the country.
The impacts on people, property, livelihoods, and our natural environment have been widespread, and our thoughts are with those affected.
The frequency and ferocity of such weather events are increasingly being considered in the context of climate change, raising significant questions about how we respond to 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 the events and highlights the importance of partnership working to prepare for, respond to and recover from more extreme weather in the future.
Putting the preparations in place
It has certainly been a busy week for Natural Resources Wales and our partners. For the first time since Met Office starting naming storms in 2015, we had three in one week, plus two Red Weather Warnings were issued across the UK – one of which spanned the south Wales Coast - as Storm Eunice encroached on our shores.
In the lead up, for several days previously, we were fully engaged with our colleagues at the Met Office and the Flood Forecasting Centre (FFC), attending briefings and sharing information on potential impacts with the Welsh Government and our partners to ensure swift and appropriate measures were be put into place.
The information they supply to us, and other agencies across the UK is invaluable – particularly when the trajectory and impacts of the storms are as unpredictable as those we experienced last week.
They share detailed, technical data and analysis on the range of possibilities in the forecasts, helping us to make critical decisions related to potential flood and environmental impacts here in Wales.
Their expertise also informs how we communicate potential risks to the public to ensure they can prepare and take the necessary steps to protect themselves from the worst impacts of the storms. As the situation escalated, our excellent spokespeople were 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.
Out on the ground in Wales, our own highly skilled operational teams were checking flood defences in key locations along the coast and inland were in good working order to reduce the flood risk to people and property. Our colleagues who care for and manage the Welsh Government Woodland Estate were also ensuring that our woodlands, trails and visitor centres were braced for the effects, making crucial decisions to close our sites to visitors to ensure their ongoing safety.
Storm Dudley was set to make landfall on Wednesday 16 February, triggering a yellow warning for wind that spread across most of Wales. While its impacts were most significantly felt across the North of the UK, there was some wind damage in Wales, with Capel Curig registering gusts of up to 81mph.
Hot on its heels, Storm Eunice was gathering strength as it tracked across the Atlantic, bringing the threat of extremely high winds and the potential for coastal flooding impacts that would span the entire Welsh coastline.
The Met Office issued two rare Red Warnings for Wind for 18 February, signalling that there would be a ‘danger to life’ for those living in communities that came under the warning area. This included communities along the length of the South Wales coast.
The uncertainty in the timing and location of Eunice’s strongest winds posed significant difficulties when trying to pinpoint potential impacts.
Our land management teams took the crucial decisions to close our visitor centres, walking and mountain bike trails at sites right across Wales, including Coed y Brenin and the Afan Forest. The car park at Llanddwyn Beach on Anglesey was also closed to visitors.
There was the very realistic prospect of the strongest onshore winds and the peak of the storm coinciding with the high tides. This would create a very potent and dangerous mix and could have led to 2 metre plus storm surges and significant flooding to coastal communities.
This eventuality was considered at every turn by our expert forecasting team, recognising the challenge this exceptional scenario posed when trying to pinpoint where exactly that combination would occur.
All the while, we worked with our professional partners to plan for and respond to the weather, chairing and attending multiple strategic and tactical response meetings and working out on the ground to check and erect defences and closing our woodlands, trails and car parks for the safety of staff and visitors.
There was no denying that the message from the Met Office, all levels of government, NRW and our partners was that Storm Eunice had the potential to be one of the most significant storms experienced on UK shores, and the need to prepare effectively was crucial.
The Flood Warning Service operated by NRW is a key component in the flood risk management service we deliver. This free service provides vital information to signed-up customers in areas at risk from flooding from rivers and the sea, giving advance warning and therefore time for people to take action to protect both themselves and their property.
Before Storm Eunice made landfall, because of the significant potential for widespread impacts across the whole Wales coast and the challenges in pinpointing where exactly would see the worst impacts, we made the decision to issue Flood Warnings for all of our coastal flood warning areas – 113 in total – to ensure people had the time to prepare accordingly.
Our forecasting, warning and incident response teams worked tirelessly to deal with a dynamic and ever-changing picture, to interpret the data, make decisions, inform people and take action on the ground.
As high tides passed across Wales during Friday morning, the wave and surge heights followed the best estimates. We were really fortunate though that the surge peak and strongest winds did not coincide with high tides – the margins were extremely close. Had that very realistic prospect materialised, Wales’ coastline would probably have experienced very significant and serious flood impacts. In the event, we thankfully did not see the reasonable worst case projections, and our coastal defences did their job to help protect the communities that lie behind them.
