The social impact of floods: 7 ways to help those affected

By: Ingrid Coninx · 2 September 2021
Category: Environmental economics

Floods often have a devastating force. This summer, the images of the affected areas in the Netherlands, Belgium, and particularly Germany clearly showed this effect. In addition to the material damage, there is also a social impact. Less visible but longer-lasting. Research shows that those affected are often more heavily burdened by the social impact than by material damages.

What is this social impact? It is the mental impact that affects the victims in their daily lives. The floods alter their way of life, their work and how they interact. This may be a temporary impact, but it may smoulder for a long period after the event.

“A society can be sufficiently resilient for large quantities of water to cause barely any problems. That resilience is lacking and must be fortified to make us better able to face floods.”

Ingrid Coninx, Senior Expert Policy and Engagement in Climate Change Adaptation

Breaking through the social impact pattern together

Analysis of the aftermath of the floods in Eastern Europe* shows a repeated pattern of social impact. This is a pattern I now also see in many news items from, for example, Belgium. Heartbreaking. Particularly because the ‘flood risk does not necessarily have to lead to disaster and suffering’, according to prof. Kelman of the University College London and other disaster researchers. A society can be sufficiently resilient for large quantities of water to cause barely any problems. That resilience is lacking and must be fortified to make us better able to face floods.

The social impact develops according to the following pattern: people suffer damage to their homes and possessions during a flood. Some may fall, injure themselves, catch a cold or get sick. In exceptional cases, they may even die. During or before the flood, people are temporarily (sometimes forcibly) displaced. If the homes are damaged beyond repair, their displacement may be permanent, which means the inhabitants do not return to their neighbourhood. Some neighbourhoods deteriorate. The social cohesion and population distribution is altered. The people blame the authorities for the squalor.

Flanders lacks a government policy on how residents may protect their houses from flood damage. Photo: flooded streets in Wilsele, Vlaams-Brabant, after the floods of July 2021 (Thierry Hebbelinck / Shutterstock.com).

If residents stay in or return to their original homes, they frequently have trouble finding food and water and they lack electricity, clean water and so forth. Their house no longer feels like a safe home. There is a multitude of organisations to deal with for insurance and administration—quite a challenge, especially if there is no electricity. The stress, worry, and fear in this new situation have a severe mental impact. And some, who have insufficient savings, may suffer financial issues as well, temporarily or even permanently. The pressure on the community may be considerable. Some people draw closer to one another and become a close-knit team. Others may argue and experience severe dissatisfaction. This, too, often causes them to feel angry at the authorities.

The social impact is not felt equally by all. Some are more vulnerable and have more trouble adjusting to the consequences. People with limited financial resources, such as the elderly and those who are movement-impaired, migrants with a limited command of the language and social network, and people who live in outdated houses. These vulnerable groups need extra attention to ensure they too are able to properly recover from a flood. As dictated by the European adaptation strategy: no one left behind.

7 ways to mitigate social impact and increase resilience

How can we apply these insights to social impact? We can use these insights to help affected people in processing and recovering. And, we can use these insights to improve our disaster and climate policy to make society more resilient.

1. People protect their home: technical interventions, risk and crisis communications

Prof. Green of the Flood Hazard Research Centre at Middlesex University states: ‘Homes function as a lens that amplify social impact.’ The pattern of social impact may be broken if homes are damaged as little as possible.
The Flemish flood policy focuses on mitigating flood damage to houses. But some risks still remain through extreme and very rare occurrences that cause damage to houses. Flanders currently has very little in the way of policies to help inhabitants protect their homes from flood damage.

Action: The first method is to raise awareness on how people can protect themselves. It is essential this happens long before the flooding. Construction engineers can provide innovative solutions tailored to homes in the danger zone. Spatial planners may integrate nature-based solutions: where can water be stored? And, water experts may help determine where water may flow through a city or town. There are still many options to mitigate damage that can be implemented, such as locking systems for doors and windows and mobile dykes.
And, if water does enter the house, water-resistant materials on the downstairs floors, keeping valuables on the higher floors in waterproof crates and keeping an emergency stock of fresh drinking water, food and other essentials. Crisis communication is of the essence to help residents protect their homes. In Australia, where I currently reside, we are reminded at the onset of every hurricane season to ready an emergency supply for the first days after a hurricane.

2. Practical assistance: skilled professionals, cleaners, food, beverages and sanitation

People often have trouble getting their basic needs met immediately after a flood. They have no access to (drinking) water, electricity, food, phone or sanitation. Many call on family and friends who have not been affected by the flood (informal aid). Relief organisations (formal aid) and volunteers (partially informal aid) also play an essential role. Cleaning houses is far from easy. Not everyone finds the courage or has the skill and equipment for this job. Houses may remain humid for a long time, causing an unpleasant environment. Skilled professionals are often overburdened, and there are long waiting lists.

Action: The affected people benefit from readily available practical help, especially from skilled professionals and cleaners. As long as cleaning and repairing are still going on, the community must be provided with (warm) meals and beverages and sanitation for personal hygiene purposes.

