Flood in Var (France): what lessons for post crisis management?

Blandine Boeuf


Since the 1990s, increasing attention has been paid to natural disasters management on the international scene. In 2005 the United Nations developed the Hyogo framework for action 2005-2010, aiming at reducing natural disasters impacts. In particular, the Hyogo framework recommends the building of nations and communities resilience (UNISDR1, p.1). Therefore, implementing this framework first requires to understand natural disasters potential impacts and the resilience processes that can be implemented at the community scale.

Natural disasters impacts are not limited to human lives losses and material damages. Impacts can be visible over the long term and disturb flood victims existence in many ways (for instance physical and psychological health, social life or family life). The issue of human and material losses following natural disasters has already been largely addressed in the existing literature. On the contrary, this article focuses on an issue which has not been much explored yet, i.e. individuals and communities well being over the long term. Well being has been defined as the ‘positive evaluation of one’s lives’ (Seligman, 2002). Numerous factors influence well being, among them economic and material resources (Diener & Seligman, 2004), social relationships and status (Helliwell & Putnam, 2011), physical and psychological health (Heliwell & Putnam, 2011).

The concept of resilience refers to  »(a) the amount of disturbance a system can absorb and still remain within the same state or domain of attraction, (b) the degree to which the system is capable of self-organization and (c) the degree to which the system can build and increase the capacity for learning and adaptation«  (resilience alliance, 2011). Resilience may thus be seen as an ability to live with a disturbance and adapt to it (Adger, 2003).

Natural disasters management in France mostly relies on prevention and crisis management. Not much attention is paid to the post-crisis phase. However, resilience and adaptation to the disaster are taking place during this phase. What are the impacts of a natural disaster over the long-term? Which resilience mechanisms do individuals and communities develop in order to face and adapt to the disturbance of well being?

A case study was chosen to answer these questions, more precisely the case of the flood of 15th June 2010 in the Var region. This event lead to 23 deaths, 2 disappearances and 950 million euros estimated material damages (MEDDM, 2010). The flood spread to the whole river basin. The mountainous region in the upper basin was first impacted, followed by the cities of Draguignan and Trans-en-Provence (most severely affected regarding human lives), then down to the Argens plain and at the mouth of the river in the lower basin. This research focuses on the evolution of the situation during the year following the flood (up to the summer 2011). The aim of this research is to address the following questions. Which impacts did the flood trigger off beyond the crisis? Which resilience, self-organisation and adaptation processes happened? Finally, how and to which extent did the populations manage to overcome an event of such an extent? The objective is also to identify potential improvements for natural disasters management, in particular regarding governance. Such improvements would help minimising natural disasters impacts over the long term and complying with Hyogo Framework for action 2005-2015.

How did the situation evolve during the year following the flood of 15th June 2010 ?

Considering the human and material consequences of the flood of 15th June 2010, the immediate impacts on victims and affected communities well being were considerable. But which impacts did the flood cause to survivors and affected populations over the long term? How did these impacts evolve during the year following the flood? How and to which extent did they disappear (or increase) through resilience processes?

Impact on flood victims individual well being

Regarding impacts and resilience processes at the individual level, flood victims well being has been modified during the year following the flood of 15th June 2010 through the various factors influencing well being (economic resources, social relationships, health…). Material losses caused stress and tiredness to flood victims. These consequences were mainly due to uncertainties of damages being paid by insurance companies, insured experts objections, delays of reimbursements, disturbances of future projects, partial loss of identity (through the loss of personal items) and the ‘mourning’ (as flood victims called it themselves) of personal objects and homes. However, flood victims economic resources sometimes increased, thanks to damages repayments, new items purchases or financial benefits. Changes in social lives were not straightforward either. The flood event happened to be a negative disturbance for some flood victims (leading to separations or disaffection with friends or family members who did not offer their help). On the contrary, the flood improved the social relationships of many other flood victims. Many interviewees recalled pleasant encounters and cohesion reinforcement between friends, family members and neighbours. Many also related the experience of solidarity ; an experience they would not have lived without the flood occurrence. Consequences on individuals health were ambivalent as well. The physical (tiredness, wounds…) or psychological health (stress, anxiety, tiredness, fear of future flooding…) of some flood victims was highly disturbed. Others on the contrary acknowledged a strengthening of their psychological well being, since they felt useful and get to know themselves and their ability to face new challenges better. Considering the global picture, flood victims well being changed during the flood, but also during the months following the flood. As a consequence, a new well being state, different from the pre-flood state and from the immediate post-flood state was achieved.

