Archive for the ‘interview’ Category

“People just become fragmented again. Their lives take over again. I think it was a common experience that drove everyone together.”   Leave a comment


Do disaster events such as floods re-establish communities? And do these communities exist only as long as the common experience prevails? Many of the interviews conducted for this project suggest that flood experience fosters a sense of community that is not necessarily seen under everyday conditions. Many people refer back to the Blitz Spirit, which seems to be the quintessential disaster community they remember. A constant theme throughout this interview is how the community spirit positively – and surprisingly – supports flood victims:

“And the Brewers Fayre, the Travelodge place up by the motorway, was just ram-packed because everyone had just come off there and in fact all of their rooms had gone, and I remember stories afterwards that how well the waiting staff had done. There were free hot chocolate or free drinks and things. I remember a letter in the newspaper at what a credit the staff was. They couldn’t get home but they kept working, serving all of these people and trying to get blankets. I know a couple off the Ashchurch Road; I know they went out with cups of tea and things [to people] that were stuck in the traffic. I think they let some people stay. I think they just said to them, “Are you stuck, do you want to come and stay in our spare room?”

Tewkesbury flooded, July 2007: the disused railway line is the dark green line across the image, uninterrupted by flood water (from http://www.webbaviation.co.uk/gallery/v/greatfloods/).

This emergency community was established in a Travelodge, a place that many people would not visit on an everyday basis. Perhaps an unconventional location adds to the sense of urgency and exceptionality that allows this community spirit to emerge.  The interviewed couple also talks about a disused railway line, now a foot- and cycle-path, as such an extraordinary, ‘liminal’ space.  As the only way in and out of town during the floods, the railway line is another example of a different location of the disaster community that came into existence through the floods. In the image above, the disused railway line is the dark green line across the image, uninterrupted by flood water (from http://www.webbaviation.co.uk/gallery/v/greatfloods/). Normally, people would drive to town in their cars, hardly interacting with each other as they are strapped into their motorized confines. During the floods, however, they had to walk along this footpath, encountering plentiful situations to interact with each other. This would have lead to a temporary community of people sharing experiences or solving practical tasks together.

P2:          I was quite lucky because that railway line close to where you were didn’t flood. People thought there was no way into the town centre but actually there was, and a lot of people used that. A lot of people did their shopping in the middle of town in Tesco.

P1:          It got incredibly busy.

P2:          Normally you would never see anyone on it, and suddenly there were masses of people on it. That was interesting because it actually got people out of their cars for a while for local journeys.

This shows that flooding brings people together but not necessarily in the ways or places they expected.  It also shows how flooding can change human behaviour in positive ways and let stories be told. Many of the people using the footpath might not have talked to each other if the roads had been open.

As the title quote suggests, the couple believe that community is there when they need it.  Their community spirit is dormant, and only re-invigorated in residents’ consciousness during events like this. It is summed up by:

“I think there was an initial bringing the community together, but I think people re-established that they were a community and maybe they don’t do as many events as a community as you would hope, but it still re-established communities. [They] were there and in times of need they come together again.”

 

Maybe the sense of permanent community is a social construct that has vanished in the younger generation. The generational difference does not only become apparent in the meaning of community, but also in the way different generations react to events such as the flood. Both the interviewees highlight this point by detailing their experiences of previous floods. One even regularly played in the floods. This sounds dangerous in this day-of-age, but this participant learned a lot about floods whilst playing in them:

P1:          And like you say […] you used to play in the flood water, we used to go down a back road in Twyning and put our wellies on. Always with our parents, well we did anyway…..

P2:          ……more of a liberal upbringing then (laughs)……

P1:          ……I used to look at the flood water and that was part of it.

Flooding being a part of life of the participant as a child may develop a level of self-education in flooding, leading to a ‘watery sense of place’ and even an attitude of ‘biophilia’ towards floods.

Well actually it is something quite natural for it to flood.

