Archive for the ‘Environment Agency’ Category

Parish website publishes a section on flood history   Leave a comment

The recently created website of the Gloucestershire parish of Apperley and Deerhurst features a page on the 1947 and 2007 floods, both of which strongly affected Deerhurst village.

Among a collection of photographs from 1947, the website states:

Residents of Deerhurst were used to the River Severn flooding, but the high flood levels of March 1947 took everyone by surprise.  Many people had to be rescued from their houses by boat. […]

Following the floods of 1947, Deerhurst village had built earth and stank defences around the village to the height of the 1947 floods. […]

In 2007, following a torrential rainfall resulting in unprecedented flooding in Gloucestershire, these defences were over-topped for a short while and the houses were again flooded.  The Environment Agency, who had assumed the former STWA duties, spent well over £0.5 million upgrading and expanding the defences in 2007 to 2009, to the extent that they are now about two feet higher than the 2007 flood level.

This account makes flooding part of the ‘public’ history of the parish. It thereby goes beyond the taboo of openly talking about flood histories, for instance due to anxieties regarding the real estate market or the insurance industry.

However, the short text tells a very particular version of the story that – without contradicting any of the accounts from other villagers – leaves out a lot of information that seems important to others. For instance, it mentions the funding from the Environment Agency for the construction of the improved flood defences, but does not mention the ingenious efforts of the villagers to plan the defences and secure this funding.

‘Normal floods’, memories and media hype   1 comment

Recent flooding on the River Severn again revealed differing perceptions of floods, as well as the power of the media in shaping flood risk discourses, and the resentment of floodplain residents to the media representation of flooding.

It’s mostly the outsiders who get excited about the extent of the waters on the Tewkesbury Ham and along the Mill Avon. For local residents, this is just a ‘normal flood’.

On April 30th, the national BBC website reported that “Tewkesbury sets up flood incident room as river rises“. The image provided under this headline was not of the current floods, however, but of the great flood in July 2007, nearly five years ago. Also, the most striking ‘news’ of the article concerned the 2007 emergency. When it continued to report on the actual, present flood, the story sounded disappointingly dull compared to the opening lines. The reader also learns that it wasn’t “Tewkesbury” that set up a flood incident room, but the Environment Agency.

Similarly, on May 1st, a Guardian article on “the wettest April on record” was published with a picture of the 2007 floods, not the present one. The caption reads: “Tewkesbury, scene of extreme flooding in 2007, faces renewed disaster as floodwater levels rise.” The Independent’s article of May 4th, pronouncing “Tewkesbury flood threat returns as heavy rains continue” was also illustrated purely with images of the 2007 flood. And the images that make up the majority of the Daily Mail article of that same day are geared to evoke the similarities between the present situation and the 2007 flood, too, with photographs dominated by the extent of water on the floodplain. It refers to Tewkesbury as the “Gloucestershire town was devastated by near-identical floods five years ago“.

But were the recent floods ‘near-identical’ to those of 2007? From a distant, aerial photograph perspective, this might seem the case, as much of the floodplain was inundated again in early May 2012. But critically, the distribution of the water, as well as the extent of the floods, were rather different to the situation five years ago. The Daily Mail reporter does notice this, when his perspective changes from the ‘big picture’ to that of speaking to local residents:

So how were the good folk of Tewkesbury conducting themselves yesterday in the face of what some feared would be another Biblical-style disaster? Well, they were mostly just getting on with life.

‘This is not a flood,’ said Samantha Snape, 38-year-old owner of the picturesque Lower Lode Inn, where the water had spilled over the Severn banks and was sloshing a few feet from her doorstep.

‘This is a flood,’ she told me, pointing to a 2007 photograph of the 15th-century building partly submerged.

To her left was a brass plaque that marked how deep the water was last time. It’s screwed in several inches above waist height.

This echoes what many of our respondents have been saying about the recent flooding – this is a ‘normal flood’, something they would expect at least once or twice a year. They keep an eye on it, but do not get worried. This is Tewkesbury after all, located on the floodplain at the confluence of the Rivers Severn and Avon and a number of smaller watercourses.

Also Dave Throup from the Environment Agency stated in a video interview with the Telegraph that the current flood is not to be mistaken for an event similar to the 2007 floods:

This is an entirely different situation. We’d expect levels like this probably a couple of times a year in Tewkesbury. We haven’t for the last couple of years because it has been so dry. You know, that’s why we are in drought. […] And in 2007 it was probably a good metre higher than it is now. I think if you have lived in Tewkesbury for any period of time you will have seen this many times. And people are used to it. And indeed most of the communities up the Severn will be used to rivers coming up and going back down. And it does look dramatic because the river will come out of its banks and it will fill miles of floodplain. But you know, that’s what they are there for. They are fulfilling their proper function.

