This was the general reaction from two residents of Coney Hill and Abbeymead (both Gloucester) to the scale of the flooding. Where these residents lived, the only effect of the floods was the mains water being switched off after the Mythe water treatment plant was contaminated with flood water. With the power of the images portrayed on the news, the two realised the full extent of the flooding. One of the participants mentions the famous image of ‘The Isle of Tewkesbury’ to highlight this realisation:
“When he [step-father] said about how high it was and some cars were underneath the water, I didn’t believe and thought he was probably exaggerating. Then it comes on the news and I could only see the church and the tops of people’s houses then it showed how serious it was. I was like, “Oh, ok.” That was quite scary to think about it in that way.”
Striking photographs on the news allows people to apply certain images to certain events, and as shown above, clarify and fortify memories. As the flooding, both pre-2007 and 2007, didn’t affect these research participants, there seems to be no reason for them to have a watery sense of place. However, living in an urban area void of modern urban drainage and SUD’s, the participants do show a degree of a watery sense of place and local flood knowledge. For example, they know which roads become flooded even during heavy rain, without there being a flood on a larger scale. One such example is Tredworth Road, Gloucester as shown below:
The lights from the traffice show the severity of the dip under the railway bridge.
The flood water is creating that this part of the Tredworth Road, espeically at night, is flat leading to trapped cars.
P2: “They were showing lots of pictures of Tredworth Road, and there is a bridge and the road dips down really far, and that one completely flooded. It looked like a straight road at night but it is really deep. I heard cars drove into it. It is funny but there is a picture of the guy just sat on top of his car.”
P1: “Is that under the railway bridge?”
P2: “……..that bridge because it does flood quite often. I don’t think he was from Gloucester otherwise he would have known that.”
This shows not only some of the participants’ local flood knowledge, but also illustrates how flood knowledge is linked to a sense of place and belonging: People from Gloucester are presented as those knowledgeable about easily flooded places. In this view, flood knowledge forms part of local identity. Over the time the quoted research participants have lived in Gloucester, they learned which roads would be affected by heavy rain, and they count themselves as insiders. During the interview, such local knowledge and associated sense of place was evoked in relation to the recent rain spell in the region. With this interview being conducted in early May, during a period of sustained rain, one of participants recalls the effects of the rain:
“I live down a little country road, and at the bottom of the road it dips down a bit. We have a massive puddle down there at the moment. Plus down and round the corner from our house, it isn’t flooded, but you know when water is running downhill, you don’t think it much but when you walk through it you realise it is quite a lot. That has been running constantly for three days and it still hasn’t gone. If it did turn out like it did in the floods, it probably would flood quite badly round there.”
This research participant thus makes connections between her experience of a smaller flooding events and the great flood of 2007. It does not seem to need suffering dramatic flooding to develop local flood knowledge and a watery sense of place.During the 2007 flood, the research participants would have been in their mid to late teens. They had no previous flood experience/memories, and being young, the fact that it flooded had little relevance to them. Nevertheless, one of the participants does explore the nature and use of flood memories for future events:
“I just have an opinion to not forget something that you can learn from. Especially the people who were hit and their houses were flooded, and if they are in an area where it could happen again; if you don’t forget it you’ll be prepared for it. I can understand if someone wanted to forget something that was that upsetting. They wouldn’t want to wait around for something to happen again.”
In essence, this research participant is describing memories as a ‘double-edged sword’ as they are useful for preparedness but may also be painful to bear. Furthermore, she places herself in flood victim’s shoes when she observes:
I: “If that stream had got into your house, would you have a different view?”
P2: “I think I would have been more negative about it. If it would have ruined all of our stuff it would have been a more emotional time.”
I: “So would your negativity [about flooding] be confirmed?”
P2: “Probably yes. It is different. We only were without water and it wasn’t that big of a deal. They had water at the bottom of the road and they gave out bottled water; it wasn’t a very big deal to live with, it just wasn’t very nice. Whereas if it did come into our house, it would be a lot more to deal with.”
This feeling of sympathy seems to be brought round by basic human nature fuelled by the exposure to victim’s stories being written and shown in the media. This seems to lead to an emotional link between victims and non-victims, which can be beneficial for some victims. However, the exposure to sympathy can be overwhelming for some victims who then refuse any help, possibly leading to them being isolated.
