Learning from the flood survivors who built back better

How do you protect your home or business from the growing threat of floods? Campaigner Mary Dhonau has travelled the country to learn about property flood resilience – solutions that have helped her fellow flood veterans to protect themselves more effectively

Flood-risk management is a jigsaw of many pieces, all working together to reduce flood risk. But the extreme rainfall we have seen in recent years has overtopped, overwhelmed, compromised and saturated our communities.

At the centre of that jigsaw lie our homes and our businesses that are vulnerable to floods. My own former home flooded more than 20 years ago. Since then, based on the success of my own recoverable repair, I have concentrated on what families and business owners can do, at property level, to reduce flooding’s impacts.

I travel the country and talk to people who have adapted their homes and businesses to live with flood risk and to recover quickly if they do flood. Their stories are powerful, inspirational and demonstrate how we can deliver property resilience.

Some solutions have focused on resisting floods; others target faster recovery. Here are some of these stories.

Karen in Appleby

Karen and her family live in a 17th century sandstone terraced town house in Appleby. They first flooded during Storm Desmond in December 2015, when the River Eden rose to record levels. The family spent eight months in temporary accommodation, and used the £48,000+ insurance claim to restore their home and possessions.

That meant a shift in mind set; instead of keeping the flood water out they have developed ways to manage floodwater inside the home. Better managing the inevitable makes it quicker, cheaper, and easier to get back to normal.

Rather than replace like for like, they combined their savings with a government grant secured via Eden District Council and flood grants from Cumbria Community Foundation and Appleby Town Council to make their home flood resilient.

Last February, Storms Ciara and Dennis tested Karen’s resilience plans, bringing more than 15cm of rain in 24 hours. Appleby’s water levels rose to 5.15m, just 60cm lower than in December 2015. In 2015, Karen’s home flooded by 1.5m. Thanks to the renovations, in 2020 it flooded by 5cm and having swept out the water and sanitised the ground floor, Karen was back at home after 24 hours.

And the cost of loss and damage from the 2020 flood? £0.00.

Karen’s resilience measures included:

  • A modular steel flood barrier that slowed the flow to buy time to move valuables upstairs or onto higher surfaces
  • Replacing wooden floors and carpet with concrete floors and tiles
  • Tanking the walls and floors
  • Replacing the ground-floor electrics, new wiring coming downwards and sockets fitted higher up the walls
  • A solid wood dining table that can be dried out and polished
  • Replacing the gas fire with a log burner to dry out the house quicker
  • Raising the fuse box above flood level
  • Replacing the traditional family piano lost in 2015 with an electric keyboard that is easier to stow away safely
  • Replaced the phone line on the first floor and bought a wired telephone that operates free from the mains
  • Reduced the downstairs furniture and stored items
  • Adding wall-mounted kitchen cupboards and storing less valuable items in the lower cupboards
  • Agreeing a flood plan to prepare for flood alerts, flood warnings and reacting to the flood siren.

Dragonfly boutique in Hebden Bridge

When Joanne took over her independent boutique three years ago she knew it had flooded before and decided to adapt the property to limit future damage. Joanne’s landlord worked with her on the adaptations.

Last February’s flood came very quickly. The water trapped Joanne at home in Todmorden. But Joanne’s colleague Bryony heard the flood siren and rushed to activate the flood plan. She dashed to the shop, put up the flood barrier and snake-type plastic sacks and moved the stock onto higher surfaces.

The shop flooded by 10cm. When the water receded, Joanne cleaned the sludge from the floor with a squeegee, then steam-cleaned, reopening for business the next morning.

Joanne wants to see more investment in recoverable repair; she thinks it’s money well spent.

Joanne’s resilience measures included:

  • A robust slot-in steel barrier to the doorway, which doesn’t keep water out but buys time to move stock to safety
  • A solid floor with porcelain tiles and waterproof grout and adhesive
  • Waterproof wall plaster
  • Copper, free-standing clothes rails
  • Raised plug sockets
  • A solid wood desk and large table to hold stock above the water
  • Snake-type plastic sacks to slow water ingress to the shop and its stock room
  • High stock room shelves and freestanding plastic shelf units. Lower shelves emptied before the flood
  • Stock kept in sealed plastic boxes to withstand water
  • Fridge raised to stand on a shelf.

Martin in Leeds

Martin and his wife were flooded on Boxing Day 2015 when their flood barriers overtopped in a storm. To guard against the risk of severe flooding, which is becoming more likely due to climate change, the couple chose to combine resistant and recoverable measures. The combined works came to approximately £15,000.

Last February, after three weeks of flood warnings, the house flooded but the renovations protected the main part of the house. The water that seeped in under the suspended floors was automatically pumped out again.

