THE damage wreaked by Storm Arwen - and views on the response to it - were laid bare at a public meeting.

Strategic manager Kevin Edworthy outlined Durham County Council's plans for such emergencies, reviews following the storm and a proposed improvement plan.

Three people were killed and one million homes lost power - more than 100,000 for several days - as hundreds of falling trees and poles brought lines down when the biggest storm for a decade hit the north on November 26 to 27 last year.

Almost 14,900 properties lost power in County Durham and 120 council buildings were damaged by "one of the most disruptive weather events" in recent times.

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Many homes went without power for several days before it was restored fully on December 9. Rail services were cancelled and roads blocked by trees and overturned vehicles.

A report told of the scale of the response - more than 5,000 visits to check on vulnerable residents, over 2,000 extra tonnes of waste collected, 41 food vans sent out, 14 households offered temporary accommodation and 330 emergency support packs given out containing items like heaters, stoves, hand-warmers, toiletries, torches, batteries and food supplies.

Reviews and debriefs followed in the wake of the storm.

A national review found information and data provided by utility companies to local responders "wasn't fit for purpose".

There was "a lack of shared understanding or agreement between the utility companies and local responding agencies as to who was responsible for what" in some areas.

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A council review found a mixed view from members of the public.

Many were not satisfied with the speed of response and communication, while others commented favourably on the efforts of frontline staff, responders, councillors and MPs.

"But there's no getting away from it, there were lots of people who weren't necessarily happy with the response," said Mr Edworthy.

"There was an expectation that the council should be stepping up."

Many people and councillors "expected that the council should provide support and that this should happen quickly and sooner than it did", said the report.

There was concern about how long it took the council and others to recognise the severity of the situation. 

A major incident was declared on December 1, five days after a rare red weather warning was issued from the Met Office, two days before the military was brought in.

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Utility companies were allowed up to 48 hours to reconnect customers before people were entitled to compensation, but people "expected immediate response and support".

There were concerns about how effective command and control was during the first few days, when it was not clear who was leading efforts.

But once a Local Resilience Forum (LRF) response was established, it proved effective.

The council played a significant role with officers stepping in at short notice and working out of hours to support people, while community, voluntary and faith groups gave rapid and spontaneous support, opening up buildings and churches and providing hot meals.

Town and parish councils were praised in the meeting as "absolutely incredible" and the work of Northern Powergrid engineers was recognised.

With lessons learned from Arwen, the response had improved with later storms.

The council's review highlighted the need to "improve awareness and understanding of emergency planning and response" among councillors, officers and staff, make responsibilities clear and share information. 

An improvement plan has been drawn up to help prepare and organise for future incidents.

It includes training, raising awareness, funding, resources, public advice, communication, improving power sources at community buildings, a register of vulnerable people and preparing for a "surge".

A final action plan is expected to be taken to the council cabinet in July.


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