An fliuch mor

Writing in the aftermath of the 2009 floods, I warned that flood and emergency management needed an overhaul lest the waters return. I prefer to be wrong.

The economic damage of the 2011 floods will probably be smaller than in 2009. But this time, two people died. Ciaran Jones was a hero who put himself in harm’s way to help others. Cecilia de Jesus drowned in her home. Why is there no gauge on the Poddle linked to an evacuation alarm?

Flood management is about the prevention of floods. No flood management system is perfect, so emergency management is needed to manage the residual risk. Last Monday, both flood and emergency management failed Dublin.

Ireland is behind schedule to meet its EU obligations to assess flood risks and develop management plans. But why do we need the EU to tell us to protect our property and life? Flood protection design standards are low compared to other countries, and once-in-fifty-year defenses are breached remarkably often. Cities abroad are working hard to create retention basins and drainage channels for storm water. Dublin, a spacious and green city by comparison, has not done so.

Preliminary analysis by Met Eireann shows that the rainfall of the 24th October in Dublin was not unprecedented. More rain fell on 11th June 1963 and on 11th June 1993. A city like Dublin should be robust to events like that.

People have short memories, and politicians even shorter. After each flood, there is a call for better protection. That fades as the waters retract. Priorities change. The recent protest against the Clontarf flood defenses is a good example.

Last Monday also say failures in emergency management. Met Eireann issued a severe weather warning on Saturday. It was not accurate but extreme rainfall is fiendishly hard to predict. The warnings were actually fairly close to what came to pass. But while we have a tried and tested system for real-time weather prediction, we do not have a system that tells us where the water is likely to go once it has hit the ground. In fact, there are few gauges on rivers and streams. For instance, the OPW collection of hydrometric data omits the rivers Dodder, Poddle and Slang, where most of the mayhem was concentrated. The gauges that are there, are not linked to an early warning system.

A gauge on the Poddle would have warned that the water was rising dangerously high. The alarm could have been raised in Harold’s Cross. Celia may have had a chance with a few minutes warning.

A number of county councils now use MapAlerter, a service that sends out email and SMS messages to everybody in a particular area in case of emergency. Dublin does not use this system or any other.

Met Eireann issued a severe weather warning on Saturday. 48 hours later, the keys to flood gates and sand bags were still missing. That is just not good enough. Local flooding occurred to the untrained eye around 5 pm. The weather radar showed more rain coming. The emergency plan was invoked at 9 pm only, less than one-and-a-half hour before high tide. Why so late?

Water moves fast and with force. You have to act before the flood barrier breaks. In 2011, as in 2009, emergency workers followed the water. They did all they could, but there is little that can be done at that stage. Barriers need to be reinforced before they break. People need to be evacuated before the water reaches them.

In Cork and elsewhere, locals have done much to prevent a recurrence of the awful events of 2009. The national government has been less forthcoming. Dublin did not learn from what happened in Cork. The response to the 2009 floods was hampered by the Byzantine structure of flood management at the national level. The 2011 floods were local, and the line of command clear.

And now? Media attention will wane. There will be a few angry debates in the councils and the Dail. We will wonder why a shopping centre was build in a flood plain. We will wring our hands about the lack of accountability in the civil service. A committee will investigate and make sensible recommendations that will be ignored. Instead of waiting for those wise words, it is obvious what needs to done and now is the time to do it.

Early warning systems need to be put in place as a matter of urgency. That is fairly cheap and does not require intrusive intervention to awake the NIMBYs. The government should stop dragging its feet on the catchment flood risk assessment and management programme. Real-time hydrological prediction models must be developed, and not just for fluvial floods.

All this costs money. But Science Foundation Ireland has a large budget, not all of which is spent wisely. Let it fund the best hydrologists in the world to study Ireland. There are harebrained government subsidies in the areas of energy, transport, sport and what not that can be transferred to flood management without any great loss except to the cronies of governments past.

Heavy rains are inevitable. Flood damage is not.


In Nov and Dec 2009, Ireland was hit by extensive floods. Last night, there were floods in Dublin. The damage is probably smaller, but this time a life seems to have been lost.

After the 2009 floods, a number of deficiencies in flood control and emergency management were noted. See Hickey (behind paywall), Oireachtas, Tol. However, as I noted last year, this was not translated into action. More money has been allocated to flood control, but the institutional structures that failed in 2009 have been left unreformed.

In 2009, there were issues with emergency management too. They showed up again last night. There was local flooding from five o’clock onwards, and more rain predicted, but the emergency plan was not invoked until nine o’clock, when river banks had already been burst and with less than one-and-a-half hour to go till high tide. Warnings to the public were late, and little information was provided about what to expect where and when. Twitter was the best source of information, although facts were freely mixed with spoofs, jokes, and bitter disputes about the correct spelling of fliuch.

After the 2009 floods, a number of conferences were organized with speakers from Great Britain on the state of the art in the urban management of pluvial floods. No lessons seem to have been learned.

Anticipation is key in emergency management. If you know where the water will go next, you can move people, goods, and traffic out of harm’s way before damage is done. If all you can do is react, chaos will ensue and damages are unnecessarily high.

Floods, repeated

There has been a trickle of news on flood management (or lack thereof).

The Examiner has an op-ed by Minister Gormley, in which he claims that his only role is to provide money. The Oireachtas report (discussed here) notes institutional failures and a lack of leadership. Hickey reached the same conclusion (see here). Others have noted a lack of progress (here, here, here, here), although there are some positive, private developments (e.g., a flood alert system).

Flood management is one of those areas in which the authorities should take the lead — but different priorities were set.

Oireachtas report on November floods

The Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Environment etc published a report on the November floods while I was on holiday. It is interesting both for what it says and does not say.

The report is clear about responsibilities: There are too many agencies involved, and no one took the lead. The report argues that the Minister of the Environment should take charge.

The committee also laments the role played by the ESB, and underlines that perhaps it should have been involved in Cork’s flood management.

The report has a little gem: “The ESB made the point that they issued two warnings on Thursday, 19th November, which was unique. However, the significance of the two notifications wasn’t appreciated by the general public.” Perhaps that is because the general public did not understand that “higher than 300 m3/s” really meant 535 m3/s. Along the same lines, ESB apparently told the Lee Waterworks at 22:10 that 450 m3/s was being released, while the actual release had reached 546 m3/s by 21:50. The report does not make much of this, but it does call for further investigations.

The report is silent on a number of things. It avoids questions of liability. It calls on the OPW to develop a flood warning system, but omits that crucial data are off-limits to the OPW and that the data exchange between Met Eireann and OPW is not perfect either. The report acknowledges that there too many agencies involved, but it does not name those that should be relieved from their duties.

The list of invitees to the hearings is interesting too: Only insiders were heard. Not at single independent expert was invited.

Keynes and floods

Floods do a lot of damage.

Floods also harm production, but Ireland has overcapacity at the moment. Flood repairs are labour-intensive, and a lot of stuff will need to be replaced. This will partly be paid for by the insurance companies, who will in turn get their money back from international reinsurers. Affected households will also tap their savings.

Flood restoration thus stimulates demand.

We don’t want floods. But if we must have floods, and if we could time floods, we would have them in the depths of a recession.

This is no consolation for those affected.

See also the Irish Times