The participants constantly refer to people rolling up their trousers and wading through water, further suggesting a watery sense of place exists in locations like Tewkesbury. With a perceived ‘nanny state’ and improved flood defences and warnings, the next generation are being told that flooding is a dangerous and extremely negative event, whereas people who have experienced many floods see flooding as a part of Tewkesbury. A watery sense of place is beneficial to floodplain residents, as seen in previous blog posts. So with the protection of the younger generation from floods, can they be taught a watery sense of place without frequently being exposed to actual floods? Apparently, many children affected by the floods had little knowledge of flooding:

They [the children] thought as soon as it chucked it down, floods were going to come; they didn’t understand how flooding happens.

By the same token, if flood risk on the floodplain were to decline, the watery sense of place would perhaps disappear along with people’s flood experience. However, events like the 2007 floods are exceptional but may happen again. Flood risk is never totally eliminated. The interviewees say that nature always finds a way of imposing itself, and this needs to be taught to children, for instance with an annual Flood Week in schools; this would expose children to flooding in their home area, and provide them with a current and locally relevant subject.

Throughout the interview, the couple’s generally positive attitude towards the floods, and occasional laughter, was noticeable. This may be due to their own houses not being flooded. This meant that the couple could:

‘Possibly draw out the positives a lot easier than other people can.’

The couple does comment that if they had been flooded, their memories would be different and possibly they would resent the flood. They also tell stories of people who had been flooded, in order to convey a balanced view of the floods.

With memories meaning different things to different people, naturally the starting point to the respective narratives is different. For example ‘If it had been five years earlier and without digital cameras, we would be running out of film’ starts a month before the actual flood event. This person sees the start of a rainy period as an important beginning to his narrative, whereas the present account starts during the heavy rain of Friday 21st July. Both accounts show the way narratives are constructed and personal, despite in parts telling the same story.

What this account explores is:

  • A dormant community spirit which seems to become re-established during flooding or similar disasters

  • Self-education of flooding leading to a watery sense of place

  • Flood victims tend to look at the wider picture

  • The construction of memory, especially the start of people’s narrative.

‘If it had been five years earlier and without digital cameras, we would be running out of film.’   1 comment

Photographs play a crucial role in remembering floods in Gloucestershire. Particularly during the more recent floods, with widespread digital photography, popular photo-sharing websites (e.g. flickr) and affordable photo printing, flood memories have been saturated with flood photos. The importance of photographs for memory comes to the fore in this interview conducted with an owner of a Tewkesbury-based business and former chairman of the local Chamber of Commerce. This interviewee explained that he used photographs for two purposes: in order to support his insurance claim on the one hand, and to bolster his memories of the flood, on the other. The quote in the title attests to the sheer number of pictures he took during the 2007 flood, as well as to the role of the technology facilitating his way of documenting and remembering them.

an image 'brned into the retina' of a local business owner

Like many businesses in Tewkesbury, his company got flooded leading to damage and loss of stock. So to make an insurance claim, the owner took photos of the extent of the flood damage. However there is one image in particular which he does not associate with his insurance claim. It is the image above, which he saw so often during the floods that he purchased a copy of it and hung it up in his office afterwards. He illustrates why this image is important to him:

‘[On the Monday] we just sat at home; and that picture which is on the wall, it was the one that Sky News kept showing. I was seeing that every twenty-five minutes or so, and it was driving me up the wall seeing that picture which is why I had to get it.’

It was shown so frequently that the interviewee felt it was ‘burnt onto my retina’.  Throughout the interview he uses the image to visually supplement his stories and to stimulate remembering other stories. We, the interviewers, got to see his stories from the perspective of the image. Looking at the picture, listeners may be able to validate the story being told and to question possible exaggerations.

Flood memory and narrative

Memories are often structured as narratives, and this one was a particularly striking example. The account did not require much interference from us interviewers to prompt the participant to re-tell his flood stories. He designed his narrative in a strict chronological order, just like history, with earlier event being told first and later events thereafter. It seemed that one story was a trigger to remember the next story and so forth. As with all narratives, this one had a beginning, a middle, and an end. The beginning sets the narrative into motion. This story started a month before the actual flood, with a recollection of the amount of rain during the months of June and July, which effectively lead to the ground in the catchment being saturated.  A different person would probably begin their narrative with a different event, and would thereby emphasise different aspects. But framing his memories in this particular way seemed important for the interviewee, perhaps to make the point that this flood happened in a particular hydrological context, which was not only exceptional, but also should have alerted people.

