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LONDON -- Damage resulting from Britain's Easter flooding, some of the worst on record, was exacerbated by poor flood warning, defense and response systems, according to a report on the disaster.

The report calls for the U.K. Environment Agency, which has responsibility for public flood prevention and planning in England and Wales, to improve its flood risk management techniques.

U.K. insurers and risk managers support the call for action by the independent panel that prepared the report.

Torrential rain flooded more than 2,000 square miles of central England and Wales over the Easter holidays in April. Five people died in the flooding, which caused about L350 million ($584 million) in total damages.

At the time, it was estimated that insured losses from the Easter floods could reach L500 million ($834 million) (BI, April 20). However, the Assn. of British Insurers has since set insured losses from the floods at L137 million ($229 million), spread across domestic and commercial lines.

In the United Kingdom, insurance typically covers flooding.

The worst-hit areas were Warwickshire, Northamptonshire and northern Oxfordshire. In many locations, it was the worst flooding ever recorded.

During the floods, there was significant criticism of the Environment Agency's flood warnings. Subsequently, the agency, a U.K. government-funded organization, commissioned an independent panel to research and report on the Environment Agency's performance during the floods. The report was released this month.

The investigation was conducted by Peter Bye, former chief executive officer and emergency planner for Suffolk County Council, and Michael Horner, an independent environmental consultant.

The report concluded that "there were instances of unsatisfactory planning, inadequate warnings for the public, incomplete defenses and poor coordination with emergency services, which fell short of the agency's own performance standards."

With regard to flood warnings, the report said there was a lack of public awareness, together with nationally inconsistent and inadequate procedures and systems, which resulted in a poor overall performance of the agency's warnings.

"The agency's performance on issuing warnings was, on average, unsatisfactory," the report said. "The majority of people affected by the Easter floods did not receive any form of direct warning."

With regard to flood defenses, the report said deficiencies in the condition and operation of some flood defenses may have added to the devastation of the Easter floods. "Flooding would have occurred irrespective of these deficiencies because of the extreme conditions, but it may have been less extensive and severe," the report said.

The report concluded that there is a need for the Environment Agency to improve the effectiveness of its provision, operation and maintenance of flood warnings and defenses.

Archie Robertson, the Environment Agency's director of operations, said the agency will publish a plan in early November after full consideration of the report. He said the agency "acknowledges that our actions did not always meet our own standards or satisfy the public and others."

Mr. Robertson said the Easter 1998 floods should been seen as the new benchmark for U.K. flood risks. "Easter 1998 must now be the level against which risks, standards of protection and warning services are assessed in the future in these areas," he said.

Mr. Robertson said the agency already has taken many actions to improve its systems in the areas affected by the Easter floods.

These include rebuilding defenses that were damaged; adding new rainfall, river flow, and level monitoring points to improve forecasting abilities; lowering flood warning trigger levels in some places to provide earlier warnings and longer lead times for emergency response arrangements; and updating and improving flood risk maps and flood warning plans.

Mr. Robertson said the agency also has started to improve its flood warning and defense systems across England and Wales as a whole. Mr. Robertson said that completing the initiatives will take through Christmas and is likely to cost more than L1 million ($1.7 million).

The initiatives include actions to ensure better cooperation among the agency, emergency services, local authorities and their emergency planners, including the establishment of joint flood warning planning groups; the issue, or re-issue, of flood warning dissemination plans specifying the roles of all those involved; the expansion of direct flood warnings by telephone and fax; heightened public awareness campaigns to improve the understanding and awareness of flood risks; and investigating the feasibility of extending river gauging networks to provide early warning of extreme floods.

A spokesman for the Assn. of British Insurers welcomed the findings of the report and the Environment Agency's pledge to improve its systems.

The spokesman said it is in the insurance industry's best interests that flood warnings and defenses work as effectively as possible.

Graham Lee, chairman of the environment task group of the U.K. Assn. of Risk Managers, also welcomed moves toward improved flood warning and defense systems. But he said the Easter floods were "a freak flood, not a regular rise," and that it is therefore unfair to lay too much blame with the Environment Agency.

Mr. Lee, director of risk management at Waste Management International P.L.C. of London, said there will always be some uncertainty with flood warnings and that even the best flood defenses will be tested by extreme conditions.

He emphasized that it is important for risk managers to make their own internal decisions about their companies' flood risks. "From a risk manager's point of view, they must always be assessing their own premises and where they are located," he said.

Mr. Lee issued a particular warning to companies building on previously undeveloped sites. "You must ask why no one else has built there before," he said.