What this account explores is:
Flood knowledge may serve as a marker of identity and community membership
Sympathetic relationship of non-affected people towards flood victims.
The power of the mass media in communicating an emergency.
Earlier this month, the Gloucestershire paper the Citizen reported that the 2007 floods had resulted in an increase of births nine months later. It presents some figures:
In Tewkesbury, which was famously turned into an island by the flood waters, the birth rate in 2008 reached a two-decade high of 909, 69 up on 2007.
The children from this ‘baby boom’ are now about to flood the school system, and education officers are quoted voicing their concern about the lack of capacities to accommodate them. An extra 120 places are said to be needed in Gloucestershire schools for the flood babies who will be reaching school age before autumn.
A day later, the Daily Mail picked up the story, which invited a series of interesting – and controversial – comments. One of the questions that arise is: What do floods do to human relations and interaction? Are we really having more sex in extraordinary situations, or simply because there is no television to watch when the electricity is cut?
Similar stories have been told before, for example about an alleged baby boom after an electricity cut in and around New York in 1965. Critics of these stories, however, scrutinizing the actual numbers, have argued that in fact there is no connection between emergencies and birth rate increases.
Also in the Gloucestershire case, the numbers do not seem to concur with the story, as an article on the Straight Statistics website indicates. The article states:
But if we look at other counties in the South West, it’s clear that although Gloucestershire showed an above-average increase in births in that period, it wasn’t exceptional. In Wiltshire the increase was 12.1 per cent, in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly 13.6 per cent. […] So Cornwall had a greater increase than Gloucestershire, with no floods.
The increase in Gloucestershire between 2005 and 2008 amounted to 784 extra births over the 2005 figure, an average of 261 per year. The increase between 2007 and 2008 was 168 – below the three-year average. So the floods of July 2007 did not have any perceptible effect on birth numbers. Any effect they might have had was to lower them.
The article suggests that the issue is not about floods causing a baby boom or not, but rather about faulty planning in the education sector. There has been an increase in birth rates for years, but schools are slow to react and increase their capacities.
Yesterday’s article in the Guardian takes up this line of argument, and reviews, along with the Gloucestershire case, a number of other stories of emergency related baby booms. It comes to the conclusion that:
Appealing as the idea is, though, it doesn’t stand up. In almost every case, the apparent baby boom is either not a boom at all, or just part of a perfectly natural fluctuation in the birth rate that would never have been remarked upon if it had not been preceded by an unusual event.
Clearly, thus, the Gloucestershire floods baby boom story is a an ‘urban myth’. But is that the end of the story? The Guardian article ends thus:
But facts are for scientists. “I don’t care what the evidence is,” says Nicola Davies in Gloucestershire. “I still think there’s something in it. Look, the floods prompted this huge feeling of community spirit. After they were over … We’d been through two weeks of hell, everyone was on an absolute high. It was like a reaffirmation – we’d got through it! “Speaking for myself, there was a bit of alcohol involved. A sense of celebration. And, well, there we were. Or is that too much information?”
Question this issue raises for the research project include:
(1) If ‘the facts’ are so clear, why are the legends so resilient? People clearly seem to like stories. Do we need stories, rather than numbers, to make sense of our lives and the world around us?
(2) The issue of the floods keeps coming up, in this case delayed by the period it takes for a child to be born and reach school age. What other dynamics are there that bring the floods up in public discourse and personal memories?
(3) Relying on statistical data is very ambiguous. How does the story differ if only the Tewkesbury numbers are taken into account (the Citizen story) or figures for the entire county of Gloucestershire (Straight Statistics story)? Which one is more representative?
Just came across this recent post about memory and flood. It refers to the current events in New York, where some parts flooded after extreme rainfall.
The author is prompted by a flood experience to remember previous emergencies, in particular the 9/11 events in New York City. She also writes about the emergency packs that she had prepared after 9/11 — including “a case of gloves, of masks, surgery things, antidotes” — and that were of little help during the flood. Now she’s thinking about what to pack into an updated emergency pack that would help her better deal with flood risk:
When I repack, maybe next week, I’m thinking of putting in different things. Water and food maybe instead of antidotes, and definitely inside of something waterproof. I’ll add a dose of hope, a pencil and a notebook too I think. Because hope is an antidote for fear, writing is a vehicle for creating new stories and for letting go of old myths.
