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?
This is how a retired lady from Westgate, Gloucester, remembers a recent presentation she put on in her residential home, with a collection of her photographs of flooding in the area. Despite not being flooded herself, she deems flooding an integral aspect of life in Gloucester.
Well, I mean, everybody knows Gloucester floods. […] If you live by the river you accept it.
She had taken pictures during a flood in October 2006, and many more in July 2007, which she found worthwhile sharing with her neighbours.
I said to them a little while ago, I had lots of pictures and would anybody be interested, and they said yes. And of course this is a building where people retire, so we have lots of people moving in and out. We have had lots of newcomers who wouldn’t have a clue, so of course they were very keen to come and have a look, and they were astonished.
This is one of her images of the 2007 flood, taken from her window. It is taken directly from her slide show, including the caption she wrote.
Although the 2007 floods were bigger than previous floods she experienced there, she did not find them particularly unique.
because it happened in October 2006. Well we are the [lower] end of the city. And if then the water not getting into the river, there’s obviously going to be a delay while it does, so just accept it.
Whereas generally, discussions of the floods focus on 2007 as a one-off event, her presentation put it into a historical context. The first series of images showed a minor flood from the previous year, some of which are shown below.
When asked about the merits of maintaining memories, she remarked:
I think memories about everything are so essential. And recording things is essential which is why I am so involved in historical things. […] For future generations to know. They should know, shouldn’t they? (Laughs).
Visual material, like pictures and newspaper clippings, provide a crucial stimulant for memories, she maintains. When asked about specific details of the 2007 floods, she refers to her presentation and other images that she collected.
Well again if you look on the DVD, you will see we got rid of it off the quay quite quickly, but the river was still high […]. And again you will see on the slides that we had water running from this corner down to the garage. The dates are the some of the photographs. You work it out for yourself and judge by the newspaper cuttings. We did have flooding out in front of the street, but that didn’t last very long, that went I think just because the drains weren’t taking it, I think.
What this lady’s account makes clear is that
(1) there are flood plain residents who are keen to maintain and develop flood memories, even if they have not personally been flooded; and
(2) photographs provide important support for memories, and means of sharing and developing social memory.
This quote comes from an interview with a couple who live in a part of Gloucester that gets flooded rather often. Usually, it does not enter people’s houses, though, but in the summer of 2007 it did. Also in 2000, their home had flooded, and the previous owner of their house told them that it had happened a few times before, most notably in 1947, but also more recently. The two floodplain inhabitants have experienced many dangers and deprivations because of the flooding. Nevertheless, they emphasise how flooding brings the neighbourhood together, so that resilience to floods and community spirit are mutually reinforcing.
He: The thing is, we don’t look at ourselves as victims.
She: No, we like it (laughs).
He: We like it here. And we accept the responsibility of the flooding. We pay highly for it because we pay our insurance prices or premiums. But then again, we accept that as well. So therefore, we don’t look at ourselves as victims. In flood times, we tend to help as many people as we can, simply because we are not victims. Other people are. But we don’t feel that way. We could become victims afterwards. After the flooding, when you are stuck out of your house, stuck in a caravan, stuck in a house miles upon miles away, coming here at six o’clock in the morning, going home at midnight, going back to the property you’ve got at midnight, that’s what we did in 2000 and in 2007. That’s the thing.
She: It is the aftermath.
He: That’s when you become victims. Not when you’re flooding. And that’s when you get no help.
She: And that’s when all those people that are speaking in the papers, on the telly, chatting their mouths off, what they have done and what they are gonna do and that. That’s when they…
He: They don’t exist for us because they do nothing.
She: […] People tend to support each other in this community.
He: Yes. We carry each other. Because nobody else will.
Feeling let down by local government and other formal institutions, the couple and the community have learned to fend for themselves before, during and after a flood. In the following quote, they talk about how they were trying to deal with the aftermath of the 2007 flood, trying not to become victims in spite of feeling let down by official bodies.
He: We did our own because we saw what was happening here. [Some builders] were coming and doing the job, six weeks later they were coming back to do it again, and again, and again, because the job was never done right.
Interviewer: So what was it you organised?
He: […] I got to talk to the insurance company and said, “We want the money.”
She: And get our own people.
He: “You can come and check on it,” which they did. They sent their agents down to look at what we were doing. But we got our own builders in to do the job. And we used local people. And that’s the other thing I objected to: they would come from Scotland, from Wales, one company came from Germany! Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got no objections to the Germans of French or Italians or whatever. But we got perfectly good local builders here, who could do the job and who you’ve got then somewhere to go when you don’t do the job properly. But when you’re in Scotland you haven’t got that.
