Response to tidal surge was flawed

Serious failings have been identified in the emergency response to last year's tidal surge when Norfolk came within a whisker of a flooding disaster and thousands of families around Yarmouth were evacuated from their homes.

Serious failings have been identified in the emergency response to last year's tidal surge when Norfolk came within a whisker of a flooding disaster and thousands of families around Yarmouth were evacuated from their homes.

A new report says the operation was beset with problems, including insufficient supplies of food at rest centres, lack of phone chargers in emergency planning rooms and a break in the chain of command among those tasked with dealing with the crisis.

Most areas survived by inches - though residents in Walcott in North Norfolk complained flood warning sirens were not used to alert people to the dangers.

The 50-page report by John Ellis, interim head of emergency planning at Norfolk County Council, to the council's fire and community protection review panel said that while the response was “ultimately successful” there were a host of issues which needed to be dealt with.

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County councillors yesterday agreed to set up a special working party to look in detail at what happened after reports of poor co-operation between officials and lack of basic resources to cope.

Labour's Coleen Walker said: “There was a lot more that went wrong than went right. I thank God we didn't have that extra inch of water. We didn't have the transport for the disabled and some of the most vulnerable people.”

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Councillors approved plans to save 40 of the 57 flood warning sirens which were due to be scrapped. Cabinet is expected to rubber-stamp the decision at its next meeting, but now the authority will need to lobby district councils and the police for support to implement any changes.

Steve Dorrington, committee chairman, said afterwards that there was overwhelming public support for the decision.

The report revealed senior emergency planners earmarked for top-level Gold Command at Wymondham were left waiting in reception because police chiefs were locked in a 90-minute briefing with government officials.

“Gold's involvement was hindered by a 1½ hour delay to the scheduled meeting on November 8,” Mr Ellis said. “Attendees were not able to utilise a further room to continue to assist, but were instead left in reception.

“The delay resulted in Silver Command at Yarmouth taking the lead of the emergency response. There was limited communications between Gold and Yarmouth Silver and feedback highlighted the view of a break in the chain of command.”

There was no access to a central computer system, leading to a “reliance on scrap paper”, he said. “Resources were scarce at Silver with no mobile phone chargers, a shortage of telephone landlines… poor information from the Environment Agency,” he added.

County Hall ran out of drivers needed to evacuate people from their homes because they had been called into action too early, while head teachers were forced to ring in to the authority's customer services centre to ask for schools to be closed because children's services officers could not log on to a computer system after a member of staff went home.

Emergency support staff also reported difficulties getting into County Hall out of hours to help and many records and contact details needed were out of date.

Voluntary bodies such as the British Red Cross and Salvation Army also complained about the lack of co-ordination - in one case they were asked only to bring basic medical items, when in fact they needed specialist equipment including oxygen and wheelchairs.

At one rest centre, at Caister High School, the headteacher was forced to order in more food and drink supplies because provision had only been made for 70 people - when in fact around 550 people turned up.

Mr Ellis noted that as a “consequence of being tasked to supply 11 73-seat coaches and 25 mini-buses for evacuation purposes during the night of November 8, NCS transport ran out of resources by 2.30am on the Friday morning.

“There was and remained throughout the second day a lack of available drivers, with many having exhausted their available hours,” he said. “Transport for vulnerable evacuees, such as those using wheelchairs, was in short supply and despite direct requests from NCC the transport was neither easily or quickly forthcoming.”

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