Flood response tested in Britain’s biggest ever emergency exercise

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THE region’s ability to cope with a repeat of the devastating 2007 floods will be put to the test this week in the country’s biggest ever emergency exercise.

Ten thousand people across Britain will take part in Exercise Watermark which will test the response to incidents including flash flooding across West Yorkshire, a reservoir collapse in Derbyshire and a tidal surge along the east coast.

The exercise – involving emergency services, Government departments, utility companies, councils and local communities – is being launched after criticism of the response to the 2007 downpours which flooded thousands of homes and businesses across South Yorkshire and Hull, causing millions of pounds of damage. A report into the crisis by Sir Michael Pitt called for a national exercise to make sure the country is better prepared in future.

Ministers have also announced a grant of £20,000 to South Yorkshire fire service so they can buy a boat to help in flood rescues, but Labour accused the Government of taking a “reckless gamble” by cuts to flood defences which have seen schemes in Leeds, York and Thirsk shelved.

Environment Minister Richard Benyon said: “More extreme weather and rising sea levels mean we have to be prepared to deal with the impact of a major flood. Exercise Watermark will be Britain’s biggest ever emergency exercise and provide a unique opportunity for us to test our responses.”

The exercise will involve 10 government departments – including Environment, Health, Transport, Home Office and the Ministry of Defence – 34 local resilience forums, emergency responders, water and energy companies, hospitals and schools.

The Government’s crisis response committee, Cobra, will also meet as part of the exercise which will test preparations across the country.

Events planned in Yorkshire include a community operation to test plans for a flood in Garforth, Leeds, tomorrow. Next Tuesday children at Burnley Road Primary School in Mytholmroyd, West Yorkshire, will test their evacuation plan and flood sirens will be sounded in Hebden Bridge, Todmorden and Mytholmroyd.

Colin Atkinson, the Environment Agency’s flood incident management team leader for South and West Yorkshire, said: “We can never fully eliminate the risk of flooding, so it’s vitally important that we ensure that if and when a flood does occur, we are ready to respond and protect people and property.”

The floods of summer 2007 – which also badly hit Gloucestershire – flooded almost 7,000 businesses, while hundreds more were hit by severe floods in Cumbria in September 2009.

Inquiries into the incidents raised questions over the ability of emergency services to deal with high levels of calls, the resilience of flood-prone buildings and the preparedness of communities to deal with disasters.

Mr Benyon said: “Communities can make a real difference to the success of the response to an emergency, such as by sharing their local knowledge with emergency services or assisting the vulnerable. Those who have spent time preparing for emergencies are better able to cope and recover more quickly, so I would urge people to think about how they could get involved and use the tools available on the Directgov website.”

However, the exercise comes at a time when the Government is cutting spending on flood defences, with schemes in Yorkshire facing a 41 per cent reduction in capital spending. As a result of the cuts there is also uncertainty over whether the insurance industry will renew an agreement to offer insurance to homes in flood-risk areas which is due to expire in 2013.

Shadow Environment Secretary Mary Creagh, the Wakefield MP, said: “Around 5.2 million homes are at risk from floods in the UK so it is vital that our public services plan for and practise for large-scale emergencies. Yet the Tory-led Government cannot escape from the reckless gamble they have taken by cutting the flood defence budget by 27 per cent over the next 4 years.”