“We carry each other. Because nobody else will.”   Leave a comment

This quote comes from an interview with a couple who live in a part of Gloucester that gets flooded rather often. Usually, it does not enter people’s houses, though, but in the summer of 2007 it did. Also in 2000, their home had flooded, and the previous owner of their house told them that it had happened a few times before, most notably in 1947, but also more recently. The two floodplain inhabitants have experienced many dangers and deprivations because of the flooding. Nevertheless, they emphasise how flooding brings the neighbourhood together, so that resilience to floods and community spirit are mutually reinforcing.

He:         The thing is, we don’t look at ourselves as victims.

She:       No, we like it (laughs).

He:         We like it here. And we accept the responsibility of the flooding. We pay highly for it because we pay our insurance prices or premiums. But then again, we accept that as well. So therefore, we don’t look at ourselves as victims. In flood times, we tend to help as many people as we can, simply because we are not victims. Other people are. But we don’t feel that way. We could become victims afterwards. After the flooding, when you are stuck out of your house, stuck in a caravan, stuck in a house miles upon miles away, coming here at six o’clock in the morning, going home at midnight, going back to the property you’ve got at midnight, that’s what we did in 2000 and in 2007. That’s the thing.

She:       It is the aftermath.

He:         That’s when you become victims. Not when you’re flooding. And that’s when you get no help.

She:       And that’s when all those people that are speaking in the papers, on the telly, chatting their mouths off, what they have done and what they are gonna do and that. That’s when they…

He:         They don’t exist for us because they do nothing.

She:       […] People tend to support each other in this community.

He:         Yes. We carry each other. Because nobody else will.

Alney Island, Gloucester Floods 24 July 07

Feeling let down by local government and other formal institutions, the couple and the community have learned to fend for themselves before, during and after a flood. In the following quote, they talk about how they were trying to deal with the aftermath of the 2007 flood, trying not to become victims in spite of feeling let down by official bodies.

He:         We did our own because we saw what was happening here. [Some builders] were coming and doing the job, six weeks later they were coming back to do it again, and again, and again, because the job was never done right.

Interviewer:       So what was it you organised?

He:         […] I got to talk to the insurance company and said, “We want the money.”

She:       And get our own people.

He:         “You can come and check on it,” which they did. They sent their agents down to look at what we were doing. But we got our own builders in to do the job. And we used local people. And that’s the other thing I objected to: they would come from Scotland, from Wales, one company came from Germany! Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got no objections to the Germans of French or Italians or whatever. But we got perfectly good local builders here, who could do the job and who you’ve got then somewhere to go when you don’t do the job properly. But when you’re in Scotland you haven’t got that.

She:       Other people have had problems, Lawrence over the road, because they never came back.

He:         They never came back to finish the job, they never did the job properly. They got the money, but didn’t do the jobs.

When, after the flood, most neighbours moved away while their houses were drying and being rebuilt, the couple stayed behind in a caravan on higher ground. This caravan soon developed into an impromptu community centre, as a place to meet, share information, make plans, and air grievances.

She:       Some people went to stay with parents. Some people’s insurance company paid for them. Yeah, one couple had a flat up in Gloucester, in the new warehouses. […] People were all over the place.

He:         Scattered all over the place.

She:       All scattered is the word. There was only about two, three families that stayed here.

Interviewer:       So, when everybody goes away, or scatters, how is that for the community to deal with this aftermath? As you say, it’s such a difficult…

He:         They came to our caravan (laughs).

She:       People used to come back, check on their houses, check what the builders were doing and how far they had gotten, and just come in, and go look in the garden, just to look at the river, just to reassure themselves. Come in, we’d give them a cup of tea. And then they went again.

When the flood happened in 2007, the couple, and other members of the community, already felt that they were not hopeless victims of a catastrophe, but that they were able to do certain things to mitigate the destruction. In particular, this was due to their memories of what they had been doing during the flood seven years earlier.

She:       Can I just say, going back to what he said about the 2000 flooding, I mean – what was it, three days, three nights?

He:         Yeah.

She:       The people, the whole community, I mean they’d be coming in four, five hour shifts, you know, twenty-four hours a day [maintaining a sandbag flood wall they had built along the river bank].

Interviewer:       How did you organise that? That’s really interesting.

She:       We didn’t. It just fell into place. Somehow, it wasn’t even organised.

He:         We just talked to each other. And we all… It fell into place because we all wanted to do it. And people were saying, “Well, I’m doing days, so I can do that at night.” And some were doing, “I’m doing nights, so I can do that during the day”.

