Human cost of winter floods has been ignored, say health experts

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The Independent Online

The human cost of floods last autumn and winter has been ignored in the efforts to repair the physical and economic damage caused by the disaster, which drove thousands from their homes, a conference will be told today.

Floods deluged more than 10,000 properties in 700 locations across the country during the wettest autumn in England and Wales for 270 years. Some places were flooded five times as water rose to record levels.

Ian Kedge, chief environmental health officer in Lewes, East Sussex, where 600 homes and 200 businesses were inundated, will tell the Environmental Health Conference in Bournemouth that too much effort has been spent counting the cost instead of listening to people, although a survey of the psychological impact of the floods by the Public Health Laboratory Service will be published in the autumn.

"The Environment Agency has been tacking up its sums in terms of bricks and mortar and the loss to business. We have been looking at the social and psychological impact of losing your home. The cost of flooding is more than the cost of the bricks and mortar," Mr Kedge said.

Many people lost everything in the floods and some still live in temporary accommodation, unable to return to their homes 11 months after the disaster.

Mr Kedge, who is speaking in the first session of the conference on "Climate change, floods and health", said: "Our officers suffered a hell of a lot of verbal abuse. People just exploded at us, not because it was the council's fault but because they were under pressure. One woman, a dance teacher, had kept videos and cine film of every student she had taught going back decades and she lost the lot. A whole life's work gone down the drain.

"People also became incredibly upset about their pets. One elderly lady who had lost absolutely everything was only worried that she hadn't got enough to feed her cat," Mr Kedge reported.

Sir John Harman, chairman of the Environment Agency, will tell the conference that the agency is still calculating the economic loss caused by the floods but that it will definitely run into hundreds of millions of pounds. Climate change is expected to cause more frequent and more severe storms but insurers have declared that they will only cover homes and businesses for two years unless standards of flood protection are increased.

"The autumn 2000 floods served as a wake-up call for how the defence of people and property should be delivered in the 21st century. With or without climate change there will be a next time," Sir John will say.

"There will need to be reassurances from government that schemes are in place to reduce flood risk. Yet there will be locations where permanent flood defences will be impractical and householders will be desperately looking for help to rescue blighted communities. We all have a responsibility to ensure that the lessons are recognised and acted upon and that the impact on people's quality of life, not just their possessions, is fully recognised."