Martin’s resistance measures included:

• Raising the flood barrier height from 40cm to 80cm

• Self-closing anti-flood airbricks

• Repointing all walls with waterproof mortar to 1m height

• On solid floors, fitting edge channels with rodding and wash-out points leading to low level sumps. This work requires specialists, typically firms that convert basements

• Cavity-drainage systems; sitting solid floor sections on studded membrane that allows water to flow under the floor to the sumps

• Fitting sub-floor automatic high-performance skimmer pumps at low points, with battery back-up for up to ten hours if the main power supply fails

• Toilet bung in the ground-floor toilet to back up a non-return valve fitted in the soil-pipe run.

Martin’s recoverable measures included:

• Plastic flooring and skirtings throughout, each numbered for easy removal, washing and reuse

• Solid floor upper surfaces coated with liquid-applied dampproof membrane, and similar upstands behind skirtings. These form bunds that hold water where it can be swept out or wet-vacuumed

• Carpeted areas replaced in some utility areas with lino that can be lifted washed, dried and reused.

Headquarters hair salon, Mytholmroyd

Sue, who has rented her hair salon for 38 years, has experienced three significant floods in June 2012, December 2015, and February 2020.

Although the first flood was around 3ft, Sue recovered quite quickly, attributing this to solid wood cladding on the walls, coated in yacht varnish, that was easy to wash down and reuse. She nevertheless installed flood barriers to the front and back doors.

The 2015 flood was more than 6ft and overtopped the flood barriers. The insurance bill came to some £30,000 and Sue could not obtain flood insurance. She and her landlord decided to build back better, to make the salon resilient for future floods. The landlord paid for the building works; Sue paid for the internal fittings, which came to some £8,000.

When the February 2020 flood hit on a Sunday, the waters rose fast. But Sue reopened her business the following Friday, having deployed industrial-strength dehumidifiers and a powerful gas heater. She lost only the waiting-chair cushions, the secondhand reception desk and lower-level stock that could not be moved due to the speed of the flood

Despite having no insurance, Sue had set up a savings fund to cover flood damage. Last year’s total losses came to less than £1,000.

Sue’s resilience measures included:

  • Stone-flagged floor with waterproof adhesive and grout
  • Walls covered floor to ceiling in plastic membrane, topped with cement render
  • Waterproof paint on the walls
  • Non-return valve fitted to the drains
  • Plastic kitchen furniture and fittings
  • Plastic doorframes and cheap sacrificial doors
  • Internal fittings switched to reinforced glass, steel or plastic
  • Metal garden chairs in the waiting area
  • Plug sockets sited about 4ft up the walls
  • Hairdryers attached high on the walls.

MEET the Floodmobile

The latest stage in my quest to promote the benefits of property flood resilience has been to join the Ox-Cam Property Flood Resilience (PFR) Pathfinder Project, one of three Defra-funded national pathfinder partnerships.

The project aims to raise awareness and take-up of property flood-resilience measures that homeowners and businesses can install to lessen the impact of future floods.

After the success of the Project Excellence award-winning 2014 Pathfinder Project, I was keen to share with at-risk communities information about how to reduce the awful impacts of being flooded.

Ox-Cam PFR has commissioned the Floodmobile, an interactive demonstration vehicle that drives into communities and displays 50 practical measures, from pumps and barriers, to air bricks, flood doors and non-return valves and examples of flood-recoverable repair; flooring, kitchens, and membrane systems.

The Floodmobile is designed to be noticed. It will pull in the crowds when it starts its tour – delivered in partnership with Flood Re. We plan to visit Oxfordshire-Cambridgeshire arc communities, businesses and schools, to leave a lasting PFR legacy across the region.

If you want to know more about the stories I’ve gathered, here and in PFR e-magazine, you can watch some of the interviews on TV in the Floodmobile as the project also commissioned a series of short film interviews with homeowners and businesses who have taken successful steps to recover quickly from being flooded.

You also find these – and a wealth of PFR-related information – on the Flood Tool Kit website. Flood Re and Landmark Information Group have also sponsored this year’s edition of the for the Ox-Cam PFR Pathfinder Project, available in tablet form to Floodmobile visitors.

The Floodmobile aims to bring to life the measures available to homeowners and businesses to recover from flooding faster and to minimise the distress and trauma that comes with these events – but also to save themselves a lot of money, and for years to come.

Mary Dhonau OBE is one of the UK’s leading flood campaigners, with lived experience of being flooded and expertise in property flood resilience. She is working to advise the Ox-Cam PFR pathfinder project.

She is one of six speakers on the Meeting our ambition for flood resilient homes and businesses session at Flood and Coast 2021, our virtual event packed with interactive sessions, live exhibition booths, and networking opportunities ahead of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26). To register for the event, and for full programme details, click here.

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