She:       And some people were just coming in and out all the time whenever they had the time. But the work…

He:         …the work involved was tremendous. I mean, considering it was something like 5000 sandbags.

She:       We had three high tides. And we held them, we held off the first two. I think they were about four star bore tides. And we held off for two nights, three days, and it just caught us on that last night.

He:         Well it came from behind. Once it got us, we just walk away and then because there was nothing we could do.

She:       But again, this was done through just the people that lived here.

He:         No help from the people that spout off, what do they call them in Shire Hall…? This weightwatcher, whatever they call them.

She:       The Environment Agency didn’t come down. None of those people, none of them came down.

Experience of previous floods had taught them that they can achieve something together. Even if their self-organised flood wall did not hold out in the end, their community action had brought them much further than the help they received from the emergency services.

The thing is, you’ve got to do something for yourself. If you rely on insurance companies to actually do the job for you, you’ll wait a long time. If you wait for the Council or the Environment Agency, well you wait forever, eh? And you will still be in the same boat twenty years later. You’ve got to do something for yourself. And if you can’t do that, don’t live on a river. Don’t live anywhere near water. Live on the treetops. Live on a mountain. You’ll probably get on with flood then (laughs).

The couple realizes that their community, and a few people in particular, are vulnerable to floods. But they also feel that mutual help and looking after each other in the community can significantly reduce this vulnerability. “There are several that are vulnerable. But they are never left to be vulnerable.”

Some of their neighbours, who have lived on the floodplain their whole lives and are old enough to be considered vulnerable to floods, do not behave as if they were vulnerable at all. When the water was rising and they sandbagged the front door of one of these neighbours

He:         He opened the door and kicked them all away. […] “No, I don’t like that,” he said, “It can come in there [in the front] and will go out there [in the back].”

She:       But he was born here. And he’s been through many a flood. And that’s his tactic. He opens the front door and the back door and…

He:         …and pushes it through and doesn’t do anything else. Left it open to get the place dried out, didn’t he?

She:       And then afterwards he doesn’t have any in dehumidifiers or anything.

He:         Just leaves [his furniture] to dry outside.

She:       And then you see a couple of chairs standing there in the garden. Just like wooden chairs (laughs), drying in the breeze.

Interviewer:       Interesting way of dealing with it.

He:         He doesn’t have a proper kitchen. He’s got a sink, […] and the cooker is picked up, right up in the air. Once the flood is gone, the cooker is put down again. And he sleeps upstairs, and lives upstairs in the flood. Once the water goes down, then he washes his place out and carries on. Does a bit of touch-up painting if he needs to, and that’s about it. And that’s the way he is.

She:       Which is his perogatory.

He:         Yeah. That’s the way he wants to live. And he is still alive (laughs).

The couple believes that maintaining flood memories can be useful for knowing what practical steps to take during a flood, and when dealing with the aftermath or preparing for the next flood. Nevertheless, similar to what we have heard in other interviews, too, they believe that flood memories are most useful for instilling an attitude of resilience on the inhabitants of flood-prone areas.

Interviewer:       Was [what you had heard about previous floods] in any way useful for dealing with the 2000 and 2007?

He:         Yeah, because it sits in the back of your mind. And therefore it gives you an aid to, not actually what to do, but how to deal with it.

Interviewer:       So, not practical things, but more like an attitude?

He:         An attitude, I would say, more than practical. How to face it, how to look at it in general. To not be depressed by it. How to dominate that, and that not dominate you. That you’ve got to keep on top. No matter what, you’ve got to laugh. Otherwise you cry. So, their experiences give an insight to what they did within themselves, not within the practicality of it, but how they coped with it. And it gives you an aid to the way you cope with it. It’s attitude more than anything else.

This attitude that enables them to better cope with floods does not, of course, imply that they take any flood for granted. Rather, they critically comment on some of the processes that they see as increasing and decreasing flood risk in their area.

She:       We have been told that, from reliable sources, and particularly the person that lived here in 1947, and he in fact lived here since the nineteen thirties, it didn’t flood so much then. I mean, the forty-seven was a big one because of the snow amount and all that. It didn’t flood so much because they… What did they do in Wales?

He:         They did build a dam in Wales. […]

She:       They built a dam in Wales. And yeah, for years and years and years and years…

He:         …they had no flooding. […] But it was the actual building on the floodplain that made it. […] You’ve lost two thirds of the floodplain to building. That’s what you have to be taking into account, you are taking places like Tesco’s, the Cattle Market and all the rest of it […].

