“The EA want to take over the responsibility and we resisted that very vigorously really”   Leave a comment

This quote comes from a ‘semi-retired’ farmer from Deerhurst, explaining the flood defence scheme that the village, in collaboration with the Environment Agency (EA), had upgraded extensively after the 2007 floods. After the levee surrounding the lower end of the village had been heightened and a number of improved flood gates had been installed, the question arose of who should be responsible for operating these gates. The villagers wanted to retain the responsibility of managing the gates, as they felt better qualified to do so than the EA,

because we know when they want closing and the EA don’t. And in 2007, after the 2007 flood peaked, the EA rang up and said ‘are the gates shut?’ (laughs) So, you know, we want… And no way are we going to worry about getting them shut, if we’ve got our own, you know. And also the EA, once the floods do come they are so busy upstream getting various gates and things shut that I think it wouldn’t be a very reliable situation, so we’ve made it plain that we want responsibility to shut it.

The village, being located on the floodplain and close to the river, has a long history of flooding, and also of flood defences. In the past decades, however, their flood defences had kept the waters out of the village. Many villagers were confident that this would be the same in 2007, and were caught by surprise when it wasn’t.

I don’t think any of us realised it was going to be as big as it was until is started coming in at quite a fast rate. And then we realised the water outside the banks was higher, and we knew that we were coming up to the same level as the water outside really, and my son was busy, well the whole family here were pretty busy helping down in the village; and a lot of the villagers ‘said what about your own house?’  I said, ‘oh we never get flooded, we’re right up at the top of the bank, we never get flooded so there’s no need to worry about us,’ and then suddenly we realised our own house was getting flooded, but by then a lot of the people down the village were helping down there and it was too late to save anything and so quite a few of them came up here to help us.  It was very community spirited.

Throughout the interview, the farmer emphasises how the community stuck together, both during the flood and when dealing with its aftermath.

we’re a very close-knit community here, there are only 20 houses in the village and we all know each other and we know who is old and who is vulnerable and all the rest of it and our first priority really was to go round and just warn people there was going to be trouble, and you start thinking of rations and this sort of thing. Then as the water started coming into the village all the fit people went round the village and just called into the houses to see if they were happy, and as it got more and more serious we went in and said that you must get out of the village before the problem starts.  The older and vulnerable ones were the ones who were reluctant to move and they said, ‘oh no, we’re all right, we’ve experience it before, we’ll move upstairs,’ and we started moving a lot of the furniture upstairs.  You know, there were quite a lot of us here and quite a lot of the younger, fitter people were moving stuff upstairs and helping other people.

What seemed to have helped was that the village acts like a community not only in times of emergency, but also in calmer times. Presumably, this facilitated communication, mutual help, and a quick response during the flood.

I think we are a very close community.  When there are charity things, and particularly the church, it’s a very famous church here and 20 households can’t keep it maintained obviously. And we have major fundraising events, the whole community gets together, even if they’re non-church-goers, get together and support the whole event really.  The major things are our Flower Festival which we have every other year, and that of course is an event where we decorate the whole church with flower arrangements and we have various stalls and things and the whole village helps then, not only Deerhurst but the next village as well, Apperley, which is in the same Parish but different village, and they’re all tremendous and will come and help.

In this kind of social environment, the villagers were able to very quickly form a flood committee after the floods, planning and securing funding for the improvement of their physical flood defences.

We were already existing with a pretty good set-up really, and then after the 2007 flood it was realised by the village that the flood defences wanted making much higher and much stronger. And so this sub-committee was formed of 5 of us I think, and we then started making plans to get grants to fund the situation and put great pressure on the EA to help and do something about it, and there were also flood relief funds available.  […] And we were very enthusiastic too.  We had some very enthusiastic members.  We had a local solicitor, we had a civil engineer living in the village, so we had quite a powerful committee really.

Flood defences in Deerhurst have a long history, probably going back to Medieval times, when a Benedictine monastery had been located there. Existing flood walls had been gradually improved, for instance in the 1970s, purely by villagers’ efforts. Therefore, the 2007 flood exceeding the flood wall came as a major shock to many.

I think we were feeling pretty confident and we were sympathetic to the people who were getting flooded farther up the river who hadn’t got defences like we had got. And Upton-on-Severn is another one, you know where they are roughly, upstream anyway, they got extremely flooded, and all the sympathy was there, saying ‘poor things’ and feeling quite confident ourselves.

The farmer maintains that remembering floods is important for living in a place like Deerhurst, on the floodplain.

I think the big advantage is really experience, and the next generation experiencing what could be a problem in the future.  My thought is that this is the third flood bank put, and year after year it seems to want making higher, so obviously the flooding situation is over the years getting worse and I think experiences from the previous floods is quite a benefit for the next generation to understand.  And I think for instance, my son has got a pretty good knowledge now of what should be done and when the gates should be closed.  We’ve now got gates instead of the old-fashioned boards that we used to put up.  The gates have to be shut and you have to have a certain amount of knowledge as to when you shut them.

He says that although ‘we’re getting back to normal, […] we still do discuss it obviously.’ One danger he sees for maintaining memories of the flood is that it may not come up in conversation as much, as time goes by. Nevertheless:

I think people visiting us, friends ask questions about the floods and off you go again.  The other danger I think is that people don’t stay in the communities for very long now, whereas in 1947 they were all employed locally and they lived there all their lives in the village.  Now, every 5-10 years people have a job somewhere else and they move out and then of course the stories get lost perhaps, so much.  People like the oldies like myself, you know, are probably the only ones who remember 1947 for instance, but the 2007 flood there’s going to be a lot of photographic evidence and a lot of articles written.  It’s all written so much better than it was in 1947.  That evidence will reinforce some of the verbal evidence of people, I think.

[…] And even now, if a house is put up for sale you have to declare that it is in a flooded area.  We’ve got two houses on the market now and actually on the brochure of the sale it says ‘liable to flooding’.  You’ve got to declare it now legally, and one or two people have been interested in buying the property have been talking to me about it.  I had somebody last night talking about it.

When asked what role the River Severn itself plays in remembering the 2007 floods around Deerhurst, the farmer explains:

The way it comes up and down, and when it starts to come up and you say ‘oh no, it’s not like it was before’, and then it brings back the memories of what we had, and the village will talk about it.  If the river is coming up and the floods come out, I get quite a lot of people ringing me up and saying ‘what advice? Do I need to get the car out?’ or whatever.

The issues that this interview raises in terms of the research project include:

(1)    What is the relation between (successful) flood defences and flood memories? Do functional levees make people forget their flood experience, so that once the levees fail they are hit even harder?

(2)    What is the most adequate way of sharing responsibility between communities and formal institutions?

(3)    What are the relations between a community’s resilience to floods and general community life? And how is communal memory implicated in this relationship?

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