What do you pack in your emergency bag?
Watching the flood waters in her property, J.J. Brown notices that they are all but clean. They are infused with substances from the roof, the sidewalk, the back garden, and perhaps even with traces from faulty city planning and extreme weather. Brown summarizes it in one sentence:
Some of what’s in the water is memory.
This reminded me of Toni Morrison’s famous quote, referring to the Mississippi River, that “all water has a perfect memory:”
They straightened out the Mississippi River in places, to make room for houses and livable acreage. Occasionally the river floods these places … but in fact it is not flooding; it is remembering. … All water has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was. Writers are like that: remembering where we were, what valley we ran through, what the banks were like, the light that was there and the route back to our original place.
(Toni Morrison, Beloved)
This quote has inspired many other writers, including authors and commentators on the Katrina Poetry blog, Natalia Almada’s short film about loss, memory and forgetting, and Mathur and da Cunha’s book Mississippi floods: designing a shifting landscape.
So, what is it about water and floods that makes us associate them with memories and remembering?
We recently noticed that our project had acquired some questionable fame when someone who had read a job description relating to the research last December had found the combination of “sustainable” and “flood memory” odd. He went so far as to invent an award for the phrase Sustainable Flood Memories, the “LA-LA Sustainability – the Laughable Abuse of Language Award (Sustainability).” Furthermore, he did not seem to understand what the project means by “watery sense of place,” which made him wonder whether there is “a whole field of study somewhere where people sit around and dream up new-speak.”
Therefore, we’ve just sent him a reply to his questions and enigmas, and we sincerely hope it helps him and other people understand what the project is about, and what the terms “sustainable” and “watery sense of place” mean in this context.
While we strongly support a critical attitude towards the misuse of important terms, we need to also be clear that it is crucial for this project whether or not flood memories are “sustainable.” For the interested reader, the original blog entry and our recent response are reproduced here.
2010 Award for the Worst Abuse of the Word “Sustainable”
I admit to a long and growing angst over the misuse of the word “sustainable” and its derivatives. In fact I am well known for making a big song and dance every time the topic comes up. I am sure my friends and colleagues groan whenever the issue arises. They are good enough to humour me. Even those who may say I am cynical often share my concerns – and every year the abuse gets worse. So this year we inaugurate a new Transition Town High Wycombe Award. It is the “LA-LA Sustainability” – the Laughable Abuse of Language Award (Sustainability).
I probably wasn’t aware of just how our beautiful English language had been so distorted until we started the Transition Town High Wycombe in 2008. Back then our first exercise was to help the Wycombe District Council with its “Sustainable Economic Prosperity” Consultation. Clearly we thought this was very suitable. Who isn’t interested in sustaining our economic prosperity? However we were quickly to learn that not everyone shares our definition of the word “sustainable”. The Concise Oxford English Dictionary tells us that this word means to “maintain continuously”. The phrase “sustainable development” (if not itself an oxymoron) has typically been defined as the activity that we do today that does not prevent future generations from undertaking the same activity. So, for example, if driving cars consumes all the oil and steel in the world then our children’s children will not have cars. This is unsustainable.
From 2008 until today we have seen this wonderful concept twisted to mean whatever short timescale people want it to mean. One would have thought that the operative word here was “continuously”. However in political terms anything that is sustainable is quite literally anything that lasts until the next election or any time period mandated by Whitehall. This can be as short as only 16 years. Current Council thinking tends to stretch as far as 2026. One might think that the world can go to hell in a handcart in 2027 but as long was we can struggle through to the year before we will be fine. Somehow. This would lead to only medium-term measures that always assumed today’s trends would continue into the future forever. Hence no long-term strategic thinking would enter the debate. No vision is required. To this manner of thinking there would be no need (for example) to preserve an agricultural sector for food production around High Wycombe. The original consultation document suggested that we should turn over agricultural land & buildings to recreational, tourism and small enterprise purposes. In a world of rising food and commodity prices it wasn’t clear whether we should laugh or cry….
Next came the 2008 Sustainable Communities Act. This was intended to empower local communities to become more durable. The precise definition remained vague but the Act specifically says it should promote the “improvement of the economic, social or environmental well-being” of local people. The Act doesn’t define “sustainable”, ie, there is no idea as to how long a community needs to sustain to qualify. Interestingly the Act does attempt to define the term “local”.