Whereas such a ‘normal flood’ thus does not upset floodplain residents, the media hype referring back to the destruction and disruptions of 2007 surely does. Some inhabitants of Tewkesbury, for instance, are fed up with the idea that all their home town is known for is its flooding, and in particular the 2007 floods. They are frustrated with the media ignoring how well they actually get on with these ordinary floods. In particular, businesses like local shops, hotels and restaurants feel victimised by this misrepresentation, as each time the national media announces a flood in Tewkesbury, they experience a decline in customers.

Two weeks after the flood peak, on May 16th, the Gloucestershire Echo interpreted the small flood as a good test for the County’s contingency planning. In hindsight, it was noted that the emergency services coped very well with the events, and the only flood-related incidents in the County pertained to a few driveways and garages, rather than people’s homes. It was a tiny event compared to 2007, a ‘normal flood’ rather than a large-scale emergency.

Some of the issues that are explored here are:

How different regular and exceptional floods are for floodplain inhabitants

How the media may blur these critical differences in an attempt to gain more attention

How such misrepresentations are problematic for local residents and businesses

And how small floods may act as reminders of big ones, keeping flood risk in people’s minds.

The Floodline – potential and limits   1 comment

Floodline is a service provided by the Environment Agency to inform residents about their flood risk, and to warn them about incipient floods. Recently, a rather dramatic commercial was released to draw attention to this service:

Earlier Floodline commercials are a bit less dramatic, and more funny, like this one…

… or this one:

The Floodline certainly provides valuable service. But, judging from the experiences of Gloucestershire floodplain residents, it is not the ultimate answer to all their flood-related problems. Many have had numerous false alarms in the past, being woken up by automated calls in the middle of the night. Some of them were very distressed by the calls; others had enough local knowledge to see that they were not about to flood by looking into their back garden or onto the river. Still others remember receiving a call from the service when they were already flooded, somewhat late for a ‘warning’. This has made many residents rather cynical concerning the Floodline.

Nevertheless, the service is being improved continually, and so are the models and scales the warnings are based on. Alongside this, perhaps an awareness is growing that such large-scale schemes work best when integrated with local memories and knowledge, rather than set apart from them. Furthermore, no one should have to rely on the Floodline alone, but also talk to neighbours, the local flood warden, and other people with flood experience.

The Floodline can be an expedient tool – if used properly and not at the expense of keeping an eye on our dry and wet environments.

“People wake up with our breakfast presenters every morning. They deem them as members of the family, and trust your opinion.”   Leave a comment

This quote comes from a lady who works for a local radio station – Heart Radio Gloucestershire, which used to be Severn Sound in 2007. She explains why during exceptional events, people don’t tend to contact the Local Authority, the police, fire brigade, school board or other formal body. Rather they usually turn to their local radio station.

It is sometimes really frustrating when you take a call and people go ‘Do you know if the number 23’s running?’  Why don’t you ring the bus company!  Seriously.  You know, that can be a little bit frustrating sometimes.  But it’s how it is.

During the summer 2007 flood, this particular role for the people in Gloucestershire made the radio station decide to run a flood help-line.

I mean basically, because we are a local radio station, you obviously got contacts […]. We have the news team here, so obviously through news all the information was coming in. And they were basically appealing for anyone that could come and help. And obviously because, you know, we do have a bit of clout sometimes. And we kind of know all the people that are in those positions [of leadership in Local authorities and businesses].

[…] we got extra staff into the radio station, there were so much coming […], so much information. And we were getting so many calls. […] You will find this quite interesting with radio stations: people think we know everything, okay? They will ring us rather than… So we’ll get things like the fairs in the park, something. And people will ring us, “oh, do you know what time the fair opens?” They won’t ring the fair, for some reason the radio station. So, you know, straight away, when anything happens, people ring the radio station. It’s like, you know… It was all sorts of things. It was things like just people telling us their stories.

Rather than giving out lots of information, which was moreover susceptible to changing as the emergency unfolded, the staff at the radio station decided to give out only one phone number on air, and deal with people’s various questions on this quickly improvised helpline. They had the infrastructure in place due to annual Christmas Auction that the station organises.

People were giving us so many different phone numbers for all, you know, if you need this or if you wanna get hold of that information. And we came to the conclusion very quickly that we have to think about ‘clean air’ on the radio, so that it is very much a very clear message. […] the analogy is, you know, if you’ve got one ball and you keep throwing it in the air, you can catch it quite easily. As soon as you start doing two, three, you are like ‘phrrt, I don’t know what I’m doing’. So very quickly we came to the conclusion that there is so much information that needed to […] set up a help line. And the only number we gave out on air was our number.

Alongside pointing people with questions into the right direction, the station also worked with a group of volunteers to follow up some people’s requests, and help out where necessary.