The middle part of the narrative represents the main event. Throughout this ‘middle’, the interviewee recalls plenty of small but interlinked memories, ranging from near-misses and other businesses’ problems to the power of the water. As with all these memories, they are very descriptive, told from his particular point of view. The following may serve as an example:

‘We walked around the building checking things whilst taking saw blades off the floor to dry out, to try and save customers’ blades. Because we sharpen blades for them; so they are not our property. We were walking around, and Alan [his colleague] walked in front, and I followed him. Because we are a saw workshop our floor is a timber floor. It is a suspended timber floor. I was following Alan and I looked down and saw one of the trap doors had floated away, so I was able to extend my foot just enough to go to the other side of it. Alan had walked straight over it and had fortunately missed it, otherwise he would have gone down a metre into the flood waters.’

He ends his narrative with talking about the ‘Over The Rainbow’ event. Ending with this event re-visits what has already been discussed in this blog: Choosing the well-organised festival that declared ‘Tewkesbury back in business’ a year after the floods seems a suitable end to the narrative of a Chamber of Commerce chairman. The event serves as a fine bookend of that flood memory, much like ‘Over The Rainbow’ had probably been intended to be.

Having a narrative makes his account more compelling, as it flows from one story/memory to the other with ease. With such easily-flowing stories, however, it also becomes evident that they have frequently turned into well-rehearsed formulas, which are reproduced in particular occasions. We must therefore ask: when the interviewee is telling his story, is he referring to the memory of the event itself, or is he remembering and recounting the last time he told his story of it?

Flood memory and sense of place

Throughout, the interviewee exhibits a strongly watery sense of place. A watery sense of place is a sense of place that incorporates flood risk as part of local character and even everyday heritage.  The interviewee’s flood knowledge comes from living in the area for a long period of time. He has experienced the flood meadows during regular but minor floods, but more importantly, he can access his flood memories when needed. Some of this knowledge was accidentally voiced when he peered at our interview sheet:

‘So at the top of that piece of paper there, where it says ‘the River Severn Floods of 2007’ – actually it wasn’t. It was the water from brooks coming off the Cotswolds escarpment trying to get to the river. So when this happened, the rivers weren’t in flood, had we not had the ‘47 flood defences in place, this would have gone straight to the river and we wouldn’t have flooded.’

His knowledge extends to say that the Rivers Avon and Severn don’t flood from the rain that falls in Tewkesbury, but from what falls further upstream, in Kidderminster and Worcester. Later in the interview he uses this knowledge and applies it to illustrate a larger picture:

‘If it [the torrential rain] had been sat over the top of Manchester, a lot more than five people would have died. Had that storm moved 5 miles east, then that water would have gone down the Thames catchment area and a lot more people would have died in London. As it is, it probably found the right place; apart from the Somerset Marshes, otherwise here is the next best placed for it to have fallen.’

Unlike many people affected by floods he doesn’t just focus on his immediate area. Rather, he has calculated the possible effects this storm would have had on bigger urban areas and their possible unfortunate consequences. His local hydrological knowledge also extends beyond his immediate surroundings to include wider issues of land use in the catchment. He highlights especially the historical depletion of the UK’s forest, suggesting flood wouldn’t have happened if more forests were still standing.

Perhaps this indicates that ‘local knowledge’ about flooding in one place is never limited to that place alone. Along a river – and when dealing with water more generally – local phenomena are necessarily bound up in wider contexts. Water always comes from somewhere and drains somewhere. Sometimes, floodplain residents sum this up in the phrase: ‘One person’s flood defence is another person’s flood.’ Clearing drainage ditches or raising flood banks in one place usually means that the water is channelled or compounded in other places, where it may cause or aggravate flooding instead. Consequently, ‘local knowledge’ in a flooding context is not limited to the local. As the chairman of the Tewkesbury Chamber of Commerce he had many opportunities to talk to the media about the effects of the floods. During the interview he told us that he found it important, but also rather difficult, to communicate positive stories of how Tewkesbury dealt with the floods.  The press seemed interested in negative news, as floods are generally considered a disastrous event. Our interviewee, however, wanted to emphasise that Tewkesbury is not just a community of victims, but is also dealing well with the floods.   Rather than painting the picture of a place devastated by a catastrophe, he wanted to convey that Tewkesbury was open for business as usual.