Flood victims well being has not only changed in nature as a result of the flood, but varied and evolved with time. These evolutions arose along with the new issues flood victims had to face (e.g. possibilities of expropriation or non-repayment of damages by insurance companies) but also with the resilience processes implemented to overcome flood impacts. Here are some examples of resilience processes developed by flood victims. Medications and therapies were used by some victims, others entirely dedicated themselves to the reconstruction of their houses and businesses. They thus distracted their minds from the flood experience and its immediate consequences. Many flood victims tried to identify the causes explaining the flood occurrence. Many also tried to focus on the positive consequences of this event or to put the negative ones into perspective (in particular in comparison with the flood victims more severely affected). Flood victims resilience processes were sometimes made easier by external help, e.g. the support provided by family members and friends, solidarity, firemen, NGOs, financial help, media, insured experts, associations…

Therefore, flood consequences on well being largely differed across individuals. The extent to which flood victims were affected by the flood (extent of material losses, losses of close relatives…) and differences in personal resilience processes and in external help received both explain this disparity.

Impact on organisations supporting flood victims

Once the disaster over, individual resilience processes were highly influenced by the expectations towards organisms supposed to help flood victims. However, not only individuals were impacted by the flood. Organisations coming in support of flood victims (i.e. local administrations (sub-prefectorate, general council…), social services (communal centers for social action, non governmental organisations…) and technical services (ERDF, Veolia…)) also had to face the natural disaster consequences and implement resilience processes. They had to take up three successive challenges. They first had to manage the flood impact on their own structure (i.e. individual impacts on agents or buildings, material and infrastructures destruction) in order to be functional again. Moreover, they set up a specific internal organisation able to help flood victims. They first tackled issues related to the urgent crisis (e.g. sanitary issues such as the presence of dead animals or the damages done to the drinking water networks, sewers or sewage treatment plants, shelter, water, food and clothes distribution), then to the reestablishment of a normal and functional situation (infrastructures repairing, cleaning, removal of obstacles to the river flow, furniture and household appliances distribution). This management rose coordination and tasks sharing issues between organisations, as well as logistic (donations stock and distribution) and qualification issues (agents not trained or lack of experience of some organisations for this type of situation). Crisis cells were implemented to welcome flood victims and help them to find solutions adapted to the damages suffered. Clothes, water and food distribution were organised. A psychological cell was implemented as well as a urban and social project management to address the housing issue.

They finally had to face the accumulation of cases related to their usual functions (i.e. to their pre-flood activities) and to the flood (in particular housing issues -many accommodations being no longer habitable-, psychological consequences on flood victims and difficulties of damages repayment by insurance companies).

They had to prioritise cases (flood-victims and non-victims taken together), depending on the situation emergency and the possibilities of addressing it, and manage in the best possible way resentfulness between flood-victims and non-victims.

This event also helped to develop thoughts on flood risk management (regarding prevention), based on a feedback on the flood causes and the crisis development. This feedback recommended a merge of the inter-communal unions in charge of river management, in order to increase the financial and human means available. They lead to the implementation of Plans for Flood Risks Prevention aiming at limiting urbanisation, of action and prevention plans against floods, to a request from the river management union for the implementation of a management plan for the Nartuby river and to the adaptation of crisis management plans to the case of flooding. All these measures are related to prevention and crisis management.

The framework within which individuals and communities resilience could take place was thus shaped by the actions of the organisations supporting flood victims after the event, by providing them or not with helps and resources.

Self-organising process at the community scale: solidarity and struggle for a better flood risk management

Finally, flood impacts and self-orgnising processes at the community scale deserve specific attention. They do not result from a simple average or aggregation of individual impacts and processes. They are also the effect of emergent properties. Community self-organisation conveyed on the one hand the emergence of solidarity and the strengthening of its cohesion, and, on the other hand, feelings of injustice and frustration at the response or indifference of insurance companies or authorities. This self-organisation materialised in particular through the setting up of associations addressing these different objectives, which sometimes evolved with time.