We had a huge number of people wanted to help but trying to get them in contact with the right people, because they said ‘shall I just go along my road and knock on doors?’ and we can’t tell them to do that because obviously if there is some little old lady, you know, Mrs Jones at 27 so-and-so is having problems getting to her bowser, we can’t send some random person along because they could rob the old dear.  So it was quite difficult, we did quite quickly set up a really good liaison with Cheltenham Volunteering Centre who then took responsibility for organising volunteers and we basically then put them in contact with them and they would allocate them to a water distribution point.  Or to some of the churches set up teams who were knocking on doors and Cheltenham Volunteering would get people then to report to a group but then they would then go with the people, so it would be run by the local church so people could turn up and volunteer, not quite randomly, just knocking.  […]

Things that were quite difficult were the fact you had so much information and I think the water shortage, I think that was slightly unusual, but even with the transport problems initially, and from a radio station’s point of view you almost need something that filters before then, because we had the trains, the buses, highways patrol, police, everyone contacting you with information, if you see what I mean.  […]

Because we really made that our big thing, and every problem, if we were given a phone number, we ran it with radio station staff but also quite a lot of offices closed because of no toilets and water, so because we’ve got contacts through the radio station we got volunteers in from those, so people like the Chelsea Building Society, and one of the travel companies call centre, they were sending staff in to help man our phones so we literally had volunteers here working that were coming in to help.  And every phone number we had, we checked it, so before we would put a phone number on our website or give it out we would check, ring them up and say ‘look, what kind of queries are you dealing with’.  But it changed all the time because obviously with lack of water or even with flooding we had people with animals in problem.  We had nursing homes, the worst case scenario where they had no water supply and all the residents went down with food poisoning.

It was an explicit policy of the radio station to supply locally relevant information and stories, self-conscious of being a ‘local radio station’. In the flurry of information and misinformation, Severn Sound developed into a central hub for directing general advice and connecting particular needs and offers of help.

Some old bloke phoned us and I loved the remark he made, ‘I don’t listen to Severn Sound normally; I’m a BBC man, but all the BBC are telling me is when bloody Gordon Brown’s coming here.’  He said ‘I want to know when my lecky is back on!’ And I think that was our choice, was yes in news we dealt with the fact that Prince Charles had popped in to see what was going on, the fact that we had the Cobra, which is the services, were dealing with, obviously the news dealt with that side of it but we decided we would deal with: how is this directly affecting our listeners?  What are their problems today?  And we actually made it a point to address those problems.

[…]

We rang people and aimed to find the answer.  […] we would have people here doing internet searches, talking to people and then actually through the […] say ‘these are the big questions we’re being asked today, we need to know: where do people go for this information?’ and they would take that list of questions that we were getting over the phone.  And sometimes we would say on air, ‘the big question everyone is asking us today is ‘where can I get a shower’?’ people want to get showers, and then the phones would start ringing and it would be Leisure Centres just outside the area would say ‘okay we’re going to open later tonight if anyone wants to come over they can come and have a shower.’

[…]

And just simple things like, we had quite a lot of people who had lost their wedding reception venue, because […] there were a few who had been flooded that were like the second Saturday, so about Wednesday or Thursday we found out that one venue in particular had been flooded that had several weddings that weekend, we put an appeal out to say has anyone got a wedding venue available for this weekend because we’ve got 3 couples who are getting married who have lost their wedding venue.  So we would put people in touch with each other.  What we were very, very keen on was to not tell people information.  We never ever said we’re experts on anything, so it would be with things like baby bottles we would never say yes it’s fine to do, we would say ‘this is who you need to contact for that information’.

[…]

Yes, Friday night was obviously first of all the weather.  You know, the heavens have opened.  Then you start, everyone’s trying to get home from work so everyone was ‘are the buses running, are the trains running?’  So that was a bit like ‘oh my god it’s a bit difficult to get information, offices were beginning to shut early because obviously it was starting to get quite bad.  Then you’ve got the flood warnings coming in so people want to know what the latest flood warnings are, because people just do not know where to go for this information. […]

Most people wouldn’t know to call the Environment Agency, they wouldn’t know that they dealt with flooding.  So you’ve got the flood warnings and then obviously we had the problem of displaced persons if you like, that was that evening and that went into the following morning.  Then, over that weekend, it was the actual people who had been flooded, and obviously the ongoing weather forecast, ‘is it going to rain again?, is there going to be more flooding?’,  […] and then we were keeping up to date, and the flood warnings continued because water was draining into the river and it’s obviously is tidal, so depending when the tides were, so one of the things on the website we kept up to date with was what were the current flood warnings, we published that on our website and put them out on air what all the latest flood warnings were.  Then obviously the people who had been flooded, we were talking to them. […] like people that had cleared their house, what do they do with all their stuff.  We had people who had been offered empty houses but got no furniture, so it was putting them in contact with furniture recycling, centres, also people wanted to donate furniture to people who had been flooded.  Loads of people ringing up ‘I’ve got a second spare room with a 3-piece suite sat in it, can we donate it to someone?  How do you do the logistics of that?’ […] So it was putting the right people in touch with each other.  So this was basically what people were asking us, who should they talk to, and the same with all the people who were ringing up saying ‘I’ve got a dining room table, I’ve got some beds, I’ve got loads of bedding’.