3. Administrative assistance: submitting claims and other administration

Research shows that people who have insurance are often more stressed and experience difficulties in negotiating with the insurance company. Especially when a large number of people submit claims at the same time, it can take a long time before damages are paid. Sometimes the insurance company will not pay an advance or reimburse the expenses of temporary lodgings. Additionally, other administrative issues must be handled, for example, concerning employment. If loved ones have died in the flood, these procedures may also cause stress.

Action: Simplifying the administrative procedures and providing support may help ease this stress.

4. Support and financial assistance for the impoverished

People may experience a loss of income as a result of a flood. They are unable to work while they clean and rebuild their homes. Moreover, their place of employment may be affected, which means work and income stop entirely. Insurance companies seldomly reimburse the full value of possessions, which means that people are forced to use their savings to replace the items they lost. Those with insufficient savings may fall into poverty. Entire neighbourhoods may deteriorate as a result.

Action: It is essential that people are helped in this time of financial worry. Adequate response from banks and governments can help prevent many from descending into poverty.

5. Medical treatment and psychological support

During and after a flood, people may become injured or sick. Physical effects ranging from injury, shock and heart problems to skin problems and flu may occur.

However, flood victims indicate that the mental issues are much more severe than the physical problems they experience. A flood, evacuation and rebuilding have an enormous mental impact. Feelings of fear, helplessness, depression, anger, mood swings, flashbacks, panic attacks, insomnia, loss of concentration, suicidal thoughts and increased alcohol or drug abuse may result. These problems may persist for weeks or months after the flood. Even those that were evacuated but whose house remained unaffected can suffer from mental problems. An evacuation notice may cause a reaction of great panic, with long-term effects.

Proper evacuation notices state how much time the receiver has before the house is expected to flood. Moreover, it should provide information on what state the house is to be left in, where to find the evacuation centre and how long the residents are expected to be away from home.

Even those that have been evacuated while their home was spared by the flood may experience mental issues. Photo: residents of Bergen, Dutch-Limburg, being evacuated after the floods of July 2021 (Brita Seifert / Shutterstock.com).

There are those that do not experience mental problems. But some who do may even develop Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that requires treatment if the patient is to be able to function normally again. The greater the damage, the longer rebuilding takes, the greater the mental issues. And, let’s not forget the impact on many relief workers. Medical help and specialised mental support are needed, not just immediately after the floods but for an extended period.

Action: People benefit from extended medical support for both physical and mental issues.

6. Recovery as a community: sharing stories

Damage to their houses robs people of their feelings of safety and security. They become uncertain, restless and fearful. Mental issues may impact relationships, and the sense of community may change as a result of the members’ experiences after a flood. Sometimes, people may feel more committed to each other. But they may also distance themselves, resulting in a decline in the sense of community. There is no longer a shared sense of support. Moreover, people may not return to their original homes, or there may be tension between those that were impacted by the flood and those that were spared. This may give rise to feelings of unfairness.

Action: Organising meetings within the affected communities is recommended. Such meetings offer those affected an opportunity to meet, share emotions and support the joint processing of the trauma.

7. Include residents in the rebuilding and listen to their experiences: #buildingbackbetter

People seek a scapegoat after a disaster. This was also the case in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. People are angry at the authorities and feel they are not offered the support they need. Many take measures to protect themselves from a new flood. Trust in the authorities may be restored if the government brings people together and listens to their experiences and needs.

Action: It is essential to learn from the residents’ experiences and use their knowledge and insights to rebuild homes and a more resilient community.

Crisis within a crisis

These are exceptional circumstances, as this flood occurs during the COVID-19 crisis that started in March 2020. It is a crisis within a crisis. People have already had to display a great deal of resilience, and the question is how much more they can take to overcome this disaster. They evidently need help.

These seven ways to mitigate social impact are designed to contribute to a dialogue between policymakers, scientists, civic organisations, businesses and civilians in Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany. This dialogue should lead to a joint approach to increasing society’s resilience to extreme events. Together, we must make society more resilient towards new extreme occurrences. There is no time to lose.

More information:

Those wanting to learn more about how just resilience can be implemented in practice may contact Ingrid Coninx. Ingrid is currently leading a project in this field.

Ingrid Coninx

Ingrid Coninx is Flemish and holds a master’s degree in Political Sciences from KU Leuven and a master’s degree in Environmental Policy from Wageningen University. Ingrid started her career as a researcher on social flood impact at HIVA (KU Leuven). She was charged with developing a social impact method for floods*. To this end, she conducted a comparative study on the aftermaths of floods in West-European countries. This blog is based on these studies. For her PhD, she studied the Flemish flood policy. In 2009 Ingrid took on the position of researcher and project manager climate adaptation at Wageningen Environmental Research. ‘To face climate change, we must utilise all our options to increase our resilience’, says Ingrid. She aims to support policymakers with the best available knowledge to formulate and implement adaptation strategies and actions. And she motivates people and organisations to face the climate challenge.

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