Spontaneous movements of solidarity arose very quickly after the disaster. They aimed at bringing to flood victims human and material means as well as psychological support.

Inhabitants from the surrounding cities and individuals from the whole country gathered to clean, to repair, to distribute food, furniture and clothes or to give shelter. The spontaneous creation of the collective 115 illustrates this phenomenon. The house number 115 from the district St Hermantaire in Draguignan (i.e. the district the most severely impacted by the flood) became a place of gathering for the inhabitants and the external help, and a collecting point of material help. This house remained afterward a gathering place for the inhabitants. Other spontaneously created associations aiming at helping flood victims quickly became places where tensions converged and came into light. Their objectives and activities thus changed with time. They intended in the first place to support flood victims through the administrative tasks and delays in damages repayment by insurance companies, or to address flood victims material needs. However, they asked in a second place for actions to be implemented and for a better flood management by the authorities (in particular, they asked for the improvement (or the implementation) of alert systems, of water courses management and of communication on the actions being implemented).

This was the case of l’Association des Sinistrés du 15 juin 2010 (ADS 15), created by flood victims in Trans-en-Provence, two weeks after the flood event. The objective was originally to help flood victims to complete administrative tasks. Very quickly, the association also contributed to address other material needs. However, this association was not only created as a result of solidarity, but was also born from resentment and anger. These feelings arose with the conviction that a better river management could have prevented such consequences. According to ADS 15, the river association has been warning since 2005 about the need for river works and the lack of available financing and means. ADS 15 thus deplores a flawed river management, a poorly structured post-flood management, an insufficient moral support from local authorities for the flood victims and a lack of measures being implemented since 15th June 2010.

The association Vivre installé au Val d’Argens (VIVA), spontaneously created a few months after the flood, stands for another example. The original aim was to help flood victims still facing difficulties with their insurance companies or threatened by expropriation. However, the association became afterwards a privileged link between flood victims and local authorities. VIVA also asked a member of parliament for a parlamentary enquiry on the flood circumstances. The objective was both to understand how such an event and such consequences could have happened and to shed light on potential dysfunctions in flood management.

Later on, the Association pour la Défense de la Nartuby (ASDN) was born following new floods on 31st october 2010.

Lack of understanding and satisfaction amongst the inhabitants of the village of Rebouillon lead to the creation of this association. This discontent arose from the visible lack of measures taken to clean the river, change the village disastrous aspect and garantee the inhabitants security. Amongst the three associations previously cited, two of them even thought of hiring a lawyer, which shows an increase in tensions between the authorities and the flood victims.

Again, the resilience process at the community level varied and evolved with time, as new individual needs arose. Consequently, communities boundaries have been reshaped. Solidarity gathered the whole society, including people not belonging to the communities impacted. Society worked thereof united for a same objective. On the contrary, solidarity progressive disappearance and the rising of feeling abandoned gathered flood victims around a common fate and fight for a better flood management, whereas feeling misunderstood created a deeper gap within society.

Thus, community self-organisation processes result from individual resilience needs towards impacts on well being. These needs are the determination by authorities of the potential mistakes leading to the immediate consequences of the flood, the implementation of visible actions (i.e. that can be seen or known tanks to a better communication) preventing the new occurrence of similar consequences and the recognition, compassion and support of the media and the authorities for the impacts that flood victims suffered during the flood and had to face during the months following the event.

How can this new situation be explained ?