She: Other people have had problems, Lawrence over the road, because they never came back.
He: They never came back to finish the job, they never did the job properly. They got the money, but didn’t do the jobs.
When, after the flood, most neighbours moved away while their houses were drying and being rebuilt, the couple stayed behind in a caravan on higher ground. This caravan soon developed into an impromptu community centre, as a place to meet, share information, make plans, and air grievances.
She: Some people went to stay with parents. Some people’s insurance company paid for them. Yeah, one couple had a flat up in Gloucester, in the new warehouses. […] People were all over the place.
He: Scattered all over the place.
She: All scattered is the word. There was only about two, three families that stayed here.
Interviewer: So, when everybody goes away, or scatters, how is that for the community to deal with this aftermath? As you say, it’s such a difficult…
He: They came to our caravan (laughs).
She: People used to come back, check on their houses, check what the builders were doing and how far they had gotten, and just come in, and go look in the garden, just to look at the river, just to reassure themselves. Come in, we’d give them a cup of tea. And then they went again.
When the flood happened in 2007, the couple, and other members of the community, already felt that they were not hopeless victims of a catastrophe, but that they were able to do certain things to mitigate the destruction. In particular, this was due to their memories of what they had been doing during the flood seven years earlier.
She: Can I just say, going back to what he said about the 2000 flooding, I mean – what was it, three days, three nights?
She: The people, the whole community, I mean they’d be coming in four, five hour shifts, you know, twenty-four hours a day [maintaining a sandbag flood wall they had built along the river bank].
Interviewer: How did you organise that? That’s really interesting.
She: We didn’t. It just fell into place. Somehow, it wasn’t even organised.
He: We just talked to each other. And we all… It fell into place because we all wanted to do it. And people were saying, “Well, I’m doing days, so I can do that at night.” And some were doing, “I’m doing nights, so I can do that during the day”.
She: And some people were just coming in and out all the time whenever they had the time. But the work…
He: …the work involved was tremendous. I mean, considering it was something like 5000 sandbags.
She: We had three high tides. And we held them, we held off the first two. I think they were about four star bore tides. And we held off for two nights, three days, and it just caught us on that last night.
He: Well it came from behind. Once it got us, we just walk away and then because there was nothing we could do.
She: But again, this was done through just the people that lived here.
He: No help from the people that spout off, what do they call them in Shire Hall…? This weightwatcher, whatever they call them.
She: The Environment Agency didn’t come down. None of those people, none of them came down.
Experience of previous floods had taught them that they can achieve something together. Even if their self-organised flood wall did not hold out in the end, their community action had brought them much further than the help they received from the emergency services.
The thing is, you’ve got to do something for yourself. If you rely on insurance companies to actually do the job for you, you’ll wait a long time. If you wait for the Council or the Environment Agency, well you wait forever, eh? And you will still be in the same boat twenty years later. You’ve got to do something for yourself. And if you can’t do that, don’t live on a river. Don’t live anywhere near water. Live on the treetops. Live on a mountain. You’ll probably get on with flood then (laughs).
The couple realizes that their community, and a few people in particular, are vulnerable to floods. But they also feel that mutual help and looking after each other in the community can significantly reduce this vulnerability. “There are several that are vulnerable. But they are never left to be vulnerable.”
Some of their neighbours, who have lived on the floodplain their whole lives and are old enough to be considered vulnerable to floods, do not behave as if they were vulnerable at all. When the water was rising and they sandbagged the front door of one of these neighbours
He: He opened the door and kicked them all away. […] “No, I don’t like that,” he said, “It can come in there [in the front] and will go out there [in the back].”
She: But he was born here. And he’s been through many a flood. And that’s his tactic. He opens the front door and the back door and…
He: …and pushes it through and doesn’t do anything else. Left it open to get the place dried out, didn’t he?
She: And then afterwards he doesn’t have any in dehumidifiers or anything.
He: Just leaves [his furniture] to dry outside.
She: And then you see a couple of chairs standing there in the garden. Just like wooden chairs (laughs), drying in the breeze.
Interviewer: Interesting way of dealing with it.