It is not only during floods, however, that local radio stations  act as information hubs in exceptional periods. Rather, this role is regularly rehearsed when it snows in England.

For here, for us, snow is our biggie.  People will ring us as opposed to ring their school because we start at 6am.  They know that people from their school, no one is probably going to be in until 8am so every time it snows every radio station in our group, we have a snow team going.  We have special bits of our website set up and ready to go. We have teams of staff that can get to the radio station even if it snows because we take all the school closures and we publicise online for all our websites all the school closures.

[…]

Every school phones up.  […]  They call us, so we basically have a team that will be in at 5.30am – we’re on snow alert! – and that happens in every radio station in our group.  Especially Heart stations because our listener base is very family orientated.  […]  We are basically, our listener base is 25 to early 40s.  Family based, and we pride ourselves that our audience is a very family-based audience.  That’s why schools to us are the biggie.  Our websites go through the roof when we have school closures.  People don’t go to their school to find out their closed they come to our website.  Because we are seen as the most authoritative information on what schools are closed.  Snow is huge.  We have snow plans.  Plans of how we’re going to work during snow.  What staff are on call.

She remembers the snow alert during the winter of 2010/11:

I had staff stay with me because I’m walking distance, so presenters stay in my flat so we knew we would be able to be on air at 5.30am with presenters.  So I had two girls stay with me and then another guy who lives in Gloucester two of the presenters stayed with him, so that was six of us who would all be able to get in in the morning because we’re all walking distance.  I think they put a couple of people up in a hotel because we had a lot.  It went on for a long time. So we ended up putting people up in hotels within walking distance because everybody calls us.  All the schools call us, all the parents call us to find out.  For that kind of information the radio station is seen to be the people to talk to.

Today, the radio station also contributes its share to not forgetting the floods of 2007, and the fact that the lower River Severn occasionally floods.

We talk about it loads.  Yes we do.  We’ve always done like the first few years we’ve done a look back at the floods and that sort of thing on air.  So the first couple of years, even up to this year, 20th July, we all talk about it on air.  It was such a major thing in so many people’s lives that people do still talk about it.

If a similar emergency to the 2007 floods would happen again, she reckons that local radio stations will take on a similar role again, because they continue to be the first contact point. Only, they would be doing it better next time, due to their confidence and experience gained in 2007.

I do think now you would feel much better, if it happened again we would feel much more confident to do it again.  But I still think we would have to do it again.  I don’t think there is that facility still anywhere else, not that I know of.  I don’t know that the council or anyone else has anything set up that coordinates across all the different things that people need to know about.  And I still think, even if they did have it how would they get that information to people?

[…], we literally walk through that door and can talk to a hundred thousand people.  Our listener base went up hugely through the flood.  Huge.  […] You go down to places like the council offices and they would have signs outside saying ‘for information please listen to your local radio station’ and it would be BBC Gloucestershire and Severn Sound.  They were actually saying don’t ask us, listen to them.  That was very much the message that was going out.  Saying that the best way to get the most up to date information is to listen to your local radio station.  So I do think local radio has such a huge part to play in this.

Severn Sound thus played a major role for the emergency response in Gloucestershire during the 2007 floods. The events triggered by this period, however, also had very direct consequences on the interviewee’s biography:

It ended up changing my career.  Me having a different career because I’d never done online writing and I did a lot of stuff during the floods and loved it. I love the immediacy of it.  Of actually doing something and what you’ve done is published and it’s there.  And also when you’re getting people coming back and saying I’ve been on your website and seen this and they’re asking me questions about it.  And you can get stats from a website really easily.  You can get them in real time so you can actually go in the last hour we’ve had x-thousand people looking at that particular page or looking at whatever.  I just loved that immediacy of it. […] And after I did the website stuff that year, later that year a job came up and I was approached to say you did such a good job during the floods would you be interested in it.  I looked after just a couple of radio stations and now I’m an editor right across the Heart network.  So I actually write across about 42 radio stations.  […]  So it’s all that.  For me it ended up changing my career.  So the floods ultimately changed my career.

But not only on a personal level have the floods turned out to be a highly significant period. According to the interviewee, the common tackling of this formidable challenge shaped her generation, similar to the blitz having shaped the people who lived during World War II.

