Do disaster events such as floods re-establish communities? And do these communities exist only as long as the common experience prevails? Many of the interviews conducted for this project suggest that flood experience fosters a sense of community that is not necessarily seen under everyday conditions. Many people refer back to the Blitz Spirit, which seems to be the quintessential disaster community they remember. A constant theme throughout this interview is how the community spirit positively – and surprisingly – supports flood victims:
“And the Brewers Fayre, the Travelodge place up by the motorway, was just ram-packed because everyone had just come off there and in fact all of their rooms had gone, and I remember stories afterwards that how well the waiting staff had done. There were free hot chocolate or free drinks and things. I remember a letter in the newspaper at what a credit the staff was. They couldn’t get home but they kept working, serving all of these people and trying to get blankets. I know a couple off the Ashchurch Road; I know they went out with cups of tea and things [to people] that were stuck in the traffic. I think they let some people stay. I think they just said to them, “Are you stuck, do you want to come and stay in our spare room?”
This emergency community was established in a Travelodge, a place that many people would not visit on an everyday basis. Perhaps an unconventional location adds to the sense of urgency and exceptionality that allows this community spirit to emerge. The interviewed couple also talks about a disused railway line, now a foot- and cycle-path, as such an extraordinary, ‘liminal’ space. As the only way in and out of town during the floods, the railway line is another example of a different location of the disaster community that came into existence through the floods. In the image above, the disused railway line is the dark green line across the image, uninterrupted by flood water (from http://www.webbaviation.co.uk/gallery/v/greatfloods/). Normally, people would drive to town in their cars, hardly interacting with each other as they are strapped into their motorized confines. During the floods, however, they had to walk along this footpath, encountering plentiful situations to interact with each other. This would have lead to a temporary community of people sharing experiences or solving practical tasks together.
P2: I was quite lucky because that railway line close to where you were didn’t flood. People thought there was no way into the town centre but actually there was, and a lot of people used that. A lot of people did their shopping in the middle of town in Tesco.
P1: It got incredibly busy.
P2: Normally you would never see anyone on it, and suddenly there were masses of people on it. That was interesting because it actually got people out of their cars for a while for local journeys.
This shows that flooding brings people together but not necessarily in the ways or places they expected. It also shows how flooding can change human behaviour in positive ways and let stories be told. Many of the people using the footpath might not have talked to each other if the roads had been open.
As the title quote suggests, the couple believe that community is there when they need it. Their community spirit is dormant, and only re-invigorated in residents’ consciousness during events like this. It is summed up by:
“I think there was an initial bringing the community together, but I think people re-established that they were a community and maybe they don’t do as many events as a community as you would hope, but it still re-established communities. [They] were there and in times of need they come together again.”
Maybe the sense of permanent community is a social construct that has vanished in the younger generation. The generational difference does not only become apparent in the meaning of community, but also in the way different generations react to events such as the flood. Both the interviewees highlight this point by detailing their experiences of previous floods. One even regularly played in the floods. This sounds dangerous in this day-of-age, but this participant learned a lot about floods whilst playing in them:
P1: And like you say […] you used to play in the flood water, we used to go down a back road in Twyning and put our wellies on. Always with our parents, well we did anyway…..
P2: ……more of a liberal upbringing then (laughs)……
P1: ……I used to look at the flood water and that was part of it.
Flooding being a part of life of the participant as a child may develop a level of self-education in flooding, leading to a ‘watery sense of place’ and even an attitude of ‘biophilia’ towards floods.
Well actually it is something quite natural for it to flood.
The participants constantly refer to people rolling up their trousers and wading through water, further suggesting a watery sense of place exists in locations like Tewkesbury. With a perceived ‘nanny state’ and improved flood defences and warnings, the next generation are being told that flooding is a dangerous and extremely negative event, whereas people who have experienced many floods see flooding as a part of Tewkesbury. A watery sense of place is beneficial to floodplain residents, as seen in previous blog posts. So with the protection of the younger generation from floods, can they be taught a watery sense of place without frequently being exposed to actual floods? Apparently, many children affected by the floods had little knowledge of flooding:
They [the children] thought as soon as it chucked it down, floods were going to come; they didn’t understand how flooding happens.
By the same token, if flood risk on the floodplain were to decline, the watery sense of place would perhaps disappear along with people’s flood experience. However, events like the 2007 floods are exceptional but may happen again. Flood risk is never totally eliminated. The interviewees say that nature always finds a way of imposing itself, and this needs to be taught to children, for instance with an annual Flood Week in schools; this would expose children to flooding in their home area, and provide them with a current and locally relevant subject.
Throughout the interview, the couple’s generally positive attitude towards the floods, and occasional laughter, was noticeable. This may be due to their own houses not being flooded. This meant that the couple could:
‘Possibly draw out the positives a lot easier than other people can.’