He: He doesn’t have a proper kitchen. He’s got a sink, […] and the cooker is picked up, right up in the air. Once the flood is gone, the cooker is put down again. And he sleeps upstairs, and lives upstairs in the flood. Once the water goes down, then he washes his place out and carries on. Does a bit of touch-up painting if he needs to, and that’s about it. And that’s the way he is.
She: Which is his perogatory.
He: Yeah. That’s the way he wants to live. And he is still alive (laughs).
The couple believes that maintaining flood memories can be useful for knowing what practical steps to take during a flood, and when dealing with the aftermath or preparing for the next flood. Nevertheless, similar to what we have heard in other interviews, too, they believe that flood memories are most useful for instilling an attitude of resilience on the inhabitants of flood-prone areas.
Interviewer: Was [what you had heard about previous floods] in any way useful for dealing with the 2000 and 2007?
He: Yeah, because it sits in the back of your mind. And therefore it gives you an aid to, not actually what to do, but how to deal with it.
Interviewer: So, not practical things, but more like an attitude?
He: An attitude, I would say, more than practical. How to face it, how to look at it in general. To not be depressed by it. How to dominate that, and that not dominate you. That you’ve got to keep on top. No matter what, you’ve got to laugh. Otherwise you cry. So, their experiences give an insight to what they did within themselves, not within the practicality of it, but how they coped with it. And it gives you an aid to the way you cope with it. It’s attitude more than anything else.
This attitude that enables them to better cope with floods does not, of course, imply that they take any flood for granted. Rather, they critically comment on some of the processes that they see as increasing and decreasing flood risk in their area.
She: We have been told that, from reliable sources, and particularly the person that lived here in 1947, and he in fact lived here since the nineteen thirties, it didn’t flood so much then. I mean, the forty-seven was a big one because of the snow amount and all that. It didn’t flood so much because they… What did they do in Wales?
He: They did build a dam in Wales. […]
She: They built a dam in Wales. And yeah, for years and years and years and years…
He: …they had no flooding. […] But it was the actual building on the floodplain that made it. […] You’ve lost two thirds of the floodplain to building. That’s what you have to be taking into account, you are taking places like Tesco’s, the Cattle Market and all the rest of it […].
She: And they don’t dredge. I mean, we see a large [dredger], he goes up and down now and again. But I mean, I’ve had people back here that lived in, not only in this house, in other houses, they just come back to have a look. And they’ve come out in the garden and looked at the river and they said, “Good God, it’s so much narrower than it used to be”. And it’s all silted up. As you go under the bridges, there is enough silt there to build a small housing estate on.
However, they do not buy into any old explanation for their flooding. For instance, they doubt whether Climate Change is making any significant difference in their position.
He: It has always flooded down here. The floodplain has flooded since time began, I suppose. And since records began, it’s always flooded down here. So I don’t think that’s changed any. I think you might get the variation in the levels of flood, but I don’t think – and I think this is probably part of it – this blaming global warming for the flood, I don’t think you can. Simply because it has happened too many times before. I mean, I’m not arguing against global warming. I’m not one of those people. But at the same time, there is certain things you can’t blame. And I don’t think global warming has anything to do with the flooding down here. It might have added a couple of inches to it, but we are always gonna flood; because we always have done. And I don’t think that will change. In seven years’ time, four years’ time, whatever, we will flood again. It’s the elements coming together. Same as it did in the seventeen sixties and the sixteen sixties and the fifteen sixties and the fourteen sixties. It’s gonna come again. And global warming will have nothing to do, it might make it a little bit worse as time goes on…
She: But there is not much difference between two foot six inches and two foot nine inches, is there?
He: Exactly! So you can’t actually blame, like so many are trying to do lately, “Oh, you flood because of global warming”. That’s not true. It makes it worse but if you already flood, three inches isn’t gonna make a blime bit of difference.
Among the many things that local flood history and their own flood experience has taught them is a very critical attitude towards the Environmental Agency’s flood warning system. They say that most often, the flood warnings are false alarms, making people unnecessarily upset, frightened and cynical. When their home did flood, they received the automated phone message much too late; the water had long entered the property. That does not mean, however, that they were very surprised when the flood came. In their back garden that stretches all the way to the river, they know exactly to what stick and to what stone the water rises during usual, harmless floods. Once the water reaches particular sticks and stones further up the slope, they know it is time to prepare for an eventual higher flood.