She:       And they don’t dredge. I mean, we see a large [dredger], he goes up and down now and again. But I mean, I’ve had people back here that lived in, not only in this house, in other houses, they just come back to have a look. And they’ve come out in the garden and looked at the river and they said, “Good God, it’s so much narrower than it used to be”. And it’s all silted up. As you go under the bridges, there is enough silt there to build a small housing estate on.

However, they do not buy into any old explanation for their flooding. For instance, they doubt whether Climate Change is making any significant difference in their position.

He:         It has always flooded down here. The floodplain has flooded since time began, I suppose. And since records began, it’s always flooded down here. So I don’t think that’s changed any. I think you might get the variation in the levels of flood, but I don’t think – and I think this is probably part of it – this blaming global warming for the flood, I don’t think you can. Simply because it has happened too many times before. I mean, I’m not arguing against global warming. I’m not one of those people. But at the same time, there is certain things you can’t blame. And I don’t think global warming has anything to do with the flooding down here. It might have added a couple of inches to it, but we are always gonna flood; because we always have done. And I don’t think that will change. In seven years’ time, four years’ time, whatever, we will flood again. It’s the elements coming together. Same as it did in the seventeen sixties and the sixteen sixties and the fifteen sixties and the fourteen sixties. It’s gonna come again. And global warming will have nothing to do, it might make it a little bit worse as time goes on…

She:       But there is not much difference between two foot six inches and two foot nine inches, is there?

He:         Exactly! So you can’t actually blame, like so many are trying to do lately, “Oh, you flood because of global warming”. That’s not true. It makes it worse but if you already flood, three inches isn’t gonna make a blime bit of difference.

Among the many things that local flood history and their own flood experience has taught them is a very critical attitude towards the Environmental Agency’s flood warning system. They say that most often, the flood warnings are false alarms, making people unnecessarily upset, frightened and cynical. When their home did flood, they received the automated phone message much too late; the water had long entered the property. That does not mean, however, that they were very surprised when the flood came. In their back garden that stretches all the way to the river, they know exactly to what stick and to what stone the water rises during usual, harmless floods. Once the water reaches particular sticks and stones further up the slope, they know it is time to prepare for an eventual higher flood.

She:       That’s another thing: their flood warnings, they don’t work on an area. They work on the whole River Severn which is, you probably know, is pretty long. And if they think it’s gonna flood somewhere up in North Wales […], everybody along the river gets a flood warning. And it’s usually the highest flood warning. It says “You are going to flood. Get all your livestock and animals out. Get anything valuable upstairs. Vacate your property”. And you know, they keep telling people that…

He:         And we’ve had a young couple then here, up in number seventeen […], that had just moved in.

She:       Three weeks before (laughs).

He:         […] And they had a phone call from the Environment Agency telling them to put all their furniture upstairs and leave their property. And they were in tears. They came here in tears. You know, and it was an obnoxious thing to do really, because there was never going to be a flood. […]

She:        The flood warnings are pointless, they are useless, they upset people like that. They are never accurate. I mean, when was it, one Christmas Eve, someone of the environment agency phoned me up personally […]. “You are gonna flood tonight”. And I looked out the window, and I said, “No, I’m not”. He said, “Oh, I am very sorry. You are, because our computers say this, that or the other”. And I said, “My two sticks [in the garden] say, we’re fine”. And we didn’t. We know. We see it every day. We know. I don’t know, you just get to read it. And all they’ve got is computers.

He:          And until you bring it down […] to area by area, for flood warning, then nobody is going to take any notice. […]

She:       In fact, I would say ninety-nine out of a hundred, those flood warnings are now a nuisance. And they ring sort of like six o’clock at night, and they’ve got it on a twelve hour thing. They ring you up at six o’clock in the morning. You actually get up and you answer the phone, and somebody telling you you’re gonna flood, and you look out and, oh no. You know. And I rang back once. There is a number to ring back for further information, and I did ring back once. So I told him where I lived, on the Severn at Gloucester. I said, “I just had the severe flood warning”. I said, “What shall I do?” I said, “The river is right down, way, you know, about four foot below the property. I personally don’t think I’m gonna flood”. “Oh, if you get the flood warning you must get out. You must get your animals out. Get your stuff upstairs and get into…” But honestly, if you did that every time you got a flood warning, run to a B&B or Travelodge or…

He:         You would be bankrupt, wouldn’t you?

