Wyre Council: communicating during Storm Desmond

When Storm Desmond hit the North of England in 2015 it flooded around 100 properties in Wyre, uprooting residents and causing thousands of pounds worth of damage. Senior Communications Officer Stephanie Collinson explains how the council delivered much needed communications support to a community in crisis.

Communications support

The context

In December 2015 we faced one of our biggest ever challenges. Between 5 – 6 December more than 100 businesses and homes in Wyre were damaged after rivers overflowed during Storm Desmond and then, just a couple of weeks later, many residents were flooded again when Storm Eva hit the same area on Christmas Day and Boxing Day.

The plan

With many of those affected being among some of our most vulnerable residents it was essential that we developed a flow of clear and consistent communication to help them get the all the information they needed, while also keeping all of our other stakeholders informed. We also needed to develop positive, collaborative working relationship with all the agencies responsible for responding to the incident so that we could reassure the community and ultimately, help to develop resilience across Wyre to prevent the risk of future flooding.

The execution

We decided to go back to basics and commandeered a council vehicle that we turned into a mobile advice centre and parked in the car park of the local pub in St Michael’s. The pub had naturally become the hub of all activity for the community and so it was important to us that we stationed our help right in the centre of the action. We staffed the vehicle with officers from across the council and explained to the public and our stakeholders that it would be the central point of information for residents and other agencies. We stocked the vehicle with printed leaflets and noticeboards to address commonly asked questions and each night we reviewed the questions that we had received that day to ensure that we had information on those topics available for residents the next morning.

We supplemented our on-site support with a range of other communication channels. We worked closely with our colleagues in our parish councils to disseminate information to residents and used our digital channels to update our other audiences on what was happening. This was particularly important for communicating with residents in other parts of the borough when resources had been diverted to the flood relief. We set up a webpage to house all of our latest online information and even utilised drone footage to help explain the scale of the relief work to the media and demonstrate how we were working with our partners to bring the area back to order. We also used social media channels to broadcast messages to our audiences, but perhaps more importantly, to monitor the issues that people were discussing to see where we could help further. This was particularly helpful for identifying where people needed extra sandbags.

The impact

Throughout the incident we were able to keep flooding victims well informed and supported on the ground, in their homes and further afield.

Our efforts to communicate the financial support on offer to flood victims resulted in 62 flood resilience grant applications and we’re already paid out just over £106,000 to those affected, with a committed spend of just over £118,000 for applications that have been approved but where work hasn’t yet been completed.

The incident also helped to form the Churchtown and St Micheal’s Flood Action Groups, which mobilised during the crisis and are continuing to work on helping local communities to take responsibility for reducing their flood risk. We’re working with them to help provide extra support to ensure that we mitigate the risks to our communities as much as possible.

Although it was a hugely difficult time for everyone affected and involved the incident did help to bring about a number of excellent partnerships with other agencies across the borough which have put us in a much stronger position for working collaboratively. It’s something that we’re continuing to do.

Why it worked

We went to the heart of the problem (literally). We didn’t wait for people to try to find us, or rely on digital channels. Our officers on the ground were well briefed and furnished with relevant information to answer questions and enquiries. We also made sure the officers who manned the mobile advice centre were experienced and well equipped to deal with people who were traumatised or angry.

We kept stakeholders well informed with daily updates and were visible in the community. All our work had a very human, people-centred approach.

Ultimately, we have robust emergency plans in place and communications is recognised as a vital element of that work so I was kept up-to-date at all times. Being a relatively small council worked in our favour too - and it’s not often I say that! I already had relationships with our emergency planning officer, engineering team and street cleaning team leaders which meant that I knew exactly who to contact for information and vice versa. There was no middle man. I know some of my communications colleagues in larger organisations weren’t always up to speed with what was happening on the ground.

Lessons learned

This incident certainly demonstrated the importance of developing an out of hours and thorough emergency planning protocol, which all communications staff are aware of and trained in. Prior to this I was the only one with knowledge of our emergency plan and crisis procedures but it’s something we’re all equipped with now. It also demonstrated the importance of campaigning about flood risk prevention before the worst happens so that people can protect themselves as much as possible.

Although we used a range of communications channels to great effect we could have also explored using text messaging services for updating residents, which would have been a quick and easy way to update people without power or broadband. We’ve started developing this facility and are collecting data from members of the public so we have it to hand should we need to use this sort of mass communication again.

Want to know more?

For more information please contact Stephanie Collinson.