She: That’s another thing: their flood warnings, they don’t work on an area. They work on the whole River Severn which is, you probably know, is pretty long. And if they think it’s gonna flood somewhere up in North Wales […], everybody along the river gets a flood warning. And it’s usually the highest flood warning. It says “You are going to flood. Get all your livestock and animals out. Get anything valuable upstairs. Vacate your property”. And you know, they keep telling people that…
He: And we’ve had a young couple then here, up in number seventeen […], that had just moved in.
She: Three weeks before (laughs).
He: […] And they had a phone call from the Environment Agency telling them to put all their furniture upstairs and leave their property. And they were in tears. They came here in tears. You know, and it was an obnoxious thing to do really, because there was never going to be a flood. […]
She: The flood warnings are pointless, they are useless, they upset people like that. They are never accurate. I mean, when was it, one Christmas Eve, someone of the environment agency phoned me up personally […]. “You are gonna flood tonight”. And I looked out the window, and I said, “No, I’m not”. He said, “Oh, I am very sorry. You are, because our computers say this, that or the other”. And I said, “My two sticks [in the garden] say, we’re fine”. And we didn’t. We know. We see it every day. We know. I don’t know, you just get to read it. And all they’ve got is computers.
He: And until you bring it down […] to area by area, for flood warning, then nobody is going to take any notice. […]
She: In fact, I would say ninety-nine out of a hundred, those flood warnings are now a nuisance. And they ring sort of like six o’clock at night, and they’ve got it on a twelve hour thing. They ring you up at six o’clock in the morning. You actually get up and you answer the phone, and somebody telling you you’re gonna flood, and you look out and, oh no. You know. And I rang back once. There is a number to ring back for further information, and I did ring back once. So I told him where I lived, on the Severn at Gloucester. I said, “I just had the severe flood warning”. I said, “What shall I do?” I said, “The river is right down, way, you know, about four foot below the property. I personally don’t think I’m gonna flood”. “Oh, if you get the flood warning you must get out. You must get your animals out. Get your stuff upstairs and get into…” But honestly, if you did that every time you got a flood warning, run to a B&B or Travelodge or…
He: You would be bankrupt, wouldn’t you?
She: I mean, do they realise what a lot that is to do every time they ring? You know? […] So really, if their flood warnings could be a little bit more accurate, or perhaps a little bit more localised…
He: You’ve got to localise it. Small area by small area.
The couple realizes that it is important to remember the floods, and to remember other things that they have learned, and continue to learn, about the river. They also realize that some memories are causing harm, and are best forgotten, or “shut away” most of the time.
I think the only thing you can do in any flood, in that situation, is remember the good things that happened […] like the camaraderie and things like that. And forget the bad stuff. Because the bad stuff isn’t going to do you any good. The next flood that comes along, hopefully you think about what you were doing at the beginning of a flood and you weren’t feeling too bad about it. Buoyed up by it, you can cope with the next one. If you’re looking at the depressed side of things, then you’re going to be that much more depressed before you even flood. Therefore you’re not going to be able to cope. Therefore you will have a nervous breakdown or whatever. So my viewpoint would be that you remember the good points and shut away the bad points. Because the bad points, at the end of the day, are not gonna do you any good at all. […] I don’t think they actually forget. What happens is, they shut it away. I think the mind is a great thing, the brain is a great thing. It’s got the capacity to shut things away so that you can live a life. If you were to remember the bad things in whatever situation you are in, discounting flooding, anything that you live in, if you just remember the bad things, you’re not gonna live a life, are you? You’re gonna be permanently depressed, permanently upset. And all this guff about talking about it might make it feel better… It doesn’t. It’s not gonna make you feel better, it’s gonna make you feel worse. The only thing you can do to actually continue life, in my view, that means only my personal view, is to shut it away. Because otherwise you can’t live. At some stage you can bring it back if you need to.
Being able to bring back these memories when needed presupposes to keep them alive in some form, and also to pass them on to other people, such as to new residents in the neighbourhood. The couple is regularly involved in organising street parties and other social events that bind the community together and provide opportunities for sharing and passing on memories of floods and other locally relevant issues.
He: I can’t remember what the last [party] was for. It was just to… have a chat.
She: Because of some new people had moved into the street. We said, it would be nice for the new people to get to know the people who already lived here.
Interviewer: And on these occasions, do floods come on as a subject?
She: Yeah, sometimes.
He: Of course it does. You talk about it, you know. And then, that’s the time when the bad things come out as well as the good things.
She: And the jokes.
