I thank the Vice Chairman and the committee for this opportunity to address it. In considering the local and national response to the November flooding and the severe weather encountered in December and January last, I understand the committee has had the benefit of evidence from many of those involved in responding to the severe weather. I am conscious that the Minister of State, Deputy Mansergh, dealt with issues concerning the flooding before this committee last December. In addition, the director and staff of Met Éireann gave the committee an understanding of the unusual and severe weather experienced from November to mid-January. Also Mr. Dowling and Mr. Hogan of my Department appeared before the committee in January while the severe weather spell was still ongoing.
I hope the committee found its visit to the Cork area informative. We have seen the levels of unprecedented damage and disruption caused to individuals, families, businesses and society in these two severe weather events. From my perspective, there are two key questions, namely, how we, as a society, were prepared for and how we managed the response to the damage and the disruption. In considering these questions, we should keep in perspective the frequency and duration of the severe weather events experienced which will have been explained by Met Éireann.
In assessing both the Irish level of preparedness and the response, it would be useful to compare this with European countries where similar issues presented to the authorities and the public alike, as well as to take account of international practice and approaches. I will begin by explaining the position about the arrangements here in Ireland for integrated emergency management. As the committee will recall from earlier meetings, these provide the basis for co-ordination of preparedness and response among all the relevant agencies. The framework was approved by Government in 2006. In the two year period 2006-08, an intensive programme was followed to develop the major emergency management capacity at both local and regional levels in accordance with the internationally accepted systems approach. This included interagency development and training and the adoption of new format major emergency plans by the local authorities, Health Service Executive areas and divisions of an Garda Síochána on 30 September 2008. The framework and other related documents are available on the Department's website and on a special web sitewww.mem.ie , while individual local authorities’ major emergency plans are on their own websites.
The framework document and its appendices, the associated guidance and protocol documents, together with the individual local major emergency plans, form the basis for integrated emergency management in Ireland, including also for severe weather events such as those we had in November, December and January. The extensive suite of documents is evidence of how the principal response agencies have prepared to make a co-ordinated response to any emergency, including severe weather events. The arrangements for receipt of severe weather warnings from Met Éireann are set out. The principal response agencies used the co-ordination and emergency management procedures and training they had recently undertaken in responding to the varying needs encountered in their individual areas
It is one of the principles of this framework that emergency response builds from the first response level of emergency services where the emergency event occurs, which in this country is the local authorities, the divisions of the Garda Síochána and the Health Service Executive areas.
In this way, the emergency response is led and co-ordinated by the people who are best positioned to know the needs of the local situation and to bring the full resources of the statutory organisations to bear on resolving the crisis. They are also best positioned to engage with individuals, community and voluntary organisations, as well as the business sector. All of these, as we saw, play an invaluable role. This local response management and co-ordination approach was very evident in both the flooding of last November and the more recent cold weather in December and January.
As a particular emergency event unfolds, the response can be escalated as required to a regional response. If circumstances further require, as we saw recently, when the situation is judged to merit it, a whole of Government approach may be initiated at national level in support of the local and/ or regional responses. It is not correct therefore to suggest that there is no national severe weather plan. The approach outlined formed the essential framework for planning, management and responding to the emergency. To underline further the relevance of this approach, one of the world's leading authors in the emergency management field recommends, among other things, that to ensure that the best or most appropriate preparedness planning is put in place, an approach should be followed which highlights a continuing planning process rather than the production of an end product, such as a written plan; adopts a multi-hazard rather than a single-hazard focus, and is generic rather than agent specific; uses a model that focuses on the co-ordination of emergent resources rather than trying to impose some kind of command and control; and focuses on general principles rather than specific details. The framework for major emergency management meets these requirements and other elements of best international practice underpinning our approach to integrated emergency management.