It’s our war!  Does that make any sense?  People say you should have lived during the war. You don’t know you’re born, if you like, for a different generation that lived through that couple of weeks it’s like the equivalent of our war.  We lived through the floods, and I think it kind of felt a bit like that.  The fact that you did feels as though you survived.  And just the camaraderie, here, because we were working a ridiculous amount of hours and people were coming in to help, and we were taking lots of calls, and we had volunteers because it was busy in here.  There was that kind of blitz that people talk about don’t they, the kind of blitz mentality, when you’re all in difficult situations and you just get on with it, and you have a great time.  I loved it, absolutely loved it which must sound strange, but I really felt as though I was doing something really useful.  You could go home at the end of the day and think I really felt as though I really helped people that day and that’s a great feeling[…] For me, that was the big thing to remember. Yes, you had stupid people, you had stupid people who were damaging bowsers, people that were taking, we had some small corner shops who went on selling water from the distribution points for years afterwards, because we do know that people were going round and collecting water from every distribution point.  Same as everything isn’t it.  You could say it, with the floods, it brings out the best and worst in people.  I think for me that’s the thing I’ll remember, is that anything like this brings out the best in the best and the worst in the worst.

The questions that this account addresses include:

How is local media involved in flood risk management, formally and informally?

In what ways can local radio help to develop flood memories?

How local does ‘local media’ need to be, in order to provide meaningful service during an emergency?

To what extent have the summer 2007 floods influenced people’s biographies, and the consciousness of an entire generation?

“But we’re still here to tell the story. Which is the main thing.”   Leave a comment

In the floodplain village of Deerhurst, the village Flood Warden and his wife remember many floods. All but one of them they had been able to fend off with the ancient and continually improved flood defences around the village. One of the responsibilities of the Flood Warden was to close the gap in the flood bank where the road enters the village. Until recently, this was achieved by temporally constructing so-called ‘stanks’ across the road, which were made from wooden planks and clay.

We’d got the stanks […], which block the road at the end of the village.  They call them stanks. They effectively, […] are two lots of boards put together, about a foot apart, built up.  […]  We used to have to put those in with the neighbour who lived next door then, who was quite old so physically he knew what to do but he wasn’t strong enough, so with a few other people we used to have to ram them with clay effectively.  Ram them with clay and build them up according to the floods we were going to get or were getting.  Besides that, we didn’t really worry too much.

Flood Warden showing the slots (now filled in) where formerly the 'stanks' were inserted

The Flood warden has not always been an expert in flooding issues. From being a newcomer to the village and the floodplain about 50 years ago, he slowly grew into his role.

We got married in 1968. We moved here. […] We lived in a caravan for about twelve months, while I… because I was in the building trade, so I developed this. It was only a little cottage at the time when we bought it. We had really no idea what floods were about at all. Whatsoever, we had no indication. Really very naïve about the whole thing, I suppose, if we look back at it in that respect. But we survived. […]

We had floods, I can’t remember the first flood I’d ever seen but it was a year or two after we moved in, but they were what we call river floods so they didn’t really affect the village very much, only possibly the road down on the corner which always seemed to get flooded.  We used to have to leave our cars out and have to trample up the road there because we didn’t have very, we had pumps in those days but they weren’t very efficient to be honest.

The first big flood we’d seen probably was 1980/1981 when it flooded.  It wasn’t massively deep but once the stanks are put up either end of the village, any kind of water we get, rainwater we get after that, because it can’t get out if you understand, so it built up in 1980 because we had a lot of snow and rain around 1980 Christmas time, which flooded the road […].

The next really big one was in 2000 and that was the biggest one we’d ever seen.  We kept it out that year but the banks have been upgraded twice since we’ve been here.  They were upgraded in about mid-to-late 70s, they were upgraded because somebody lived round the corner, worked for Dowtys who were shifting an awful lot of soil out of a job in Tewkesbury and offered us the soil and the machinery to grade it all up and put it in the right condition and so that kept us in good stead, that raised the bank quite a bit.

He learned about the stanks technique from a neighbour, who used to put them in place before, but was getting too old to do the work.

We obviously chatted over the fence about one or two things and he kept all the flood boards, you could call them, in his shed over there so I had to go there to get them and he would tell us what to do but physically, as I say, he couldn’t do it himself, and that’s how we came to know him really.

Almost as responsible a job as putting the stanks up was to take them down at the right moment to allow traffic to flow in and out of the village again.