The couple does comment that if they had been flooded, their memories would be different and possibly they would resent the flood. They also tell stories of people who had been flooded, in order to convey a balanced view of the floods.
With memories meaning different things to different people, naturally the starting point to the respective narratives is different. For example ‘If it had been five years earlier and without digital cameras, we would be running out of film’ starts a month before the actual flood event. This person sees the start of a rainy period as an important beginning to his narrative, whereas the present account starts during the heavy rain of Friday 21st July. Both accounts show the way narratives are constructed and personal, despite in parts telling the same story.
What this account explores is:
A dormant community spirit which seems to become re-established during flooding or similar disasters
Self-education of flooding leading to a watery sense of place
Flood victims tend to look at the wider picture
The construction of memory, especially the start of people’s narrative.
After being invited to produce flood poems in conjunction with the Cheltenham Literature Festival in 2007, poet Brenda Read-Brown gathered stories from victims of the 2007 floods to perform at the festival and latterly at the Ledbury Poetry Festival 2008. Many of her poems are narratives of stories that didn’t hit the news headlines. She spoke to different people within society, from musicians, emergency services and micro-communities, to collate the wider events before, during and after the flood.
As stated by the poet during her Ledbury performance (see below), the poems “aren’t works of great art, but what I have tried to do is to capture the different voices of the people involved”. Her poems focus directly on people’s flood stories, giving them centre stage instead of indirectly communicating them like much of literature and poems do, requiring a great deal of interpretation.
Each poem narrates a different story which she collated during her research. In all, there are ten stories that have been formed into poems. Many of the stories reflect themes similar to those of previous blog posts and interviews. These include:
Realisation of the weather
At first, standing outside, it seemed quite funny,
To get wetter, and wetter and still wetter,
But then the penny dropped:
The weather wasn’t getting better.
Poem 1 – The Violins Played On
Power of the water and watery sense of place
But then came the two-point attack!
As if the hills had tipped their load –
A wall of water crossed the road;
Poem 2 – Salvage
Community spirit and resilience
When the power went off in Priors Park
The dark was defeated by candles that glimmered
On people all seated at tables outside, drinking wine,
While under the water the car roofs shimmered.
Poem 4 – Priors Park
And everyone, all different, landed
Together by chance, stayed cheerful, didn’t complain.
Poem 5 – Blitzed
Back in business; trading;
With nothing but a watermark six feet high
And twenty thousand books, marinading
Poem 2 – Salvage
And I put my memories in a skip,
As if my life was washed away;
All the little things I knew so well
Poem 9 – Flushed Away
And if the waters come again next year?
Well, now we will know just what to expect.
We’ve learned – from life, not books – to pay nature due respect.
Poem 2 – Salvage
Looking at floods in a wider context
I must be grateful, though – I can escape,
Walk up an alley, get away from here,
Whenever it really gets me down.
In Bangladesh it happens every year,
And people drown.
Poem 9 – Washed Away
The poems also tell of something not yet covered on this blog: the stories of the emergency services. For example, one thing that is raised in poems 7 and 10 is the willingness to continue rescuing people despite feeling exhausted, with many of these emergency services personnel running on just adrenaline:
And said I’d had a little sleep;
When, with the water six feet deep,
I spent eight days in an undrugged high,
Buzzing with adrenaline, getting by
With nothing but nerves and colleagues for support
Poem 7 – Unbelievable
During the flood there was little time to take stock and gather memories; looking back on the event itself the emergency service personnel have vivid memories:
Other memories abound:
In exhilarating action, not just desk-bound;
Challenged by the need for ever-changing plans;
Humbled by the gratitude of every man
And woman that I met;
I won’t forget
The backdrop beat and thump of generators;
Rescue vessels sliding up town streets
Like alligators in a mangrove swamp;
The aerial view: not what we knew – instead
It was the Gloucestershire Delta, Terry said.
Poem 10 – Instead
The poems go further and describe the shear effort, not just from Gloucestershire personnel, but from emergency services further afield. Poem 10 is set at the M5 Strensham Services, and describes an emergency service HQ and even an ‘emergency service community’. This shows that communities are formed in many guises and for different time-frames, but these communities have similarities to a ‘victim’s community’; resilience, spirit and help.
Poems are another way for memories to be maintained and remembered as they are fixed memories in books and online. Much like ‘The Caravan’ these memories are now conceptualised in art and accessible to everyone. On top of this, with the themes described above future readers will see the full scope of living through a flood event and not just the narrow view the media portrayed.
Furthermore, do examples like poetry just analysed have the potential to educate people, especially children, through geography? This is discussed by Eleanor Rawling in the Teaching Geography Journal, in which she describes three poets and their ‘sense of place’ along the River Severn. Rawling argues in her article ‘The Severn was brown and the Severn was blue’ – A place for poetry in school geography?, that as geography is becoming more about ‘sense of place’ poetry can help students realise their own ‘sense of place’. She suggest that previously, geography
“has not done enough to help young people reflect on the way their own lives are intertwined with the places and landscapes they inhabit, or to introduce them to more personal responses to place.”