With regard to the local authority response, the co-ordination and interagency arrangements set out in the framework for major emergency management were used to varying degrees, in keeping with locally determined needs, as the flooding, like the cold spell, impacted differently in different parts of the country. Reports, including media coverage, indicate that the co-ordination arrangements worked satisfactorily having regard to the emerging issues. Indeed the media, particularly local media, played a significant role in many areas in providing information to the public, and channelling local issues to the public authorities. Kilkenny city and county councils held a special function recently to thank those who contributed to alleviating community distress during the severe cold. Both the local radio station, and a group known locally as the "snow-busters" — people with four-wheel drive vehicles who arranged to work together with the public authorities to assist neighbours with getting basic provisions, medicines, and maintaining contact with isolated people — were singled out for their contributions.
In the case of the flooding events, the following were the types of specific issues that had to be managed: the rescue of persons from vehicles and houses; the evacuation of persons threatened by the flood waters and care arrangements for them, as required; working to protect threatened infrastructure, including electricity substations, water and waste water treatment plants; keeping traffic flowing on main routes, or managing diversions; working to protect individual properties; the provision of temporary water supply where the mains supply was lost; and clean-up and recovery.
In the case of the ice and snow, maintaining the national transport networks was one of the core objectives. By and large our national roads, other key strategic roads and public transport routes were kept open for traffic over the 24 days that this severe cold weather lasted. These roads carry an estimated 60% of total traffic and about 80% of commercial traffic. Food and fuel supplies were maintained. The public transport system continued to function throughout, with the majority of Dublin Bus and Bus Éireann services operating throughout the period. Irish Rail and Luas services were largely unaffected and some extra capacity was provided where possible. The emergency services continued to operate, although response times were affected. Assistance from the Defence Forces was required on a number of occasions to get access to people in need of help. Hospitals continued to function effectively, although some elective procedures were postponed due to the poor weather and the increased incidence of weather related accidents. Community and public health services continued to be provided to the vulnerable in our society, again with the assistance and collaboration of voluntary sectors, the Defence Forces and the individual communities.
The local authorities, working with their partner services, deserve to be commended for their leadership and their work, which was carried out throughout the Christmas and new year periods. In all, some 10,000 km of road were gritted every day and sometimes twice or three times a day over the 24 days. More than 200 gritting trucks and 150 snow ploughs were deployed during the severe weather, often late at night and in the early morning. Around 60,000 tonnes of salt was spread over the period, more than the total annual average use in recent years.
The framework which I have referred to above provides for linking between local and central Government levels. The National Emergency Response Co-ordination Committee is a non-standing committee, identified by the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government as necessary to fulfil its role as a lead Department. The committee is convened and chaired by the Department in the event of certain emergency situations. A working draft standard operating procedure, governing the operation of the NERCC, was prepared by the national directorate for fire and emergency management in my Department in September 2009, and forms the basis for the convening and operation of an NERCC.
I have already explained how the local response is activated. This was done quickly and in accordance with emergency response requirements. My Department was aware of flooding difficulties in areas of County Cork, following contact on Thursday, 19 November from the assistant county manager, indicating that flooding problems could emerge. Having been briefed on what had happened on the morning of 20 November, I requested that a NERCC be convened. The meeting convened at 3.00 p.m. that day. This was the first time that such a step for formal national co-ordination had been taken. The flooding NERCC met daily initially, and on 11 occasions until 8 December 2009, when it was stood down.
Staff from both the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and the Department of Transport were liaising with local authorities and the NRA from late December about the ongoing cold weather situation. When the severe weather was forecast to remain in place for a prolonged period, and when business and schools were about to resume after the Christmas period and there were pressures on available salt supplies for de-icing the roads, the need for a NERCC arose as issues began to emerge in other sectors. I convened the formal committee at the request of the Taoiseach at the end of the first week of the year. Two previous interdepartmental meetings had been held that week, dealing mainly with the transport related issues, before we moved to formally convene a NERCC. That committee met on ten occasions and was stood down formally on 21 January.
All NERCC meetings were held in the national emergency co-ordination centre in Agriculture House, Kildare Street, Dublin. The primary function of a NERCC is to bring together all Government support for the front line effort, and to manage emerging issues at national level during the response to an emergency. The organisations and relevant personnel participating in the NERCC differed during the two events and also changed over the duration of the emergencies, as issues arose and were dealt with. However, the same essential approach was applied to the co-ordination of the relevant Departments, agencies, specialist and technical groups and, most importantly, those managing the response at the front line. The key groups attending were relevant Departments, State agencies, specialist agencies such as Met Éireann and the front line services. The local authorities were represented by the CCMA, while the HSE and the Garda Síochána also attended. The Defence Forces also attended both committees.
