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Zurich report outlines systemic failures in preparation for 'Bernd' weather event

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Zurich Insurance has released analysis of last year’s severe flooding in parts of western Europe, saying the catastrophic weather event showcased inadequate standards of flood preparation and resilience.

The floods from last July affected several European countries, in particular parts of western Germany, causing more than 230 deaths and estimated losses of €40 billion ($61.04 billion) to €50 billion ($76.29 billion) within a week.

Zurich’s Post-Event Review Capability (PERC) report says limiting analysis of the event to climate change impacts negates highlighting systemic flaws that worsened the crisis.

“An inadequate understanding of floods, a problematic structure for rebuilding and insufficient pre-emptive risk reduction measures played a key role in the disaster,” Zurich said.

The report, assembled by a coalition of international researchers, economic groups, and non-profit organisations, outlines changes in disaster mitigation, early warning systems, flood prevention, and risk awareness for residents to ensure adequate safety measures exist for at-risk communities.

While noting that the event’s intensity was correctly measured, Zurich says accurate predictions of flood levels were only made for major rivers such as the Rhine and Moselle and failed to identify the overflowing of minor rivers with any degree of preciseness.

Zurich says poor collaboration between meteorological and hydrological forecasters and limited gauge stations to supply data for flood forecasting led to inaccurate models.

It also noted zoning issues and substandard flood hazard maps that were ill-prepared for the flood’s severity, saying this could continue to be a problem for future events.

“Flood maps and the zoning of floodplains must not be based on ‘average events’ alone, but should also address worst-case flood scenarios,” Zurich Chief Claims and Operating Officer Horst Nussbaumer said.

“If we work from realistic assumptions, we are able to outline the most drastic potential effects of flooding, for example those caused by saturated soils or blockages from debris. This in turn will support the risk assessment for future flood events. In the future, municipalities should consider our findings more closely when drawing up zoning and development plans.”

The insurer recommended replacing pull messages to push alerts to fasten communications lines between authorities and communities and incorporating “cell broadcasts” to relay messages in case mobile internet services are not functional.

It says early warning systems provided inaccurate or contradictory information that confused many residents and urged for more robust training in providing clear and accurate information.

Zurich’s Flood Resilience Program head Michael Szonyi says the “unprecedented” labelling of the event is not true and that authorities should learn from previous flood events.

“Records show that the Ahr Valley suffered a flood of similar magnitude back in 1804. Another flood in 1910 significantly exceeded current gauge records,” Mr Szonyi said

“Evidently, extreme weather events are forgotten only too quickly. This may be the reason why extensive flood resilience schemes from the 1920s were never implemented. Even when the Ahr Valley flooded again in 2016, there was talk of a once-in-a-century event, which the historical records show was far from true.”

Natural hazard premiums have dropped to prices before last year’s floods, outlining the general public’s complacency; Mr Szonyi says more needs to be done raise awareness of flooding events.

“The ability to deal with natural hazards has declined among the population as a whole. Awareness that floods can and do happen, and of their potential severity, therefore needs to be embedded more strongly and permanently in people’s minds,” Mr Szonyi said.

Zurich says to remove the “unexpected” perception of flood events, communities need increased exposure to the possibility of the event occurring.

It recommends regularly scheduled evacuation drills, information sessions on the dangers of floods, visible commemorations for lives lost and damage done, and increased alarm preparedness.

“Verbally dramatising an event as a singular disaster causes people to intuitively misjudge the probability of it occurring,” Mr Szonyi said

“Public discussions often focus solely on climate change as the cause of these extreme weather events and their consequences. This unhelpfully narrows the public perspective to just one of the many factors which ultimately lead to these disasters. As a result, the focus shifts away from prevention.”

For the full report, click here.