She:       I mean, do they realise what a lot that is to do every time they ring? You know? […] So really, if their flood warnings could be a little bit more accurate, or perhaps a little bit more localised…

He:         You’ve got to localise it. Small area by small area.

The couple realizes that it is important to remember the floods, and to remember other things that they have learned, and continue to learn, about the river. They also realize that some memories are causing harm, and are best forgotten, or “shut away” most of the time.

I think the only thing you can do in any flood, in that situation, is remember the good things that happened […] like the camaraderie and things like that. And forget the bad stuff. Because the bad stuff isn’t going to do you any good. The next flood that comes along, hopefully you think about what you were doing at the beginning of a flood and you weren’t feeling too bad about it. Buoyed up by it, you can cope with the next one. If you’re looking at the depressed side of things, then you’re going to be that much more depressed before you even flood. Therefore you’re not going to be able to cope. Therefore you will have a nervous breakdown or whatever. So my viewpoint would be that you remember the good points and shut away the bad points. Because the bad points, at the end of the day, are not gonna do you any good at all. […] I don’t think they actually forget. What happens is, they shut it away. I think the mind is a great thing, the brain is a great thing. It’s got the capacity to shut things away so that you can live a life. If you were to remember the bad things in whatever situation you are in, discounting flooding, anything that you live in, if you just remember the bad things, you’re not gonna live a life, are you? You’re gonna be permanently depressed, permanently upset. And all this guff about talking about it might make it feel better… It doesn’t. It’s not gonna make you feel better, it’s gonna make you feel worse. The only thing you can do to actually continue life, in my view, that means only my personal view, is to shut it away. Because otherwise you can’t live. At some stage you can bring it back if you need to.

Being able to bring back these memories when needed presupposes to keep them alive in some form, and also to pass them on to other people, such as to new residents in the neighbourhood. The couple is regularly involved in organising street parties and other social events that bind the community together and provide opportunities for sharing and passing on memories of floods and other locally relevant issues.

He:         I can’t remember what the last [party] was for. It was just to… have a chat.

She:       Because of some new people had moved into the street. We said, it would be nice for the new people to get to know the people who already lived here.

Interviewer:        And on these occasions, do floods come on as a subject?

She:       Yeah, sometimes.

He:         Of course it does. You talk about it, you know. And then, that’s the time when the bad things come out as well as the good things.

She:       And the jokes.

He:         And the jokes. But the thing about it is, in my view, the only way you get through these kind of things is by looking for the good side. […] You look at the good side and you pass that good side on to other people. So, with the bad that’s happened, you’ve got the good. And that can only come from the people suffering that situation. It can’t come from prats outside. It’s got to come from the people within. And until you can do that, or if you can’t do that, then you’re gonna suffer even more in the long term.

She:       And […] due to flooding [we] have a community where people…

He:         … band together. […]

She:       If we do have a street party or anything, at some point during the evening [flooding] will…

He:          It will always come up.

She:        And the old stories come out.

He:          At three o’clock in the morning, when that street party was going on, in the end it was a group of chairs in the middle of the street, a big circle of chairs. […] Yeah, and we were all sitting around that and we talked about what? The flooding.

She:        And there was two new people there.

He:          And so therefore, it was passed on.

She:       And they said, […] “Oh, well hopefully it won’t happen again.” And we all said, “Yeah, it will happen again! But don’t worry, we’ll all…” (laughs)

He:         So, you know I mean, there is nothing hidden. I say, you shut it away, you shut it away in ordinary daily life, to live. But when you get meetings like that it all comes out. It’s all talked about.

She:       And mainly the funny things. It’s the funny things we talk about more.

He:         The good things come up on top. And the jokes come out.

The couple has been flooded twice in the fourteen years of living on the river. Flooding clearly is a major concern to them. But they do not emphasise the problems this brings with it. Rather, they stress the joys of living close to the river and the community spirit that comes with suffering floods together, helping each other out during and after the flood, and collectively feeling let down by local authority and other formal institutions.

Questions that arise from this interview include:

What are the causal relations between community help/spirit and flood coping with floods?

Does common flood experience regularly bond communities together? Or what are the conditions necessary for this to happen?

How can people who feel left out from formal flood risk management be taken on board? And how can formal flood risk management benefit from the ample local knowledge that exists in such communities?

How can communities be supported in developing and passing on their flood memories, for instance in street parties and similar community settings?

What role can flood memory play in flood-risk communities, both in instilling an appropriate attitude towards floods and in passing on practical knowledge of how to deal with floods?

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