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Scottish study reveals 'significant long-term impact' of flooding

Stress, financial hardship and ill-health among lasting effects, researchers find

A flood warning sign
In the report, residents describe the lasting impact of flooding on both their physical and mental health. Photograph: Ben Birchall/PA

Chronic ill-health, loss of financial stability and anxiety brought on by heavy rainfall are just some of the enduring effects of flooding on individuals, according to the first UK study to examine the long-term impact on communities.

As the aftermath of Storm Ciara brings disruption to Scotland and the north of England, the report highlights the importance of ongoing support for flooded households and communities.

Over the course of three years, researchers from the James Hutton Institute and University of Aberdeen focused on two communities in north-east Scotland that were badly affected by the extreme weather of late December 2015 and early January 2016.

The academics surveyed 300 local residents in Ballater and Garioch and conducted in-depth interviews with 100 more at yearly intervals up to 41 months after the initial flooding took place to build a unique catalogue of individuals’ experiences over time.

Dr Mags Currie, from the James Hutton Institute and who co-led the work with Dr Lorna Philip from the University of Aberdeen, told the Guardian: “This study demonstrates, for the first time, the significant long-term impact of flooding. More than three years on, people are establishing a ‘new normal’, but frail older people, children, people living alone or already dealing with traumatic or stressful life events, remain especially vulnerable.”

In the report, commissioned by the Centre of Expertise for Waters (Crew), residents describe the lasting impact of flooding on both their physical and mental health. As well as persistent coughs and throat infections, residents also reported weight loss, high blood pressure, insomnia, and heavy drinking, which they directly attributed to their experience of flooding.

Ballater in Aberdeenshire
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Ballater in Aberdeenshire: residents were dealing with the aftermath of flooding long after the waters receded, researchers found. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

Most commonly, women told researchers that they had very low energy levels after the flood, which they felt compromised their ability to deal with stressful issues. One interviewee described how she had to prioritise “self-preservation” over dealing with stressful matters such as shopping around for alternative home insurance cover.

Others spoke of the stress and anxiety triggered by bad weather, with one resident warning: “Ballater isn’t back to normal, it’s not going to be back to normal for a couple of years. In actual fact the whole community is suffering from post-traumatic stress.”

A parent reported that her young daughter now worried about other potential natural dangers like landslides, while another resident described “obsessively” checking the local river level on the Sepa (Scottish Environmental Protection agency) website, even two years after being flooded, saying: “It does make me very anxious when it rains and I do, obsessively, two or three times a day check the Sepa data to see how high the river is.”

The study also highlights the considerable impact on household finances, with many participants reporting that they no longer had a “financial cushion” having used up savings to cover flood-related costs. These costs were directly linked to the length of time that some people were out of their homes: time spent in temporary accommodation was often much longer than expected and accrued extra costs like having to travel regularly back to their home to supervised renovation work; being more reliant on prepared foods or takeaways because they had limited cooking facilities.

It seems that every part of the recovery process threw up challenges. As Philip explains: “Some people chose not to replace all the belongings they had lost because the thought of possibly losing all their possessions again was too raw. Others, homeowners and those who owned commercial property, were hit with significant increases in insurance premiums, which for some was unaffordable.”

Expectations of friends and family could also prove difficult as the months and years went on. Currie says: “There was a perception that once you had returned home after renovation work was completed you were ‘over’ the flooding, but many of our interviewees were still recovering from their experiences up to 40 months after the flooding. Many friends and family stopped asking how people were once a year or so had passed – some participants welcomed this as they didn’t always want to talk about their experiences, but others felt it was a sign that others thought they should have moved on.”

The study also found that even people who hadn’t been flooded experienced “a sort of survivor guilt”: with so many homes and businesses being directly affected, everybody knew someone who had been flooded and everyone experienced the wider disruption to transport and services.

The case study areas were chosen for contrast, because Ballater had been flooded in 2015-16 for the first time in living memory, while Garioch been flooded more frequently. While the expectation was that Garioch would respond more resiliently, the report found that, because Ballater was a more closely knit community, local people were better able to mobilise their response effort.

Currie said: “We wondered if the community spirit would dwindle three-plus years on but, overall, we found a strong sense of the community holding together in both areas. Both have got their community centres kitted out with generators and equipment, which makes them better prepared to deal with any future emergency situation.”

Participants and researchers have also produced a checklist of five steps that every household at risk of flooding should implement:

1. Have a home emergency plan in place, which would include what to do in a flood and other scenarios such as a fire.

2. Check that home insurance includes flood cover, and make sure that any changes to the T&Cs in the future do not change the type of cover you think you have.

3. Sign up to receive Floodline alerts – the service is free and messages can be received in different formats (by phone, SMS).

4. If Sepa (or bodies such as the Environment Agency in other parts of the UK) make river level data for a water body near where you live publicly available use this resource.

5. Make use of publicly available resources such as Sepa’s flood risk maps to find out if a property you are considering buying is at risk of flooding.