I basically got down to the nitty gritty of going up there and shovelling the clay. […] Because I’m a builder and I work for myself I could come back at any time if I wanted to […].  The old chap behind was a bit too old by then. […] I don’t know if they had an official name in those days, and then the lady over the road suddenly came out with a tee-shirt for me with ‘Flood Warden’ written on the back, so that’s how I got the name. […] It would have been back in the ‘70s, late 70s.  I can’t remember exactly when it was.  So I was always nicknamed the flood warden.  I mean to be fair I always used to go out there and put them up.  The worst thing about putting them up… You obviously put them up to save your properties.  But when it comes to taking them down, they could be up there for a week, 2 weeks or 3 weeks or however long the water hangs around, but when it came to take them down, by then people used to get up there and walk along in between the planks and of course the clay used to get rammed harder and harder and harder. Then when you came to take it out, if it had been there for 3 or 4 weeks, it takes some shifting. […] So I had to be kind of available to take them down at the earliest convenience really.  That’s how I got the flood warden job […].

Together with a few other villagers, the Flood Warden learned how to gauge when it was time for putting up the stanks.

We used to mix together, there’s a farmer […] down at the church, and there’s another farmer up here, it was his dad then in those days, he’s now retired.  Between us we used to, a couple of telephone calls, ‘yes we need to put the stanks up, blahdeblah.’ If you come up over the back of Barrow Wood, which I’ll show you if we go up just now, we could always reckon we’d got 12-hours before we put the first stank board up. […]

You stand up there and you could see it coming over the back of Barrow Wood.  You could see it coming over the river bank from our bedroom windows.  You can’t now but you could when we first came here. […]  We’ve got garages and all built at the back which they didn’t have originally, so you could stand in our bedroom, or any of the bedrooms if it came to that, and you could see it, but it particularly came over at Barrow Wood and it used to work its way up, which is probably a couple of miles at the most, but you can tell when you need, if it’s say 9 o’clock at night and it was just starting to come round you could think well we don’t need to put one up until tomorrow morning.  You could gauge roughly how long to allow.  Sometimes you were wrong but we never got caught out really, not seriously caught out anyway.

This system worked well for many decades. In July 2007, the flood defences that had been successful since 1947 were surpassed by the flood waters, and almost all of the village’s buildings were flooded. As the water was rising around the flood bank, the villagers put on a unique effort of communal action, raising the banks in places and building additional defences. Eventually, however, the water broke through.

Because the water effectively comes right round the back and it came down that road that you came down and it washed that dirt all away and that was it.  We were then sat in water this deep in here (points to his chest). […] It was close on 5-feet.

Telephone box, Deerhurst, 2007 flood

After spending the first night of the floods upstairs in their house – together with a friend from a neighbouring village who had come to help – they had to be evacuated by boat the next day. First thing in the morning, however, they were visited by two neighbours:

He:         We were upstairs on the Monday morning, and about 7 o’clock there was a knock on the window up there and [… two villagers from the other side of the village], they were up here, I can picture the boat being up here anyway (pointing to the window), they were knocking on our bedroom window to see if we wanted tea or coffee.

She:       They had a flask of each, very good, and a packet of biscuits and they hooked it up on the oar and we took it in from the landing window so we could have a drink.

As has been the case in many flooded communities, the flooding itself is not being remembered as such a traumatic phase as the aftermath of the flooding. One of the difficulties for the Flood Warden and his wife was the amount of things they had to get rid of because all that had been in contact with water was considered ‘contaminated’. What is more, the ‘contaminated’ items had to be stored in the back yard for a while, until the loss assessors had found time to look at them. In one of the photographs that the family keeps, the heap of furniture, carpets and other debris in their back yard looks almost like a monument to the flood, to the loss.

Backyard with 'contaminated' debris - a monument to loss

She:       Then you had to leave it there for the assessors to come and look.  That was the worst part.

He:         You couldn’t get rid of that (furniture) until the assessors had come to see it.

She:       Making sure that it was the value, I had to itemise everything, from teaspoons, well everything.  It’s a bit of a nightmare that.  […]

He:         Well we ripped out all the floors, that was a wooden floor in there, carpet in the front room so all that went.  These were tiled.  They had to come up according to the insurance company because they were contaminated. […]     All the plaster off…

She:       It was all to do with being contaminated.

He:         So if they were damp they had to go, effectively. […]  They would have been usable, a lot of it, and certainly the floors would have been.

She:       In the olden days before Health & Safety and all the rest of the stuff, you’d have swept, washed it all out, and carried on.

He:         Yes so we re-plastered all the downstairs.  This is a new floor, new kitchen which is not finished as you can see.  Everything downstairs is virtually new. […] I’ve never seen so many skip lorries in my life in a small village.  They were in and out every day, skip lorry after skip lorry. That was one of the things which I do remember.  Because there was so much good stuff going out of this village to the skips, unbelievable. […] Stuff you were still using.  Now, because it was contaminated everybody said the insurance companies said it had to go.  It was the worst mistake we all made really, was chucking stuff away which could have been reusable.  A lot of it.  There were skip lorries by the load.

