Coordinating action during a flooding crisis

The rescue operation, which lasted only a few days, followed by the much-longer recovery stage, have been managed largely by local authorities – Lincolnshire County Council and Boston Borough Council, both supported by partner agencies such as fire and rescue and police and a huge army of willing volunteers.
Staff are still dealing with flood-related issues, but have returned to business as usual. A debrief session with partners such as the county council, Environment Agency, police, fire and rescue, internal drainage boards and volunteers has been held to assess the response to the incident. Frank discussions about what went well and what didn’t have been held and an action plan to better prepare for the future based on this experience is being formulated.
As well as businesses and homes, out of town farm land was flooded. At Jubilee Bank, Friskney, up to 600 acres was under water – crops destroyed and land out of action in terms of winter and spring planting plans –  plus 74 acres at Old Leake. Local nature reserves were affected with seal pup losses in some of the breeding areas. Saltwater inundation into freshwater local reserves will lead to some ecological impacts and habitat loss – recovery will take time.
Lessons learned, some peculiar to Boston, include the need for improved communication channels with non-English speaking residents and advance arrangements for an immediate volunteer response.

Crisis response
Boston, sited in low-lying fenland close to the Wash marshes, is no stranger to flood, but the December 5 incident will go down in the record books as one of the worst in terms of depth of water. No one died, but it was clear a human tragedy was unfolding as the numbers of affected properties became known. What then began to happen revealed Boston at its best, as the town united in an effort to deal with the flood aftermath. Example after example came in of neighbours helping neighbours and strangers coming to the assistance of those worst affected.
The flood had been anticipated and warnings were issued – by radio, television and through social media channels, and personally to all those who had signed up for Environment Agency flood warnings. The borough council also hand delivered warning notices written in English, Polish, Russian, Latvian and Portuguese. Salt water in The Haven came over the river bank and, in some cases, flood defences built on top of the river banks. A combination of an exceptional high tide, gales and low air pressure caused sea levels in the North Sea and The Wash to swell.
The volume, weight and force of water burst through the sea defences, crushed walls in town and even squeezed its way through the feet-thick masonry at the famous Boston Stump (St Botolph’s Church).

Emergency services evacuated the worst-hit areas, rescuing people and their pets where they had taken refuge in upstairs rooms. Some were floated down their streets to safety in inflatable boats.

Ensuring citizens’ safety
At its worst the flood waters reached a depth of around four feet – although some low-lying areas, such as the cellars beneath the Stump, had as much as 12 feet of water in them.
The water overtopped the river banks and ran through the town, almost taking on a life of its own as it flowed into lower-lying areas. In some cases it went as quickly as it appeared, but left in its wake homes filled with filthy, contaminated water as sewers overflowed. Losses on ground floors in many properties were total, and it would later transpire that many had no contents insurance.
First priorities were to ensure everyone was safe and everyone was accounted for – a monumental task given that 55 streets had been flooded. Boston Borough Council staff, with support from emergency services and volunteers, visited 948 properties. In the first few days the needs during the emergency of the occupants of all those properties was assessed.
In 23 cases people vulnerable through age, health, pregnancy, with responsibility for children or having no utilities received high-priority aid. A further 49 were assessed as medium risk and were supported. In 25 properties, despite being visited as many as ten times, no answer could be obtained, but police confirmed no people were at risk in these properties.
Boston Borough Council’s Municipal Buildings offices in West Street became the centre of the recovery operation with staff redeployed and working extra hours to deal with personal callers asking for help and advice. Dedicated phone lines were brought into use.

Handling the aftermath
The town’s drainage infrastructure stood up to the test and the flood waters soon disappeared from the streets, leaving behind silt and debris. A priority for the borough council was to clean up. Residents were told that any flood-damaged items they wanted to dispose of could be left outside their homes and the council would continuously tour with refuse freighters until all flood-damaged items were removed.
Neighbouring South Holland District Council assisted with this. Furniture piled up in the streets. Residents were constantly reminded to be sure they had met insurance obligations before disposing of anything. To date around 355 tonnes of damaged items have been lifted off Boston’s streets.
Social media came into its own and was the first time these communication channels had been used in this area in an emergency Two groups of volunteers sprang up – the Get Boston Back On Its Feet group quickly mobilising volunteers to get soggy carpets and furniture out of houses so that the long drying process could begin. This group set up its own fundraising campaign and has begun taking applications from people requiring help to purchase carpets and white goods for their homes.

Community spirit
There has been a fantastic community spirit and councillors, some whose own homes were flooded, rallied volunteers on the night of the flood and the next day to help people affected by the deluge. The flood clean-up was hampered when Boston’s household waste site was closed when part of the access road was swept away. The site itself was also hit by flood water causing disruption.
The damage to the only road in and out was substantial and residents wanting to take care of their own damaged goods disposal had to be redirected to tips at neighbouring Spalding and Skegness. This damage was among the most dramatic and necessitated repairs using thousands of tonnes of material and Environment Agency contractors working 14-hour days under floodlights. At one stage even a helicopter was involved in the repair operation.The road was repaired and the site opened for normal business 12 days after the flood hit.
Boston Food Bank operated its flood relief operation from Zion Methodist Church. Extra food was donated by the public, shops and supermarkets. Boston Borough Council issued white flood food vouchers to be exchanged for food parcels at the church.
Boston’s Dunkirk spirit was praised by Owen Patterson, Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, when he toured some of the worst flood-hit areas on Saturday, December 7. He met home owners and shop keepers rallying round with help from friends and neighbours to rescue their properties from the ravages of the disaster.
Alan Hardwick, Lincolnshire’s Police and Crime Commissioner praised the flood recovery response from Boston Borough Council, saying: “I have been so impressed by the council and all the emergency services. This is one of the best examples of inter-agency co-operation that I have ever seen. They plan for this sort of thing, but it has been theory up until now. Putting those plans into place has worked incredibly well.”

Government assistance
With more exceptional high tides predicted the Environment Agency put some precautionary defences in place where flood walls had been damaged.The flood led to a massive uptake in people registering for Environment Agency flood warnings. Work continues in Boston to rebuild damaged flood defences.
In the light of Prime Minister David Cameron’s recent “money no object” statement, Boston Borough Council is hopeful of a positive response from Government when its bid for flood recovery funding is considered. It will take the Prime Minister at his word and will ask for as much money as it can, not just for council expenses but so we can help those affected by the flooding – such as a council tax “holiday” – and other partner agencies who have been put to expense, such as the internal drainage boards.

Further information