Among the benefits of the NERCC operation was the collection and exchange of information, establishing national priorities, ensuring full and immediate co-operation between various organisations, ensuring that decisions on various matters were made promptly and as required, and providing information for the public. The agenda for each meeting was in a standard format, dealing with the current situation, emerging issues, public information and safety messages.
The existence of a NERCC does not abrogate or substitute for the responsibility of any Department, local authority and other agency. Rather it provides the place in which relevant information is shared to inform the decisions and actions of all, and it facilitates full contribution from all to the nationally determined objectives. Having attended the committee, and seen the interaction of the various Departments and statutory agencies, I am satisfied that there was a sound system in place at national level to manage the emergent issues, to support the front line responders, to provide public information, and to promote public safety; all of which were factors in minimising the impact of the two exceptional weather events which this country and many unfortunate people had to endure this winter.
It is important to learn from the recent experiences, and accordingly, a review of the emergency response co-ordination and inter-agency arrangements will be undertaken. This will assist in determining what further improvements can be achieved by identifying any relevant lessons that can be learnt from the two experiences here. There may well be issues which committee members believe require further investigation. I believe the committee has been pursuing its own inquiries. As such, the committee might indeed consider undertaking and completing this as its own independent review. This is a matter for the committee, which may include the utilisation of relevant expertise to complete the task. Should the committee produce a report, I believe it could be a valuable contribution to this matter and I would welcome any recommendations and observations the committee might have, following a careful consideration of the facts.
However, it is important that any inquiries or reviews must be undertaken from the perspective of seeking to learn rather than to blame. I believe that the blame-game is a barrier to better co-ordination and collaboration. That is counter to my objective of improving the solid structures, processes and systems for multi-agency co-ordination we have succeeded in putting in place in this country over recent years.
Part of the local authorities' severe weather emergency preparation includes ensuring arrangements are in place to receive early warnings from Met Éireann. The Met Éireann forecasting arrangements entail a single system known as public service severe weather warning and cover meteorological conditions and elements such as wind, rain, thunderstorm and coastal storm surge. The emphasis is on warning of weather events that will cause significant disruption or constitute a significant risk for people. Met Éireann issues a severe weather warning to local authorities where conditions are forecast in accordance with criteria set down by the authority.
It is possible to have a degree of forewarning where flood events are concerned. All the experts have emphasised the cumulative effects of a succession of very wet weeks in causing the November floods. The forecasting tools available enable an assessment of the likelihood of a particular meteorological occurrence to be made. This information needs to be used to predict the hydrological impacts which will result in a significant flood event.
When the NERCC was convened on 20 November, one of its key functions was to bring together Met Éireann, the OPW, the ESB and local authorities at national level and to ensure that local level co-ordination was in place to manage the floods over the subsequent days and weeks. This facilitated the sharing of the four perspectives on the situation, allowing it to be used to good effect to manage the flood events. This facilitation and necessary engagement by these bodies appears to be one of the big learning points from the November flooding experience.
As lead agency for implementing the national flood policy, the Office of Public Works is working with local authorities and other State bodies to reduce the risk of future flooding, both through the provision of defences to best practice standards, putting hydrometric warning systems in place and by taking steps to mitigate or reduce future risk of flooding. In accordance with this policy, and in compliance with the EU floods directive, the OPW is undertaking a programme of flood risk assessment and management studies for each catchment in the country. The flood risk management for the Lee catchment area was launched for consultation by the Minister for State, Deputy Mansergh, on 1 February.
These studies will identify and map the areas where there is significant flood risk, and will produce a plan of prioritised measures to manage that risk. In assessing risk, significant contributing factors such as drains, dykes, underground waterways, culverts and flood plains will be considered where appropriate. The studies will consider both capital works and non-structural measures. In a parallel exercise, a screening process is currently under way by the OPW to identify other areas where the flood risk may be significant.