What this account explores:

  • The role of images for memory

  • How memories can be structured into narratives, whose specific beginning and end frame them in a particular way and convey a certain message

  • Local flood knowledge necessarily incorporates very non-local aspects, e.g. the wider meteorological context and land use changes in the catchment.

  • The struggle of representation in flooded places, between those who want stories of suffering and devastation, and those – often including businesses anxious about their image with customers – who  want to convey that all is working well in spite of the disruption.

“To be able to walk away and come back fresh — I would recommend that people do that.”   Leave a comment

This recommendation comes from a woman who had moved to the village of Deerhurst only ten days before it flooded in July 2007. Like many fellow villagers, she and her family were eventually accommodated outside the flood-damaged village, taking a step back from the deserted devastation of Deerhurst.

Some people stayed behind, though, like a couple of neighbours.

The neighbours across the road had a mobile home on their drive, and it must have been very de-moralising for them because the renovation was so slow.

She describes this period as being ‘very intense’, and as testing relationships. These sorts of stories are common across the affected areas, with some people not moving back to their homes until 18-24 months after the flood.  The quote in the title of this post illustrates how bleak the aftermath of the flood was for many, and how lucky the interviewee and her family felt to be able to escape this difficult situation.

Nevertheless, unlike other villagers, this family had not yet built a strong relationship with their new home. Therefore, leaving the place and having it renovated by professional builders was perhaps easier for them than for others.

I think that it was better for us, because we hadn’t got memories of that house.

All they had to leave behind was a home that they were still in the process of moving into. And when they returned, they arrived to another new home, different in looks but not in kind. Moreover, being new to the village, the interviewee didn’t have the same false sense of security – sometimes called ‘levee syndrome’ – that  other residents had. ‘Levee syndrome’ describes a condition in which  the presence of safety measures  decreases risk awareness and leads to a lack of preparation and a liberal attitude towards the hazard (See definition in Disaster Resilience: An Integrated Approach, by D, Paton and D, Johnston, published in 2006, p. 111). In Deerhurst, the flood wall and gates that surround the village and had held off floods for sixty years made most villagers believe that the rising water levels could not harm their properties. Whilst this interviewee was moving some of her belongings upstairs, many established residents of the village still believed the flood wall would hold. She had an understanding of the power of water because of her rowing experience which made her critical of her new neighbours’ trust in the flood wall.

We didn’t trust everyone saying that it won’t flood. We didn’t trust that because we had only moved in 10 days before so we weren’t confident to trust that. […]. And then it rained and it rained and rained and we watched the waters come up. Walking out to the boundary of the wall of the church looking over the fields out there and you could see the river coming higher and higher. The flood gates were closed and the locals were going round all nice and confident. […]We were apprehensive whether it was going to flood or not and even though everybody was saying it was going to be fine we decided we needed to shift everything upstairs. So we moved our stuff as early as soon as possible. Our neighbours didn’t seem to be in that position like ours; they would be trusting that it wasn’t going to flood.

Although their recent arrival on the floodplain had made them less susceptible to the ‘levee syndrome’, the woman now regrets some of the ways the family reacted to the floods. Most evidently she is unhappy about having been separated from her children when she returned to the flood-damaged house to salvage what could still be used.

We left the children with the grandparents; we thought they would be too disruptive to be… In retrospect they wanted to be with us and it would have been better if they were with us. They were too young.

In spite of these painful memories of the floods, the interviewee is keen to remember them. For instance she has pictures of the floods on the walls of her home. As she was not in the village during the floods herself, she has collected these photographs from fellow villagers. One particularly iconic image is the one below, showing the flooded telephone box of the village (Bear in mind the box is already raised by about a foot, standing on a bank on the roadside).

I think it’s quite iconic, the picture of the telephone box because if you stand on the road next to the telephone box and you can see how high the flood was. It is a part of history; it did happen. We’re not negative about it all.

