On Friday when Storm Babet arrived, TV coverage implied it was Scotland that was taking the brunt. The impact was much more widespread though, with large swathes of the country under water. One of the worst affected areas was east Suffolk with hundreds of homes and businesses flooded, cars destroyed and possibly one death. But while Scotland had a Met Office red warning, East Anglia only had a yellow one. When asked how this happened, Thérèse Coffey, the environment minister – whose own constituency was badly affected – suggested it was down to the ‘wrong type of rain.’
Those of us directly affected are wondering why we were ignored, because ignored we certainly feel.
Met Office approach to warnings
When determining the severity of a weather warning, the Met Office uses a matrix similar to the ones used in risk assessments. The vertical access has four categories from unlikely to very likely, while the horizontal one also has four categories, from very low impact to high impact.
According to this matrix, a yellow warning could mean it’s likely there will be low level impacts, like some disruption to travel, or a small chance of worse disruption for a lot of people. It’s only at amber that the Met Office advises changing plans and protecting property. Red means dangerous weather is expected.
Weather prediction failure
What happened though was very serious disruption for a lot of people over a wide area, with Debenham, Framlingham and Attleborough especially badly hit. In Debenham residents were rescued by boat and accommodated in their community centre overnight.
Dennington, to the north of Framlingham, lies on the A1120 but impassable roads turned the village into a virtual island. Residents and the village hall put stranded people up for the night, while other villagers had to stay with friends because they couldn’t get home.
In Framlingham the Mere overflowed onto the surrounding meadows and inundated cars in the car park, while the fire brigade rescued elderly people from nearby flats. A herd of cattle was in danger of drowning until locals went up to their necks to lead them all to safety, earning thanks and praise for their bravery from the farmer and the local community. The river Ore, which flows out of the Mere, flooded homes, businesses and cars.
Storm’s potential victim
Worst of all, in Wickham Market, Calvin Baxter was not seen between 11 am on Friday and the discovery of his body in a field on Sunday. His tragic death has not been officially recognised as due to Babet at the time of writing, but it seems possible he was a victim of it.
There was wide variation in the reports of just how much rain we did get. The average rainfall for East Anglia for the month of October is about 64mm. The Met Office estimated the region would get 20mm to 40mm of rainfall, and based their yellow warning on that. But the prediction was way out. The BBC reported 78mm had fallen in Suffolk, while ITV News said Wattisham had 118mm – effectively two months’ rainfall in four days. What I know is my garden pond in Dennington was 100mm deeper on Saturday than the morning before. It certainly felt like the rain clouds had stalled above us.
Meteorologist: we got it wrong
Meteorologist Dan Holley, who works at WeatherQuest, acknowledged to the EADT the Met Office had got it wrong. “We had yellow warnings out. I think in hindsight, looking at the impacts, it needed at least an amber warning for parts of East Anglia.” As a result, many people were completely unprepared for the extent of the rain.
Thérèse Coffey claimed in Parliament that the impact of Storm Babet was hard to predict because it came from a different direction than is usual. This from an MP representing one of the most easterly constituencies in the country, which took the full force of the Beast from the East in 2018. She should know “usual” doesn’t mean “always”.
There is much speculation about why the water rose so fast, with saturated land, blocked drains and building on flood plains being prime suspects. But both Debenham and Framlingham are close to where their rivers – respectively the Deben and the Ore – rise, so the last seems unlikely.
Land that is already saturated seems the most likely culprit, though it’s more complex than that. The type and depth of soil are also important, along with other factors like steepness of valleys, as explained here.
Those of us who live here know East Anglia is nowhere near as flat as imagined elsewhere, even though it’s not very high. Many roads rise and fall steeply, often crossing rivers and streams. Combined with clay soils, which are most susceptible to runoff, it’s not surprising this landscape is likely to flood when it rains hard.
And we can expect heavy rainfall more often because the planet is warming and warmer air holds more water, so when it comes down there’s more of it. Think monsoon storms in a country whose drainage infrastructure is not fit for purpose.
The Met Office has confirmed it was the wettest three-day period on record for the East of England.