National and regional forecasters knew about the risk of flooding days before this week’s deluge made its way across Western Europe with a deadly impact. But despite that advanced knowledge, many people remained in areas that were among the worst affected.
“There should not have been so many deaths from this event,” said Dr. Linda Speight, a hydrometeorologist at the University of Reading in Britain, adding that poor communication about the high risk of flooding had probably contributed to the significant loss of life.
“People were still in their houses when the water came,” Dr. Speight said, “and there was no need for that to happen.”
A system that had been set up by the European Commission after catastrophic flooding across Europe in 2002 is supposed to coordinate alerts across the region. And on Monday it issued an “extreme” flood warning when weather models indicated the severity of the storm that eventually set off the flooding.
That sort of information is passed on to countries’ national weather services, which then typically use localized alert systems to warn residents of the pending risk. But the number of people caught up in this week’s flooding suggests that many who live in the inundated towns and villages had not grasped the gravity of the situation until it was too late.
Although the accuracy of weather forecasting has increased significantly over the last decade, the communication side still lags.
“The warning system needs to, you know, make it clear to people: It will affect you. You have received this warning because you’re at risk of flooding. You need to do something now,” Dr. Speight said.
As a result of climate change, extreme weather events have become more common, and Dr. Speight said that this type of severe flooding would become increasingly likely. So when countries talk about building a climate-resilient future, she said, an effective flood warning service must be a key part of that.
“We can’t really stop the flood,” she said. “There’s still going to be damage to all those properties — the water still has got to go somewhere. But we need to get better at dealing with it. And the key way to do that is going to be to have an effective warning service to get people to move their property and themselves out of the way when the water is coming.”