Flood 2012 swamps Russia: Does Early Warning Works?

The weather has waged quite a battle against Russia since Friday night when heavy rains caused massive flooding in the southern part of the country.  Over 12,000 people have been effected, with many poorly constructed homes simply collapsing on top of its inhabitants. The equivalent of five months’ rain fell overnight in some southern parts of the country, and the death toll is likely to rise 150 as more bodies are discovered. People are on the street, they are at a loss what to do. Helicopters are flying overhead, they are evacuating people from the flooded areas. Flood is a common phenomena in Russian even though its seems people are not fully prepared for it. St. Petersburg is often threatened by floods as most of its downtown territory is located just several feet above sea level. The founder of the city, Peter the Great, had chosen a very low-lying area on which to build St. Petersburg and from its very foundation, floods were a major problem. In August 1703, three months after the city was founded, the waters of the Neva River rose 6 feet above normal levels and washed away construction materials for the Peter and Paul Fortress. The city has experienced over 270 major floods since then.  The largest flood occurred on November 19 1824, when the river reached 13.5 feet (410 centimeters) over the usual level. On that day most of the city was flooded, between 208 and 569 people were drowned and 462 houses were destroyed. The second severest flood (over 12 feet high) was in 1924. In some areas of the city the water flowed to a height of 7-8 feet and many of the ships in the port were washed ashore.

Most of the floods take place in the fall and early winter when all the above negative factors combine. Since the 18th century the level of the city’s streets has been increased significantly, but some of the areas close to the rivers and canals can still be seriously damaged during major floods. In the 1970s the decision was taken to build a long dam across the Gulf of Finland (west of St. Petersburg), which would protect the city from the affects of the floods. However, the project was not completed due to a huge environmental controversy and a lack of funding. Meanwhile, the problem is far from solved and the city awaits the next major flood with a distinct air of apprehension.

It has long been recognized that when communities have advance information on flood forecasts; the adverse effects associated with it are often minimized. Flood warnings provide a well established way to help reduce risks to life and property during flood events. Hydrological forecasts are often used as a component of flood warning systems, and can improve the accuracy of warnings and the lead time available, giving more time to protect property and evacuate areas at risk. Prevalence of traditional forecast practices in various parts of the world reflects the demand for long range forecasts and appropriate interpretation of the probabilistic long lead forecasts to manage uncertainties associated with climate variability.  Russia could learn lessons from the past to build a better future.

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