She:       I mean we still go and look for something now and think. ‘oh no, we haven’t got it now.’ You know, even now.  […]

He:         Because it had been contaminated, it sounds an awful bad name as though it’s kind of unliveable, but it wasn’t.  It was crazy really.  […] Well it’s the upheaval of it, you’re talking about a whole year, 12-months, you know, it’s a big upheaval, plus you’ve got to replace everything.  When you get older it’s not so easy to go and get a new 3-piece suite and a new television, you know.  I mean if you get new things from time to time when you want them then it’s not a problem but you try and go and get everything, well we had nothing in our house because it was all gone on the skip.  It’s a big upheaval.

In spite of the loss and ‘upheaval’, the couple maintains some positive memories of the floods.

He:         But if you look there’s an awful lot of people live, well not only this river but other rivers in the whole wide world, if you live close to the river sometime in your life, you can be lucky or unlucky. In many ways for us it was lucky because a) I got a lot of work out of it and b) it enabled us through the insurance get a lot better furniture than we usually had.  You can look it whichever way you like really.

Interviewer:       But you also had a lot of trouble.

He:         Yes we had a lot of fuss, a lot of upheaval, yes.

She:       A lot of heartache.  We lost a lot of things that can’t be replaced like family photos.  Our sons growing up years, childhood, school photos, it’s all gone.

He:         We didn’t think it was going to get, we put everything that we thought was valuable kind of thing above worktop height thinking it won’t get above that, but we were a bit naïve about that really.

She:       We thought we’d be paddling in it the next morning but nothing more.

He:         But we’re still here to tell the story.

She:       Which is the main thing.  Some people lost their lives and we’re still walking about, so.

The couple also reckons the 2007 flood triggered enough community action and interest within the Environment Agency to greatly improve the village’s flood defences.

The positive thing was when they formed a Deerhurst Flood Group Protection Society Committee. As soon as the 2007 flood was over, they formed the Deerhurst Preservation Flood Committee they called it.  That’s one good thing that’s come out of it […] that they could then challenge and go to insurance companies and blahdeblah and do everything on a bigger scale because it was a village thing, not just individual people going to insurance companies and try and get their insurance back and what have you.  So that helped.

Now that the new flood defences are built, the question arises whether villagers will remember floods, flood risk, and the fact that they live on a flood plain. The Flood Warden thinks that the 2007 floods will be remembered as the new benchmark in the area, just as the 1947 floods had been before.

I didn’t see the floods themselves […] a) because I didn’t live here and b) because I was too young, but they always refer back, ‘oh the floods that we had up to 2007.’ Even in 2000, which was the biggest flood I’d seen since we’ve been here, ‘oh it wasn’t as big as 1947.’ Everyone said it wasn’t as big as 1947 but they can’t say that after 2007 because 2007 outdid 1947 by something like 12-inches I reckon, which is a lot of water round here.  […] Now we’d only talk about 2007 if we started to get anywhere a flood again and then people would refer back to 2007.

Rain and river thus seem to remind villagers of the floods, in spite of the flood wall surrounding them. Moreover, people sometimes tell stories of the floods, funny ones in particular.

She:       There are lots of funny stories.

He:         You have to look at it on the funny side of it otherwise.

She:       You’d have been stressed wouldn’t you, losing everything.

Other ways of remembering the floods are more contested. Some people, for instance, suggested exhibiting images of the floods and the works towards the improved flood defences during a biannual village festival, which met opposition by others who argued that this festival was about flowers, not about floods.

Funnily enough, we have a church flower festival here every two years. […] Our friend next door, he’s the Chairman of the Flood Prevention Committee, and […] he produced several big images, photographs on big boards and wanted to put them in the churchyard two years or 18 months ago when the last flower festival was on, but he was turned down by the committee.  I won’t go into the details but he was allowed a small portion in a tent but he wanted to let everybody see, all the visitors, because they get up to 3,000 to 4,000 because it’s over 3 days, and he wanted everybody to see what the situation had been like. […] Well one or two people, as I say it was a bit political, but they were running the actual flower festival and thought it was a flower festival and not an advert for showing off photographs of the flood.  He did have them, I’m sure he’s still got them, but he wasn’t allowed, he put a few up but not as many as he wanted.

Nevertheless, the couple holds that even under these circumstances, memories of the floods will stay alive in their family and their village.

She:       I don’t think you can [forget] that really because it happened didn’t it?  We went through it.

He:         If we’d have felt really peed off with it or whatever we wouldn’t be here today would we.

She:       We’d have all left and gone.  Can’t live there again and all that.

He:         I don’t think you can say, we obviously don’t want to see one again really but we’re willing to take that chance really.