                                                                               

What this account explores includes:

  • The importance of photographs in maintaining and sharing memories.

  • The intense nature of emotions during reconstruction after the flood.

  • The phenomenon of the ‘levee syndrome’ and the false sense of security that flood defences can instil on residents of areas with flood risk.

  • The relations of newcomer residents with their flooded home, as opposed to those of longer-term residents whose home is damaged by floods.

My brother came back, and I said it was going to come in, and he said, ‘don’t be so stupid’. So I left, and the next day the water had come in. You just knew it was going to happen. It was intuition.   Leave a comment

This intuition was explored by three women from the village of Tirley discussed the events and their memories of the ‘Great’ Flood which hit the small village of Tirley over a weekend in July 2007. Tirley is known for being affected by two floods a year, so there intuition comes from their regular experiences of how to recognize and react to floods. Two residents portrayed their memories of the flash flooding that affected The Street on the Saturday, whereas the other resident accounted for when the water came into her house on the Sunday. The women use the expression ‘great’ to distinguish the events of 2007 from what they term regular, ‘normal’ floods. The flood of 2007 was more than they had ever experienced previously; thus why they call it ‘great’. This is exemplified by the following:

Respondent (R) 1:         We’ve got a flood path haven’t we?

R2:          So not many people are affected by the little floods.

R1:         But they can last up to 6 weeks, the main road can be closed for 6 weeks and you have to drive miles around to get out the village, it does have an effect on the village in general.

Interviewer (I):          But one you are used to?

All:          Yes.

R3:         You just accept it.

R2:          Just carry on.

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Images of The Street in Tirley, during and after the flash flood of July 2007 (watery photos by Pat Sharman).

This description of a flood being normal and by the same token the use of ‘Great’ for a unique flood seems to suggest that the people of Tirley have what may be called a ‘watery sense of place’. A watery sense of place is a sense that a place that incorporates flood risk as part of local character and even everyday heritage. Throughout the discussion this watery sense became more and more obvious, the more aspects of living with and without a flood was discussed. These aspects include a Flood Committee and the position of Flood Warden within the community, both with responsibilities specifically to look after the village, i.e. clear the drains. Another aspect is remembering flood  patterns and recognizing signs for an imminent flood, and what precautions to take . For example, if it rains heavily in North Wales they know that they’ll get the overflow of water 3-4 days later. The flood path as described above is another aspect. The flood path, a raised path through the village, is used for the residents to remain mobile throughout a flood event. But what illustrates this watery sense the most is that in 2007, whilst the flood water was still draining away, the residents used meet at the shifting water’s edge every morning and evening. This memory was described as:

R3:         It was just talking to people in the evening meet at the flood and in the morning to find out what was going on; that was it really.

I:          So that was an important part?

R3:         Yes.

R1:         The meeting at the flood was a really wonderful.

R3:         It was essential in a way.

These aspects and memories have almost built a watery subconscious within the residents of the village knowing what it is like and how to live in a high risk flood area. This possibly leads to the observation that

….If it rains you usually see two or three of us out during the day going out clearing the drains.

This subconscious doubtlessly introduces ‘rallying’ of the residents together during a flood event.  Throughout the discussion many terms were used to describe the community spirit at the time, ‘brilliant’, ‘superb’, ‘important’ and ‘wonderful’. This suggests that in times of need the residents of Tirley come together and pitch in wherever they can and that this community spirit is remembered as such. This memory of community spirit, when and if a flood of this magnitude strikes again, may perhaps lead to comfort in bad times. And the three women all agreed that it will probably happen again.

Nevertheless, it seems like the community spirit is also re-affirmed and made stronger outside of floods. The formation of a local Women’s Institute (WI) group was highlighted by one participant, another spoke about the Play Group; what also seemed to re-affirm the community spirit is how the residents react during snow:

It is brilliant when it snows. The last time it snowed my drive was cleaned twice for me.