We wrote to all our Councilors back in 2008 to encourage them to submit a proposal under the act. WDC did so in consultation with local groups concerned about M40 road noise. They called upon the Highways Agency “to take action to permanently reduce road noise through re-surfacing, improving sound barriers and implement speed and night time restrictions between junctions 3 and 8”. There was no new money involved but the idea was to move it up the priority list. In this case, although we share the concerns of local residents, we have questioned if this really was the most suitable suggestion? Afterall, the communities along the M40 may well sustain with or without an M40 motorway. Might the fate of local bus routes be more of a key factor? Might not a new generation of electric cars be slower and quieter? Would an electrified transport system need a lot of new wind turbines along the M40 corridor? If so would local communities use the Act to empower themselves to prevent the wind farms on the basis of noise? The mind boggles. The meaning of the act could be so broadly interpreted that it became perfectly possible for local communities to conjure up their own demise in its name.
So, to highlight the problem, we have created the tongue-in-cheek “LA-LA Sustainability” award. And this year I am very proud to nominate the University of Gloucestershire in their Job Advert for a “Sustainable Flood Memories Research Assist”: http://bit.ly/hGs4f8 (paying up to £29k a year, pro rata). According to the ad “The main objective is to research the relationships between local, community level sustainable flood memories (with its associated watery sense of place, shared flood heritage, folk memories of flooding, and local informal flood knowledge) with community resilience to flooding and future flood risk.” Now, our apologies to Professor Lindsey McEwen (and “Applied Scientists” everywhere) as we do not dispute the value of studying how communities should survive flooding. However, we would argue with the mind-boggling abuse of the word “sustainable” in this instance. Exactly what is a “sustainable flood memory”? Indeed, what is an “associated watery sense of place & shared flood heritage”? This comes in a week when student protestors rioted at the thought of paying £9k a year on tuition fees. The Universities told us they needed the money….
Does anyone need more money to study a “watery sense of place”? How about a reality check? What about an economic sense of purpose? What about common sense? Is there a whole field of study somewhere where people sit around and dream up new-speak? Is this an Orwellian attempt to reinvent our language such that we can justify the public funding for studying the “bleedin-obvious” (as Basil Fawlty used to call it)? Is there such a thing as a sustainable flood? Surely common sense tells us to move to higher ground?
We’ll get back to the successful job applicant in three years and have them explain how what they have learnt will be of use of a world of increasing flood-risk. We expect to be impressed.
Do YOU have a better example for the LA-LA-Sustainability awards? Please send us your nominations to email@example.com. A free one-year subscription to the best offering.
And this is what we replied today (August 16, 2011):
My name is Franz; I am the research assistant on the “Sustainable Flood Memories” project at the University of Gloucestershire. A colleague has just forwarded me your blog post from December 19, 2010, where you make observations on the use and abuse of the term “sustainability”, award the project the “Laughable abuse of language award” for its use of the term and, last but not least, voice your expectation to “be impressed” by what the project does.
The good news is that you don’t have to wait quite as long as you originally expected to hear from me. On the other hand, this means that you may want to reconsider some of the things you wrote about the project, based on very little information about it.
I – together with the other researchers on this project – share your concerns about the over-use of the terms “sustainability” and “sustainable” as buzz-words, eroding what they perhaps meant originally, and leading to cynical developments like the ones you describe in your post (and indeed throughout your blog). But, to be fair, that will happen with any fairly popular term, including, for instance the “local resilience” that you write on your banners. There are always people and institutions ready to co-opt powerful ideas, hijack them for their own purposes or water them down to a degree that they are no longer recognisable. Just because something is “too easy to ridicule”, though, does not mean that this gets you anywhere.
So it’s great you keep an eye on this and denounce particularly grave examples. Nevertheless, I will try to show you that your previous nomination – although of course we are somewhat flattered by the prize – was a bit of a mistake.
As you write yourself, sustainability really implies to “maintain continuously”. So if we talk about sustainable flood memories, then we mean memories of the floods that are maintained continuously. The term ‘sustainable flood memory’ was used to capture a sense of memory that is community focused, archival, integrating individual and collective experiences, and involving inter- and intra-generational communication and strategies for its future.
