1 August 2013

A project revealing the social and emotional impact of flooding earned Lancaster Environment Centre recognition in a top research council award.

A research project which has influenced government policy on recovery and resilience following disasters, has received one of the Economic and Social Research Council’s (ESRC) first 'Celebrating Impact' prizes.

The Hull Floods Project Team, led by Dr Will Medd, received an award for Outstanding Impact in Public Policy.

“There was a massive gap in understanding about what happens in the aftermath of flooding,” said Dr Medd. “There were the odd news reports about people not being back in their homes several years after a flood, but policy makers had no idea what it was really like for the people involved or how they could be supported.”

The prize winning research project examined the aftermath of the major floods which devastated Hull in 2007. The project “transformed policymakers’ understanding and management of the human impacts of the flood recovery process,” according to the ESRC.

The participative research design was developed with co-investigator Dr Maggie Mort, from Lancaster University’s Departments of Sociology & Medicine, who led a previous influential study into the after effects of the 2001 Foot and Mouth Disease disaster.  As part of the Hull project, the researchers asked 45 people affected by the Hull floods to keep weekly diaries for 18 months to record the aftermath and long-term recovery process, which many of them felt was more traumatic than the flood itself.

The diaries highlighted the severe and prolonged impact of the repairs process as residents struggled to deal with the stresses of life in temporary accommodation while also attempting to manage the many different organisations – such as builders, insurers and loss adjusters – involved in flood recovery.

“Previously the emphasis during floods had been on the emergency response and preparation for disasters. Our project focused not so much on the disaster but on what came after.  It ended up being about how to support communities to deal with disasters,” Dr. Rebecca Whittle, another member of the LEC team, explained.

“We formed people into groups with the idea that they would encourage each other to do the diaries,” Dr Medd said. “What emerged, which we hadn’t planned, was how much they loved the groups, which allowed them to share their stories and not feel so alone.”

Policy makers, wanting to improve the long term response to flooding, asked to meet some of the diarists. A small group visited the Cabinet Office, and the researchers organised a workshop where civil servants, local government, the insurance industry and the diarists worked together. Another member of the research team, Dr Hugh Deeming, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Cabinet Office, acted as a consultant to the Cabinet Office  in order to extract precise recommendations from the project data, which could then be integrated into government flood recovery and civil contingency policies. The research team also produced training materials to help policy makers understand the recovery process.

“The team has provided useful resources for the Civil Contingencies Secretariat (CCS) in identifying key issues and gaps which exist within the UK National Recovery Guidance, and how the CCS might fill them,” said Nick Brown, Recovery Policy Manager at the Civil Contingencies Secretariat in the Cabinet Office.

A ‘sister project’ worked with children and young people, exploring their recovery from the floods, through workshops, interviews and drawing.

“What traumatised the children most was that their parents were stressed and traumatised, and all the uncertainty involved,” said Dr Marion Walker, also from LEC, who worked with the children.

As well as the prize, which was collected on the night by Dr Whittle, Dr Walker, Dr Mort and Dr Deeming, the team received £5,000 to invest in impact activities.

The wider project team also included: Gordon Walker, Nigel Watson and Elham Kashefi (Lancaster University), Clare Twigger-Ross (Collingwood Environmental Planning), Sue Tapsell (Middlesex University), Jo Moran-Ellis and Kate Burningham (University of Surrey).

The study - Flood, vulnerability and urban resilience: a real-time study of local recovery following the floods of June 2007 in Hull was funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and The Environment Agency.