Community cohesion also comes to the fore when the women discuss the reasons why it floods more in their community. They acknowledge the need to help those flooded for the first time, like many residents of Tewkesbury in 2007, but also remakr that this may happen at the expense of looking after more regular victims, like the inhabitants of  Tirley. Further activities like building on the floodplain in and around Gloucester; the lack of dredging the river and the introduction of flood gates further up the river were mentioned as factors that may increase flooding in Tirley. The women feel that all of these activities in the catchment express the indifference of planners to the small village of Tirley compared to Worcester and Gloucester. However, this usually generates a strong community spirit as it has a feeling of ‘us against the world’, which is shown within the Tirley in times of hardship. At the same time, however, these activities seem to have brought a feeling of realisation amongst the participants. This realisation is in terms of the prospect of a flood of similar size and force as in 2007 hitting the village:

Don’t wish upon us but I’m sure without any doubt that it will happen again.

I wouldn’t call unique because I think it is going to happen again.

The subject of maintaining memories and telling them is brought up. Due to the regularity of ‘normal’ floods many people only live in the village for five years. When a new resident comes into a community you’d expect fellow residents to share stories of floods to warn them of what is to come. However the dynamic of the response is thus:

I:          With these new people moving in, are there any opportunities for them to learn about the floods?

R3:         They learn very quickly.

R1:         They learn by experience. When you search for a property which they buy, it should declare it has been flooded. I know the gentleman across the road from the church is fully aware that has flooded because he’s a flood engineer.

R3:         When you do see them you do ask, ‘You know it floods?’ (Laughs). But they have no idea and understand the implications.

This shows that there is a discussion informing that their new property will flood. What is missing are the stories and memories of how to be practical throughout a flood event e.g. ‘if this tree gets submerged you need to move your belongings upstairs’. It seems that in spite of the community spirit discussed previously, many newcomers will have their first experience of a flood first hand rather than being prepared for it by fellow villagers. Tirley residents would doubtlessly help out if a flood occurs, but it seems strange that within a community which regularly experiences floods there aren’t any stories told which could help them prepare for such an event in the future. The memories of the previous exceptional flood in 1947 weren’t circulated before the 2007 flood. Had Tirley forgotten is major floods? Or had people with flood experience moved out or passed away? The interviewed women remarked that newcomers who do experience a major flood may then leave, possibly with flood memories of their own, within 5 years, diminishing further the flood memory reservoir of the village. They feel it is best for the memories to be recorded like in the Gloucestershire Floods 2007 book, through pictures they obtained during the floods, and possibly through the continuing legacy of the village’s Flood Committee. But are these documents going to be read and shared? Within a community which relies on word-of-mouth to maintain memories, who use them to prepare for the next flood event and share them in meetings and at the water’s edge, it seems like the memory of the 2007 flood will end like this:

 The knowledge from so far past will not help them. It is like the ’47 flood didn’t help us in 2007. The memory will die with the older people.

What this account explores:

  1. The construction of a ‘watery sense of place’ ,and how memories help in this construction.

  2. The isolation villages like this experience when places like Tewkesbury hit the headlines with something they experience regularly – flooding.

  3. The way in which a small community helps itself in times of need despite external factors working against them, e.g. flood gates further upstream.

  4. The depletion of a memory reservoir due to the movement of people in and out of the village, and how that can affect future generations e.g. this generation and memories of the 1947 floods.

  5. How one flood can affect people in different ways, even within a small community.

“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?

‘I won’t forget that as long as I live I don’t think, even if I live to be 101’   1 comment

Three members of the WI recount the events that occurred during a unique flooding experience in their small town, Winchcombe. Despite parts of the town susceptible to the occasional flood, the bottom of Castle Lane in particular, this event eclipses anything any of these ladies have experience before, and since. All the members were affected in different ways when the flooding occurred. Member 1 tells of her terrifying journey back from lunch.

‘Being driven back from outside Cheltenham back along the B4077 back into Winchcombe and it was all rivers. Rivers coming down Gretton meeting the road we were on and it’s really frightening…… it’s just the rapidity of the day and suddenly you’re in a dry place and then you’re not in a dry place. So that’s pretty scary.’


Member 2 had further exposure to the torrent of water, quite literally. Member 2’s house was flooded during the early moments of the flood. The stream beside her house burst its banks and her initial reaction gives the impression of shock.

‘’Immediately, I didn’t know what to do, just seeing this like a wave coming toward you and eventually reach your house and we have a conservatory there and it was like every little pinprick it was coming through.’