The main issue behind the research project, as you can easily see on the website and blog that have gone up in the meantime, is that in this country floods seem to be forgotten too often and too quickly – perhaps by affected communities, but certainly by planners and policy-makers. This is why floods usually strike us as disasters, while really they are simply recurring events, influenced of course by what people do and have done in the catchment. But rivers can be expected to flood, even though the intervals in between any two floods may be rather long. That’s why memory is so important, and collective, sustainable memory in particular. It is not sufficient to lament each flood after it has occurred and, a few years later, to go on developing housing, infrastructure and lifestyles as if nothing had ever happened. Rather, we need to find ways of making flood memories more sustainable, both in flood risk communities and in the public sector.
We find that while formal institutions in particular may “forget” floods quite quickly, people who have been affected by floods, and in particular those who have learned regularly to deal with flooding, are quite good at keeping flood memories. Of course there are some memories that no one wants or needs perpetuating. But remembering what high water means in a particular place, what coping strategies worked last time and what didn’t work, how high the water rises regularly and in exceptional circumstances, and where you can evacuate your vulnerable neighbour or bring your valuables… all these and many more are things that are very worthwhile to remember, aren’t they? Perhaps even the image with the person riding a bicycle through a flooded street, which came with your post, can be a valuable flood memory – it may remind you, for instance, that when the water is so high, you can still pass through it on your bike!
Local knowledge and coping strategies like this, by the way, are aspects of what the project has tentatively called “watery sense of place”. I appreciate that this is not quite standard use of language, but if you bear with me for just a few more lines, you might actually understand what we mean by it. It is an attempt to emphasize the fact that in many places, people’s relations with their home and community are not based solely on such solid foundations as “land”, “soil”, “ground” etc, but rather that water plays an important part in local identity and belonging, something that most people from the Somerset Levels, for instance, would be able to tell you at great length. In relation to our project, this means that such a particular, “watery” sense of place must not be ignored by those who draft up flood risk strategies, or be relegated to a category of old-fashioned folklore. Rather, it can serve as a central building block in a “shift up to local resilience” in flood risk areas.
One last point, about money: Until recently, I have been a student myself, and I think UK Higher Education is digging its own grave by introducing exorbitantly high tuition fees. But that is wholly independent from research projects like this one, which are funded by external bodies (the Economic and Social Research Council, ESRC in our case). On the contrary, projects like this actually generate income for the university, which can be used for covering the operating costs of libraries and other infrastructure, for instance. Please pay a bit more attention where you air your frustration about an admittedly sad development in higher education.
I appreciate that you too “do not dispute the value of studying how communities should survive flooding”. And I also find your crusade against poor and ubiquitous usage of “sustainability” laudable. But if you fight for precise usage of language, then I assume you must understand why our project is called sustainable flood memories, and you will have some sympathy for terms like “watery sense of place”.
There is no need to be “impressed” by this. But I hope it helped you understand a bit better what the project is all about, and how our use of “sustainable” may not be too far off your use of “local resilience”.
If you have any further questions about the project, I’d be happy to answer them. Please do not hesitate to contact me.
The other week, a colleague jokingly greeted me by saying “pretty bad times for a flood researcher, isn’t it?”
Indeed, almost exactly four years after the great floods of 2007, there is not much talk about floods in England. Rather, many people seem to be concerned with drought. On the homepage of the Environment Agency, for instance, drought is one of the key issues.
One has to wonder what this does to people’s flood memories. People often say that they are reminded of the floods when it rains heavily. But what happens when it hardly rains at all? Do floods seem even more unlikely during dry periods? And do people stop to remember them because of that? Or are there certain flood memories that do not dry up during a drought?
It is evident that a current drought says little about the likelihood of a flood in the near future. During a recent conference (Learning to live with water), geographer Chad Staddon remembered that exactly four years ago today, on July 12, 2007, he attended a drought meeting in Gloucester because of the then exceptionally dry conditions. Only a week later, the rains began that caused the flood.
Are the same mistakes being made again now? Are we focussing too much on present states, rather than paying attention to the periodic rise and fall in the availability of water?
I think, what we can learn from this is that our world is not static, but it transforms in rhythms. Some periods are drier, some wetter; some of these periods last longer, some of them shorter. It is not a metronomic pattern of predictable periods that are always exactly the same. But droughts and floods do come and go periodically – and just because it is dry now does not mean we can forget floods.