The recent flooding events also sharply illustrate the questionable nature of some development decisions in the past, and underline the necessity for action to avoid such developments in locations in which future flooding is predictable. The new guidelines, which I published with the Minister of State, Deputy Mansergh, last November, are aimed at ensuring that development which is vulnerable to flooding will only be permitted by planning authorities in exceptional circumstances for areas at high or even moderate risk of flooding, using clear and transparent criteria.
Issues arose in both severe weather emergencies that showed a number of weaknesses in our water services infrastructure. The problems experienced included the loss of plant through inundation, and the need to provide temporary water supply measures for communities affected. During the cold spell issues emerged in regard to the standard of installation of water piping outside and inside premises, leakage from the water distribution system and conservation in the use of water. The initial difficulties arose mainly from frozen supplies but, as the thaw set in, further damage was caused by the moving ground. Typically, over a fortnight, demand was up by 25% and the demands for water were greater than maximum water treatment capacity in many systems, leading to draining down of reservoirs. This was as a result of leakage and some consumer usage to avoid frozen domestic pipes by leaving taps running. Demand was progressively reduced through local authority efforts to find and fix leaks and manage supplies and conservation by consumers.
I commend the many local authority workers who responded to these events, working very long hours, often in difficult conditions, to provide temporary supplies, to restore supplies and to find and fix leaks. I am also grateful for the public response to calls by me and by local authorities to conserve water during the period of shortages. This needs to be sustained.
Targeting of investment on water conservation to reduce the loss due to leakage in the distribution system will be included in the water services investment programme for 2010-12. Record levels of investment have been made in recent years and this year some €508 million has been allocated, an increase over the 2009 provision.
The Department's policy guidance in regard to taking in charge of residential estates states that the construction standards adopted by planning authorities should at a minimum comply with those set out in my Department's recommendations for site development works for housing areas, which recommend standards for the diameter of pipes and the amount of cover of the pipes. This policy document includes a recommendation that water main pipe size and layout should be designed in consultation with the local authority and that water main pipes should have a minimum cover of 900 mm, and service pipes from the mains into the houses should have a minimum cover of 600 mm.
Technical guidance document G of the building regulations (hygiene) provides that, in regard to bathrooms and kitchens in dwellings, the cisterns, service pipe and fittings and any associated cold water pipes should be adequately protected against damage by frost. The guidance also states that appropriate conditions must be attached to grants of permission for residential development with regard to ensuring appropriate standards relating to drainage services and water mains and their testing.
The Department of Transport will examine matters connected with the supply, use and distribution of salt for roads and footpaths. Extra stocks of salt and the necessary storage facilities will cost extra funding and this has to be measured against the anticipated requirements. The question of harnessing community effort by, for example, local authorities supplying salt to local communities and business parks can be examined. Another area that will be considered is the question of householders and businesses in urban areas clearing snow and ice from footpaths outside their premises without incurring a legal liability which might expose them to claims for negligence.
I know well that nothing I have said about our systems is of any consolation to the hundreds of people who have suffered misery, distress, trauma, injury and loss caused by the two extreme weather events that have been visited on this country since mid-November 2009. I indicate the Government's appreciation for all the people involved in responding to the flooding and the ice and snow conditions, and for the assistance they provided to their neighbours and friends in their communities. I know there were examples of wonderful and practical community spirit, which we witnessed, and I hope we can harness this better in future and that it will continue and grow in strength.
I hope I have been able to convey my view that, on foot of the huge collaborative effort undertaken by our local authorities, the Garda Síochána and the Health Service Executive in the years from January 2005 to December 2008 in particular, we have an integrated emergency management system, devised in accordance with international best practice and fitted to the Irish organisational context which has achieved the goal of a co-ordinated, local authority-led emergency response to the emerging issues of the November flooding and the extended period of ice and snow. We all know that this is the system that will be used to manage any major emergency which occurs here. I also hope I have been able to clarify issues in regard to national co-ordination, including the first use of the new dedicated national emergency co-ordination centre.
The committee's consideration of this subject matter is very timely and useful. I look forward to reading the committee's report and hope it will be useful for the review of the arrangements which operated at both weather events, so we all have the opportunity to learn from the experiences, as no doubt there will be other severe weather events in the future.