He: And the jokes. But the thing about it is, in my view, the only way you get through these kind of things is by looking for the good side. […] You look at the good side and you pass that good side on to other people. So, with the bad that’s happened, you’ve got the good. And that can only come from the people suffering that situation. It can’t come from prats outside. It’s got to come from the people within. And until you can do that, or if you can’t do that, then you’re gonna suffer even more in the long term.
She: And […] due to flooding [we] have a community where people…
He: … band together. […]
She: If we do have a street party or anything, at some point during the evening [flooding] will…
He: It will always come up.
She: And the old stories come out.
He: At three o’clock in the morning, when that street party was going on, in the end it was a group of chairs in the middle of the street, a big circle of chairs. […] Yeah, and we were all sitting around that and we talked about what? The flooding.
She: And there was two new people there.
He: And so therefore, it was passed on.
She: And they said, […] “Oh, well hopefully it won’t happen again.” And we all said, “Yeah, it will happen again! But don’t worry, we’ll all…” (laughs)
He: So, you know I mean, there is nothing hidden. I say, you shut it away, you shut it away in ordinary daily life, to live. But when you get meetings like that it all comes out. It’s all talked about.
She: And mainly the funny things. It’s the funny things we talk about more.
He: The good things come up on top. And the jokes come out.
The couple has been flooded twice in the fourteen years of living on the river. Flooding clearly is a major concern to them. But they do not emphasise the problems this brings with it. Rather, they stress the joys of living close to the river and the community spirit that comes with suffering floods together, helping each other out during and after the flood, and collectively feeling let down by local authority and other formal institutions.
Questions that arise from this interview include:
What are the causal relations between community help/spirit and flood coping with floods?
Does common flood experience regularly bond communities together? Or what are the conditions necessary for this to happen?
How can people who feel left out from formal flood risk management be taken on board? And how can formal flood risk management benefit from the ample local knowledge that exists in such communities?
How can communities be supported in developing and passing on their flood memories, for instance in street parties and similar community settings?
What role can flood memory play in flood-risk communities, both in instilling an appropriate attitude towards floods and in passing on practical knowledge of how to deal with floods?
This quote comes from a recent interview with a gentleman from Gloucester, who has experienced time and again that his knowledge of the river, floodplain and flood dynamics are categorically ignored by planners and authorities. Interested in water for a long time, he feels he has something to contribute to flood risk management.
Ever since I was about seven or eight, I had a fascination with water. And where I used to live in Birmingham there was several golf courses, golf links, up in the hills. And there was little brooks that meandered down, they were about six feet down, a little trickle. But if you had rain up in the hills, you could stand there, and you could watch that brook rising. And I used to chuck little sticks in to see where the water went, and it used to fascinate me to see the water going up around the corners and swinging around. And where it goes through a narrow gap, it forms like half a bowl, as the water funnels into it. I have lived on the Gloucester floodplain since 1947. I lived at Sandhurst. In 1963 we had a big flood, and I lived in an old, converted bus in them days. And the water was halfway up the bloody bus wheels. We had the boat tied up to the door knocker. That was the first year farmers had levelled the edges, trimmed the edges down. And we had one big lake between where we were and the railway line, and all the water rushing by going south.
But because he lacks formal training and diplomas, his accounts are regularly disregarded.
And this barrister stood there, and he’s one of these (he puts his glasses on the tip of his nose, raises his nose and looks over his glasses). “Would you agree with me, Mister […], that these people have got qualifications?” And I said, “Yes, I can’t dispute that, can I?” “What qualifications have you got?” I said, “On paper, nothing. But I do believe my living in, on and around the floodplain and travelling in boats at flood time, and working on the river in all of its moods makes me an expert in my own right”. Because to me, you can’t beat practical experience.
One of the things he did during the floods of 2007 was to take a series of pictures of water-level gauges in his area, following the development and distribution of the floods. Some of his pictures are reproduced below.
Not long ago, our “sister project” Learning to Live with Water: Flood Histories, Environmental Change, Remembrance and Resilience staged its final conference in Gloucester. After three workshops throughout the previous year, and various other forms of linking and coordinating, a network had been established around questions of resilience to flooding, changing environments, storytelling and remembering. Members of the network include artists, policy-makers, academics and other people interested in the topic.
The richness of these multiple approaches to floods, stories and resilience was evident during the conference that combined academic papers with artists’ presentations and performances, practical advice and an exhibition of poems and visual art.
If you are interested in this network, just email LivingFloodHistories@glos.ac.uk with your contact details, or visit their blog at http://livingfloodhistories.wordpress.com.