Finally Member 3 discussed here initial reactions of the flash floods, in which she was impassive. She would later take two people into her home that had been stranded.

The unusual event is summed up by Member 1’s comments:

‘I don’t think anyone expected something like this to happen. And so, there’s never been no previous warnings, thoughts, training to make you think about what you would do if you were flooded. When it happened and people weren’t ready for it.’

This flood was a flash flood – it came rapidly but also receded quickly. For most people, the real impact of the 2007 flood was the effect that the closure of the water treatment facility had on their lives. They had to use bottled water for everything .The bottles didn’t last long for normal everyday jobs i.e. washing clothes and person, cooking and the toilet.  The ladies even remember that immediately after the flood, basic provisions like bread and milk were also in short supply. Little information about how things were developing came from the water company Severn Trent, but they remember being regularly updated by community radio stations like Radio Winchcombe and Radio Gloucester. They felt that their small town, on a Cotswolds hill, was being neglected by formal flood relief efforts, as all attention was on Tewkesbury and Gloucester. The combination of the feeling of ‘us against the world’ and the reluctance of the council to help people in peripheral areas hill resulted the mutual help that Members  1 and 2 comment on:

Member 2: ‘There was a community spirit.’

Member 1: ‘Yes there’s camaraderie when you are in a disaster and everybody is helping everybody, a Blitz mentality.’

The interview seemed to stimulate to their memories as they confessed they hadn’t shared or discussed the stories of the floods since the publication of the WI-edited collection The Gloucestershire Floods 2007. They confessed that it had almost been forced upon them to share their stories for the book.

Member 1: ‘I think our president, Joan, called us up and said you were doing it.’

Member 3: ‘We tried to but we couldn’t get out of it’.

Two interesting things come from this. Due to the flood becoming extremely unique to the village, the apparent hesitation to contribute to the book seems to be unusual. On top of this, being the first time they had talked about these events since 2008 seems striking also. Something that affects you on that rare occasion is usually talked about in society, as it is out of the norm of people’s daily lives. In contrast many one-off events around the world are forgotten after the immediate event, and only remembered on distinctive anniversaries, if at all.

On the other hand, the particular way the flood figures in the memories of these three ladies also suggests that a single flood does not necessarily instil the awareness of flood risk on a community. Rather, the flood is perceived as a one-off disaster, and after some structural drainage improvements has been made, the flood receded into history. While it may provide a few exciting stories, it has little relevance for everyday life.

Interviewer:       So if the same thing would happen tomorrow what would be different?

Member 3:         I think it would just be the same. We would just be in a mess like last time.

Member 2:         If it happened like that on the water would just come.

Member 3:         Mind you we would fill all our kettles and pans up wouldn’t we?

Member 1:         That wouldn’t last long.

An unusual occurring theme is portrayed during the entirety of the interview, laughter. Anything distressing that is remembered seems to be followed by an expression of laughter.

‘The thing is for me I’d only come out of hospital couple of days previous to this happening and was told to rest (laughs). I was there with a pan and bucket and was thinking this is my rest! (Laughs).’

This emotion continues when the ladies account living in the aftermath of the floods especially with the sense of the unfamiliarity about this one-off event.

Interviewer: How long would it last for [the bottles of water]?

Member 2: You’ve got to think about the amount of tea you make (laughs)

There can be many reasons why the interviewee’s laughed when telling certain stories. These reasons can include, as discussed, the rarity of the event; embarrassment of some the actions taken during the event or quite possibly used as a defence mechanism to shadow something distressing from the event.

What this account explores is:

  1. Even within a small town community, people experience floods differently, before, during and after the event.

  2. The formal flood relief organizations concentrated their efforts elsewhere, possibly forced by the media, and looked past floods in peripheral areas.

  3. The reference of Blitz mentality seems to confirm an almost automatic response to disasters: If there is a threat from the outside, people stick together and help each other out.

  4. Due to the the uniqueness of the event, memories aren’t forgotten. However, they do not seem to be considered relevant for life today.

  5. The expression of laughter frequently accompanies what can be regarded distressing and extremely unfamiliar circumstances.