(Rawling, 2010: 93)
Rawling argues that the poems she quotes in her article are not only geographically correct but also show the poets’ interconnection with the river. These poems are an example of the reviving of a phenomenological approach to place. This as approach, Rawling suggests, would improve the students’ awareness of and connection with the natural environment. In mainstream geography teaching, the students are constantly discouraged from emotive engagement with the topics on the curriculum. Recent theory developments in geography, however, indicate that emotions are a central to understanding much of what geography is about, including landscape, spatial behaviour, and attitudes towards the environment.
Rawling sees Philip Gross’ Betweenland poems as summarising:
“the intense mystery of the river environment, complete with geographically accurate observations and poetic definitions of well-known features – the estuary is like ‘a battered pewter hearing trumpet amplifying distance’; the catchment is ‘a sort of shelf’, ‘a notional line within which nothing is alien to the river’.”
These emotive feelings can emphasis the stats that students are given and can even be more important than bare ‘facts’ themselves. Flood memories are a prime example of emotive interconnections between people and their social and ecological environments.
This recommendation comes from a woman who had moved to the village of Deerhurst only ten days before it flooded in July 2007. Like many fellow villagers, she and her family were eventually accommodated outside the flood-damaged village, taking a step back from the deserted devastation of Deerhurst.
Some people stayed behind, though, like a couple of neighbours.
The neighbours across the road had a mobile home on their drive, and it must have been very de-moralising for them because the renovation was so slow.
She describes this period as being ‘very intense’, and as testing relationships. These sorts of stories are common across the affected areas, with some people not moving back to their homes until 18-24 months after the flood. The quote in the title of this post illustrates how bleak the aftermath of the flood was for many, and how lucky the interviewee and her family felt to be able to escape this difficult situation.
Nevertheless, unlike other villagers, this family had not yet built a strong relationship with their new home. Therefore, leaving the place and having it renovated by professional builders was perhaps easier for them than for others.
I think that it was better for us, because we hadn’t got memories of that house.
All they had to leave behind was a home that they were still in the process of moving into. And when they returned, they arrived to another new home, different in looks but not in kind. Moreover, being new to the village, the interviewee didn’t have the same false sense of security – sometimes called ‘levee syndrome’ – that other residents had. ‘Levee syndrome’ describes a condition in which the presence of safety measures decreases risk awareness and leads to a lack of preparation and a liberal attitude towards the hazard (See definition in Disaster Resilience: An Integrated Approach, by D, Paton and D, Johnston, published in 2006, p. 111). In Deerhurst, the flood wall and gates that surround the village and had held off floods for sixty years made most villagers believe that the rising water levels could not harm their properties. Whilst this interviewee was moving some of her belongings upstairs, many established residents of the village still believed the flood wall would hold. She had an understanding of the power of water because of her rowing experience which made her critical of her new neighbours’ trust in the flood wall.
We didn’t trust everyone saying that it won’t flood. We didn’t trust that because we had only moved in 10 days before so we weren’t confident to trust that. […]. And then it rained and it rained and rained and we watched the waters come up. Walking out to the boundary of the wall of the church looking over the fields out there and you could see the river coming higher and higher. The flood gates were closed and the locals were going round all nice and confident. […]We were apprehensive whether it was going to flood or not and even though everybody was saying it was going to be fine we decided we needed to shift everything upstairs. So we moved our stuff as early as soon as possible. Our neighbours didn’t seem to be in that position like ours; they would be trusting that it wasn’t going to flood.
Although their recent arrival on the floodplain had made them less susceptible to the ‘levee syndrome’, the woman now regrets some of the ways the family reacted to the floods. Most evidently she is unhappy about having been separated from her children when she returned to the flood-damaged house to salvage what could still be used.
We left the children with the grandparents; we thought they would be too disruptive to be… In retrospect they wanted to be with us and it would have been better if they were with us. They were too young.
In spite of these painful memories of the floods, the interviewee is keen to remember them. For instance she has pictures of the floods on the walls of her home. As she was not in the village during the floods herself, she has collected these photographs from fellow villagers. One particularly iconic image is the one below, showing the flooded telephone box of the village (Bear in mind the box is already raised by about a foot, standing on a bank on the roadside).
I think it’s quite iconic, the picture of the telephone box because if you stand on the road next to the telephone box and you can see how high the flood was. It is a part of history; it did happen. We’re not negative about it all.
What this account explores includes:
The importance of photographs in maintaining and sharing memories.
The intense nature of emotions during reconstruction after the flood.
The phenomenon of the ‘levee syndrome’ and the false sense of security that flood defences can instil on residents of areas with flood risk.
The relations of newcomer residents with their flooded home, as opposed to those of longer-term residents whose home is damaged by floods.