John FitzGerald: We need to prepare now for future natural disasters

With extreme events predicted to become more frequent we need to build up responses

The European Union civil protection mechanism, put in place in 2001, provides an important framework for co-operation to tackle such disasters within the EU

The European Union civil protection mechanism, put in place in 2001, provides an important framework for co-operation to tackle such disasters within the EU

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In April 1941, at the height of the second World War, Belfast suffered a devastating blitz killing almost 1,000 people. For the previous 20 years the governments in both jurisdictions had not been on speaking terms. However, in response to an overnight telegram, the De Valera government sent 13 fire units to Belfast early the next morning to help tackle the fires. When it came to disaster, we were in it together.

More recently, extreme weather events have resulted in cross-Border co-operation to deal with disasters. Severe storms in 1987 and in 1990 devastated southern England, blowing down cables, leaving huge numbers without electricity and telecommunications. ESB and Telecom Éireann crews went to the rescue as the RAF ferried in personnel and equipment from across these islands. A similar ESB rescue mission was mounted in 2000 following a devastating storm in France and France reciprocated in 2017 when Ireland also suffered major storm damage.

The European Union civil protection mechanism, put in place in 2001, provides an important framework for co-operation to tackle such disasters within the EU. Given that the Republic and the North could mount a joint rescue mission in 1941, when relations were at a nadir, I am sure Brexit will not be an obstacle to the UK and Republic continuing to co-operate in the face of future natural disasters.

Over the coming decades, climate change will see more frequent extreme weather events and all countries will need to plan for this.

Investment

In the first place, we need substantial investment to enable us counter increased risks from hurricanes, flooding, extreme heat and fires. We need to manage our waterways, build new flood barriers and adapt our building stock to be more resilient.

We also need to prepare for the worst, providing adequate resources to handle the fallout from natural disasters when they happen. This is best done by working with our neighbours across Europe so that the burden of localised extreme events can be shared, wherever they happen.

Ireland experiences frequent storms that can affect power supplies, so the ESB is probably better equipped than most to respond to such challenges. It makes sense to share this specialist resource with our neighbours, as has happened in the past.

I recall publishing a report, about 15 years ago, suggesting the ESB was overstaffed. A few weeks later, on Christmas Eve, a serious storm knocked out power to many households. However, by 9pm on Christmas night, thanks to the ESB repair crews, these homes had power back to cook their turkeys. Afterwards, I had to admit that it was vital that the ESB carried adequate staff to cover such emergencies, whatever about increasing efficiency elsewhere.

Europe is facing increasing climate-related challenges. This summer we saw deadly floods in Germany, and devastating forest fires, caused by extreme temperatures, across southern Europe. Greece has had a truly awful summer with large areas devastated by fire. Visiting family there this autumn, it was depressing to pass through many hectares of burned-out woodland and olive groves that had taken centuries to grow.

Cross-border assistance

Through the EU civil protection mechanism, Greece had the assistance of many neighbours. Fire crews drove all the way from Poland and Slovakia, France and Italy to tackle the emergency. Specialist aircraft came from Spain, France and Italy to water-bomb the fires. These aircraft had been part-funded by the EU to enable such cross-border emergency responses. Subsequent devastating fires across Sicily, Spain and Portugal underlined the value of shared European emergency response capacity.

While we think of Ireland as having a damp climate, this year we also faced devastating and persistent wildfires in both Killarney in Kerry and Howth in Dublin. Given such events are likely to become more frequent in future, it would make sense for Ireland to actively participate in a pan-European group sharing resources to tackle fires. It’s not just about showing solidarity with our neighbours; it would also be in our own interest as more extreme weather becomes the norm. If we had had access to firefighting aircraft from France or Spain, it could have helped bring these wildfires under control earlier.

Given our island location, it takes too long to drive emergency crews from elsewhere to Ireland, or vice versa. While we have been able to rely on the RAF in the past to provide logistical support, in the future they could be otherwise occupied, and we may need to build up the capacity of our own Defence Forces to undertake this role. Unfortunately, climate change may mean that such extreme events will occur with increasing frequency.

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