How to prevent winter weather disasters that cost you a fortune

Millions of people in the UK live in flood-risk areas. David Prosser stresses the need to be prepared
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The Independent Online

Nearly 5 million people in England and a further 2 million people in Wales live in areas at risk from flooding, reveals the latest report from the Environment Agency (EA), published on Wednesday. Two-fifths of those affected have no idea they are vulnerable, the Government agency warns.

Many people believe climate change is irrevocably changing Britain's weather, but scientists are divided. However, there is evidence that British homeowners are increasingly vulnerable to all sorts of bad weather. The Association of British Insurers (ABI) says its members paid out £6bn in weather-related claims between 1998 and 2003, twice as much as in the previous five years.

It isn't just flooding that poses a risk to your home. The Met Office is predicting that this winter will be the coldest since 1995-96. "Parts of the UK - especially southern regions - are expected to have temperatures below normal," a spokesman says.

Don't assume that only people living in remote areas of the country are vulnerable to weather problems. Thousands of homes in London and the South-east are in areas that the EA deems to be at risk of flooding, while the majority of claims paid out by insurers are on properties in urban locations. Disasters, such as last year's Boscastle flood make headlines but smaller incidents cause major damage.

Vicky Emmott, senior underwriting manager at Halifax General Insurance, says: "Prevention is better than cure and many claims could be avoided if people spent a small amount of time preparing homes."

FLOODING

Find out whether your home is an area at risk of flooding. The EA (www.environment-agency.gov.uk) has a flood map detailing the risk for any postcode in England and Wales. The Scottish Environment Protection Agency (Sepa; www.sepa.org.uk) runs a similar service.

If you are at risk, take extra precautions. Your local authority may be able to provide sandbags ready for an emergency, and you should prepare a flood pack that you keep upstairs, including a torch, warm clothes, bottles of water and a battery-operated radio. Keep insurance documents, including key phone numbers, in a waterproof bag upstairs too.

Also consider specialist flood defence products, such as skirts, which will divert water away from your home, or door and window covers. HR Wallingford, the research firm, runs a certification scheme for products that is supported by the British Standards Institution. Products get a BSI Kitemark, a well-known quality standard for consumer goods. See www.bsi-global.com-/Kitemark/ for more details. Sepa also gives details of flood product suppliers.

Not all floods are easy to predict. Last year's Boscastle disaster was caused by a freak flash flood, rather than a river bursting its banks or sea defences failing. All homeowners, therefore, need to have good insurance and to know what to do if the worst happens.

If water does enter your home, turn off the gas and electricity, if it is safe to do so. Listen to local radio reports for instructions from your local authority. Contact your insurance company as soon as possible after a flood. It will be able to tell you how to go ahead with repairs, and whether you're fully covered.

STORM DAMAGE

Use the final days of autumn to make a thorough external check of your home. Loose tiles on the roof are prone to wind damage and could leave your home vulnerable to water damage. Similarly, have trees that overhang your home lopped back, or taken out if high winds could bring them down on top of your home.

Also check guttering carefully, particularly as leaves start falling. Blocked gutters and drains are a major cause of water damage and it is also common for them to come loose from fastenings.

COLD WEATHER

Make sure water pipes and tanks in the loft are fully lagged to prevent them freezing and then bursting. In addition, check your loft insulation is thick enough and in good condition. Also be sure you know how to turn off your water by finding your mains stopcock.

If you're planning on being away from home for more than a day or so, leave the heating on at a level that will maintain an air temperature of at least 5C (40F). You can also leave the loft hatch open to enable warm air from the rest of your house to circulate. Get a friend or neighbour to look in from time to time, so you can find out about any problems before they become serious.

If you do suspect a pipe or water tank has frozen, turn off your water supply and your heating. You can then drain the system by turning on all your taps. Turn off your electricity supply if you believe wiring, plug sockets or light fittings have been flooded and get professional advice.

INSURANCE

Good home contents and buildings insurance is crucial. The ABI has brokered a deal that requires members to continue covering people living in flood-risk areas, but it's up to you to ensure you have sufficient insurance. Most people underestimate the value of their home contents, so take advice on how much you need, or consider peace-of-mind cover - sold by insurers such as Abbey, which provide unlimited insurance. Insurance companies have the right to scale back claims if they believe your negligence played a part in causing damage, another reason to keep up to date with home maintenance. If you're under-insured, your policy may not pay out your losses in full, even if you're claiming less than the maximum.

More Than and Norwich Union are two insurers that have pioneered flood-mapping technology to provide more realistic insurance quotes. If you're in a flood area, it may be worth asking these firms whether they can cut the cost of cover. Installing specialist flood products should also reduce your premiums.

Howard Baker: 'Thank God our insurance was for unlimited contents'

Howard Baker and his partner, Frances, were at home in Boscastle last August when flash floods hit the village, affecting 1,000 people and 58 homes. "Downstairs was flooded with five feet of water, up above the light switches," says Howard.

The day after the flood, he phoned Abbey, his insurer, which immediately dispatched a loss adjuster. He confirmed the policy would pay out an unlimited amount for damages. "Thank God our insurance was for unlimited contents and structural damage," says Howard. "Others in the village didn't have enough insurance."

Winter rainfall steadily increases as global warming continues to intensify

It's not just an impression you may have - Britain's winter weather really has got worse during the past 40 years.

Not that there's been more snow, which most of us would consider an improvement. Snow has been increasingly scarce, as our winters have got steadily warmer.

But there has definitely been a lot more rain, leaving a lot of us increasingly soggy, disgruntled and, in many cases, liable to floods.

Four years ago, scientists from the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia conducted a detailed analysis of daily rainfall records from 146 weather stations across the UK since 1961.

It found that Britain's winter rainfall, which is predicted to increase with global warming, had, indeed, become markedly heavier in the intervening period.

The records showed that the number of days with heavy rain - defined as more than 15mm (nearly two-thirds of an inch) - had increased throughout the country by about one-third.

In some regions, such as western Scotland, the increases were more than 50 per cent, and in some individual places they were substantially higher still.

Even more significantly, the number of "multi-day" periods of heavy rain, when rain falls continuously for five days at a time, has gone up from about three per winter in the mid-1980s, to about five per winter by the new millennium. It is these extended periods that cause river banks to burst and lead to the sort of devastating flooding we saw across the country in the winter of 2000-2001.

The rainfall of that winter was a quite remarkable event. Official Met Office figures show that the year from 1 April 2000 to 31 March 2001 was the wettest since records began.

Throughout England and Wales, the aggregate total for the 12 months was 52.61in (133.63cm), compared with a long-running average of 36.2in (91.95cm).

One statistical analysis indicated this was so far in excess of the average that its "return period" - the frequency with which it could reasonably be expected to recur - was 500 to 750 years.

Yet we are likely to see such winters again in the coming decades. Supercomputer models of the global climate indicate that winter rainfall will steadily increase in frequency and intensity, especially in north and west Britain, as global warming takes hold - and with it, the risk of flooding will steadily rise.

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