The strong winds resulted in some damage to trees across the woodland estate but the overall impact to our forestry and woodland was minimal. We continue to inspect for damage and make areas safe as required which we always do following periods of bad weather.
No sooner had Storm Eunice moved away from UK shores, Storm Franklin was named, bringing further bands of heavy rain and strong winds to Wales over the weekend – particularly across Mid Wales on the Sunday (20 February).
With the ground already saturated and river levels high, the impact of further rainfall would see rivers reacting quickly and we issued many Flood Warnings for Mid Wales in particular.
Our engagement with Welsh Government, our partners and the public continued as we urged those living in at risk areas to remain vigilant and to be prepared to act if a warning was received.
Large areas of low-lying land in the Severn, Teme, Vyrnwy, Wye and Usk catchments were affected by flood water with reports of around 50 properties
Some areas saw the highest river levels ever recorded – breaking some of the records set during Storm Dennis two years ago.
New record levels were set on the River Severn at Newtown, Llanidloes and Munlyn. On the River Teme at Dutlas and Knighton and on the River Vyrnwy at Meifod. There were also exceptionally high river levels recorded on the River Vyrnwy and the Upper Wye.
Our defences and Flood Warnings
Whilst some people have experienced flooding, our defences, which benefit 73,000 properties, have done their job in reducing the risk for thousands of people. Investments made to these crucial pieces of infrastructure since previous major flood events have significantly improved our resilience and reduced the risk of flooding for the communities behind these defences.
The uncertainty surrounding exactly where the coastal impacts would be greatest and where the heaviest downpours would hit made pinpointing where the most sifnificant impacts would be that much harder. But we did our job and issued alerts and warnings with pace and precision as the storms rolled in.
And the number of warnings and alerts issued over this period were significant. We issued 142 Flood Warnings and 68 Flood Alerts with over 76,550 properties potentially warned.
While it is heartbreaking to hear of the flood impacts experienced, the tireless work of all our staff has allowed us to ensure early action to warn and inform was taken, helping to reduce the impacts for many people.
Our work does not stop after the storms pass. Our teams have been out on the ground checking flood defences for damage and clearing debris, and also checking our nature reserves for damage and forests for windblown trees. We will also be checking our network of walking and mountain bike trails and clearing any obstructions. Some remained closed while this important work gets underway.
Just as we do after every significant incident, we will take stock of the work we did in the lead-up, during and following the storms to see if there are lessons to be learnt and improvements we can make.
From our land managers to our flood risk teams, to everyone working behind the scenes, I am proud to recognise the fantastic work that has been done - and continues to go on - during this challenging period.
Climate change is causing more extreme weather events and we are certain to see more of the types of storms we have seen recently in the future.
Today’s latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) serves as a stark warning of the true scale of the global adaptation and urgent climate resilience needed now if we are to arm ourselves for the climate shocks ahead.
We have to accept that we cannot stop the rain and that some flooding is inevitable. Our message to people is clear - just because flooding hasn't happened to you in the past, it doesn't mean it won't happen in the future.
Flood defences will always be at the heart of managing the nation’s risk, but we all need to adapt to the changing climate. This means making big decisions about how and where we live and work and learning to live with more water - and do so better than ever before.
We need to build or convert properties to be more resilient to flood water, so that people and businesses can bounce back quicker when the waters start to rise.
We’ll also need to be more innovative and look at new approaches to work more effectively with landowners to make space for the huge quantities of water we are seeing during floods.
It is clear though that this is not just about planning for the future, the impacts of climate change are happening now, and the need to adapt to these changes is real and pressing.
What we can all do
We must all adapt the way we live and work as the climate emergency evolves – to learn to live with variations in temperature and more water and to support our communities to become vigilant and more resilient to more frequent extreme weather events.
Advances in the range of services available on our website means that people now have more information at their disposal to take their own preparatory steps. People can now identify their future flood risk simply by entering a postcode. Our website also includes information on what to do before, during and after a flood and how to sign up to NRW’s free flood warning system. Our new Flood Map for Planning also includes information on how climate change will affect flood risk over the next century.
The impact of climate change is something for all of us to tackle as a collective and is an issue that must be tackled without delay.