Three members of the WI recount the events that occurred during a unique flooding experience in their small town, Winchcombe. Despite parts of the town susceptible to the occasional flood, the bottom of Castle Lane in particular, this event eclipses anything any of these ladies have experience before, and since. All the members were affected in different ways when the flooding occurred. Member 1 tells of her terrifying journey back from lunch.
‘Being driven back from outside Cheltenham back along the B4077 back into Winchcombe and it was all rivers. Rivers coming down Gretton meeting the road we were on and it’s really frightening…… it’s just the rapidity of the day and suddenly you’re in a dry place and then you’re not in a dry place. So that’s pretty scary.’
Member 2 had further exposure to the torrent of water, quite literally. Member 2’s house was flooded during the early moments of the flood. The stream beside her house burst its banks and her initial reaction gives the impression of shock.
‘’Immediately, I didn’t know what to do, just seeing this like a wave coming toward you and eventually reach your house and we have a conservatory there and it was like every little pinprick it was coming through.’
Finally Member 3 discussed here initial reactions of the flash floods, in which she was impassive. She would later take two people into her home that had been stranded.
The unusual event is summed up by Member 1’s comments:
‘I don’t think anyone expected something like this to happen. And so, there’s never been no previous warnings, thoughts, training to make you think about what you would do if you were flooded. When it happened and people weren’t ready for it.’
This flood was a flash flood – it came rapidly but also receded quickly. For most people, the real impact of the 2007 flood was the effect that the closure of the water treatment facility had on their lives. They had to use bottled water for everything .The bottles didn’t last long for normal everyday jobs i.e. washing clothes and person, cooking and the toilet. The ladies even remember that immediately after the flood, basic provisions like bread and milk were also in short supply. Little information about how things were developing came from the water company Severn Trent, but they remember being regularly updated by community radio stations like Radio Winchcombe and Radio Gloucester. They felt that their small town, on a Cotswolds hill, was being neglected by formal flood relief efforts, as all attention was on Tewkesbury and Gloucester. The combination of the feeling of ‘us against the world’ and the reluctance of the council to help people in peripheral areas hill resulted the mutual help that Members 1 and 2 comment on:
Member 2: ‘There was a community spirit.’
Member 1: ‘Yes there’s camaraderie when you are in a disaster and everybody is helping everybody, a Blitz mentality.’
The interview seemed to stimulate to their memories as they confessed they hadn’t shared or discussed the stories of the floods since the publication of the WI-edited collection The Gloucestershire Floods 2007. They confessed that it had almost been forced upon them to share their stories for the book.
Member 1: ‘I think our president, Joan, called us up and said you were doing it.’
Member 3: ‘We tried to but we couldn’t get out of it’.
Two interesting things come from this. Due to the flood becoming extremely unique to the village, the apparent hesitation to contribute to the book seems to be unusual. On top of this, being the first time they had talked about these events since 2008 seems striking also. Something that affects you on that rare occasion is usually talked about in society, as it is out of the norm of people’s daily lives. In contrast many one-off events around the world are forgotten after the immediate event, and only remembered on distinctive anniversaries, if at all.
On the other hand, the particular way the flood figures in the memories of these three ladies also suggests that a single flood does not necessarily instil the awareness of flood risk on a community. Rather, the flood is perceived as a one-off disaster, and after some structural drainage improvements has been made, the flood receded into history. While it may provide a few exciting stories, it has little relevance for everyday life.
Interviewer: So if the same thing would happen tomorrow what would be different?
Member 3: I think it would just be the same. We would just be in a mess like last time.
Member 2: If it happened like that on the water would just come.
Member 3: Mind you we would fill all our kettles and pans up wouldn’t we?
Member 1: That wouldn’t last long.
An unusual occurring theme is portrayed during the entirety of the interview, laughter. Anything distressing that is remembered seems to be followed by an expression of laughter.
‘The thing is for me I’d only come out of hospital couple of days previous to this happening and was told to rest (laughs). I was there with a pan and bucket and was thinking this is my rest! (Laughs).’
This emotion continues when the ladies account living in the aftermath of the floods especially with the sense of the unfamiliarity about this one-off event.
Interviewer: How long would it last for [the bottles of water]?
Member 2: You’ve got to think about the amount of tea you make (laughs)
There can be many reasons why the interviewee’s laughed when telling certain stories. These reasons can include, as discussed, the rarity of the event; embarrassment of some the actions taken during the event or quite possibly used as a defence mechanism to shadow something distressing from the event.
What this account explores is:
Even within a small town community, people experience floods differently, before, during and after the event.
The formal flood relief organizations concentrated their efforts elsewhere, possibly forced by the media, and looked past floods in peripheral areas.
The reference of Blitz mentality seems to confirm an almost automatic response to disasters: If there is a threat from the outside, people stick together and help each other out.
Due to the the uniqueness of the event, memories aren’t forgotten. However, they do not seem to be considered relevant for life today.
The expression of laughter frequently accompanies what can be regarded distressing and extremely unfamiliar circumstances.