Interviewer:       Yes, and you think the memories that you gathered during that time are worthwhile preserving?

He:         Oh definitely, it’s a big part of our life.

She:       It is now. […]

He:         Our children will never forget that, never.  Even our grandchildren, who were quite small at the time really, even they say about the ‘great flood Nana’, but they didn’t really see it. […]They’ve seen the photographs and all that, but that really isn’t registering them but they know about it and they won’t forget it.

Interviewer:       So they’ve seen the photographs and they’ve heard stories, so in the family it’s passed on?

He:         Yes, very much.  You can be certain of that, because I mean until this happened everybody talked about 1947.  It’s all people every talked about the floods was the 1947, which we never saw as I said before.  So they’ll always talk about 2007 now, won’t they?

Interviewer:       I wonder whether there will be a way that, say, your children or grandchildren will know what to do.  That you take your stuff upstairs just in case, without them necessarily having been through that themselves.

She:       You just tell them of your own experiences, don’t you?

He:         [Our son …] was interested in buying that place which was outside the flood bank, I didn’t go into any details but I mean he hasn’t bought it, but the flood never worried him.  He wasn’t worried about the flood part of it.  He’s lived here so he knew if he bought that, what he was walking into as regards floods. […] Yes, they’ve all been through the floods.  He loved it when you have to put the first board up.

She:       Yes, especially if there’s a bit of water this side and they could go on their bikes through it.  Childhood stuff obviously.

This interview speaks to many different themes in the context of our project. They include:

Communities: How does remembering floods – differently by different parts of the community – become negotiated and developed or side-lined?

Material memories: How does completely new furniture and interior decoration of one’s home affect people’s memories of the floods?

‘Levee Syndrome’: Does living with massive flood protection infrastructure make people remember or forget floods and flood risk?

Local flood knowledge: How do newcomers to the floodplain learn about living with floods? In what respect is that different today compared to the 1960s and 1970s?

Communities, authorities, and a ‘culture of dependency’   Leave a comment

Last week, we held the second meeting with the project’s Stakeholder Competency Group. With representatives from the City Council, the County Council’s Emergency Services, the National Flood Forum and a regionally active flood action group (Severn and Avon Valley Combined Flood Group) we discussed project progress and future.

Communication with this group is an integral part of our project, to ensure the project remains relevant for actual flood risk management, and to provide avenues for our findings into policy and practice.

 

 

One of the many issues that came up was the often strong feelings of antagonism of flood victims vis-a-vis many formal institutions and authorities (see some of the previous entries on this blog). We noticed that in many cases communities cope rather well with floods, and that floods may even catalyse communal action and community spirit to degrees that would seem impossible under ‘normal’ circumstances. At the same time, however, many people remember the floods as times when formal institutions let them down, and also feel they get little support after a flood to deal with the aftermath and to manage their flood risk.

It was widely agreed in the group that formal institutions may forget floods much quicker than communities do, for example because other, more immediate policy items displace floods from their agenda. Another reason for this may be the restructuring of institutions in terms of responsibilities and personnel, so that those in charge of flood risk management today were not concerned with floods in 2007.

The question was raised whether the authorities’ forgetting in a way forces communities to remember themselves, rather than being able to pass off their responsibilities to the authorities. This is particularly relevant in a context where the relationship between citizens/communities and authorities resembles that of a ‘culture of dependency’. This term usually refers to an alleged phenomenon of the welfare state, where for example unemployment benefits create incentives for people not to seek jobs. A ‘culture of dependency’ is fostered, in this example, by a system that makes people dependent on state benefits to the extent that they hardly perceive any alternative source of income. In the context of flood memories, a ‘culture of dependency’ may be in part accountable for people’s frustration with the authorities’ response to the floods.

But what causes this feeling of dependency? Clearly, it is not just ordinary people’s fault, and it cannot be simply blamed on formal institutions either. Some stakeholders suggested that ‘current society’ may have stifled communities’ resilience, by imposing too many hurdles if a group of people wants to achieve anything. People today often have very little control over what goes on in their own communities, which can make them unable to cope in an emergency or to develop their resilience. Current ‘health and safety’ regulations, for instance, were mentioned as are one of the biggest obstacles to community action. Not being authorized/allowed to do what feels right engenders further reliance, and ultimately dependence, on local authorities and the concomitant feelings of impotency and not being responsible for anything that goes wrong. Another issue that plays into this may be that some people assume they have some sort of service contract with their Council – they pay council tax, and in return for that expect their drains to be cleared etc.

Luckily, there is a (growing?) number of community groups, engaged citizens and local government officers who are struggling to reinstate agency in communities (which is evident, for instance, in other posts on this blog), which may be crucial for developing resilience to floods along the lower River Severn.

“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?