Long-term flood impacts on individuals and society are the result of resilience processes, which are achieved or not. As noticed previously, floods have direct impacts on individuals well being and then successive impacts of a different nature. These impacts reflect resilience needs. If the need is satisfied, the impact diminishes or disappears. Individuals needs belong to survival (basic needs in water, food, shelter, clothes…) in the first place. In a second place, flood victims feel the need for rebuilding their lives and project themselves in the future, by erasing the remains of the flood. This phase requires the removal of the flood visible consequences in the landscape, the damages repayment by insurance companies, in order to afford reconstruction and the possibility to know one’s fate (in particular regarding potential expropriation). Uncertainty and feeling abandoned then belong to well being most disturbing factors. In the longer term, flood victims need to ascertain that such an event and consequences will not happen again and the possibility to live in confidence and quietness. This resilience step involves the need for understanding what happened and for being ensured that measures are taken to prevent flood victims from experiencing a similar event again. At the community scale, emerging impacts arise. Flood victims gather around a “common fate” (Williams & Drury, 2009), creating new links and strengthening trust between individuals. But dissensions also arise within society. These tensions and part of the population loss of trust in authorities result from unsatisfied resilience needs and resilience processes which do not succeed in compensating for the impacts created by the flood. Consequently, a constraining external framework not addressing the needs expressed by the population (in this case, the need to feel reassured about a possible future flood or the need for the implementation of specific actions, such as river cleaning, evacuation plans or river watching) may appear as an obstacle to individuals resilience. This situation can lead to a not much desirable organisation state of society. Non-immediate impacts of floods on individuals and communities well being are thus very dependent and not separable from the resilience processes implemented.

Looking separately at the various levels structuring society - i.e. individuals, communities and external help- for the study of resilience processes (Obrist et al, 2010), each level appears to have different impacts, needs and challenges to face. Resilience processes were not only implemented by communities and individuals. External organisations also needed to reorganise, to adapt to flood victims needs and to learn lessons from this experience. Moreover, these different levels interact. One level can facilitate (or hinder) the resilience of another by putting at disposal (or not) available and necessary resources for resilience (Obrist et al, 2010). Individuals and community need external help and habilitating factors. External help rely on resources made available by individuals and the community (for instance solidarity). Each level may thus be constraining or facilitating for another. Therefore, the challenge at stake is to optimize the disposal and use of resources, and thus to optimize resilience. However, differences in resilience needs and speeds appear for each level. External help targets as a priority crisis management and the return to a state of normal functioning, i.e. to a pre-flood situation. This help thus immediately focuses on addressing flood victims basic needs and repairing infrastructures. External help also tries to avoid the return of a similar situation by learning and adapting, through the implementation of plans or works over the longer term. However, such measures require time to be implemented and are not immediately visible for the population. On the contrary, individuals and communities aim at well being and psychological resilience. They thus need to be rapidly supported and reassured by the authorities. The various levels considered thus pursue differing objectives or at different deadlines. As a result, incompatibility between these levels needs and speeds in resilience arise, arousing frustrations, feelings of abandon and social conflicts. Community self-organisation thus answers two phenomena. Self-organisation aims at answering community’s needs. Therefore, self-organisation expresses itself through solidarity, associations creation, centralization and use of the resources made available by external help. However, community self-organisation also results from the gap existing between the help brought and the resources needed. Self-organisation here comes into play in order to bridge this gap and ask for more resources to address individuals and the community’s needs (thus the change in associations initial objectives). This second phenomenon may lead to divisions and social conflicts, threatening society’s well being.


The case of the 15th June 2010 flood in the Var region showed the lack of previous thinking regarding post-crisis management. Immediate and essential needs were rather well managed. On the contrary, resources made available to address flood victims longer-term needs could be optimised. The gap between individuals needs and resources made available does not only exist for some isolated individuals, but also at the community and even at society’s scale. As a result, negative impacts and consequences for individuals well being and society’s well-functioning arise. Consequently, external help resilience objectives may have to be revised in order to take better account of individuals resilience objectives and to focus not only on the return to a state of normal functioning, but also on well being. Thoughts on the objectives to reach, on the desirable equilibrium states following resilience and on the helps and resources to provide consequently would then be necessary to develop. These thoughts should also be targeted at optimizing and relying on self-organisation phenomena at the community scale in order to facilitate external help resilience. A multi-level approach then seems the most suitable in order to think at the roles, the objectives and the resources necessary and at disposal. Therefore, the first step to implement would be to acknowledge the importance of natural disasters post-crisis management and to think in advance of this management implementation and governance.

1 L’UNISDR est le département en charge de la réduction des risques de catastrophes au sein des Nations Unies. Il a été créé en décembre 1999 avec pour mission d’assurer la mise en œuvre de la stratégie internationale pour la réduction des catastrophes.


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