Despite being 5 years ago, the notion and pictures of a flooded Tewkesbury came into the public spotlight once again. During the rain in late April of this year, Tewkesbury once again flooded; however, the flood waters were much lower than they had been 5 years earlier. The media and the public quickly likened the event to the 2007 floods, to the extent that visitors to the town were ringing businesses to see if they were ‘open for business’, while other stayed away altogether, anxious to get stuck in a flooded town.
The full extent of flood water during 2012 seasonal floods
The full extent of flood water during 2007 extreme floods
However, as we have seen and discussed in other blog posts, this flood was very much a normal, seasonal flood with the floodplains surrounding the market town under water. ‘Seasonal flood’ is very much a buzz word amongst Tewkesbury residents to encourage people to come to the town during these types of flood events despite what they may read or hear in the media. A BBC article explores the use of phrases like ‘seasonal floods’ and ‘open for business’ from Tewkesbury residents as a counter strategy to the flood reputation built up within the media. This article asks 5 Tewkesbury residents from different walks of life the same question:
So, five years on, how has it felt to see the town back in the national spotlight after heavy rains led to seasonal flooding?
Despite answering the question from different angles, the respondents portray a range of shared beliefs and attitudes. The continual association of Tewkesbury with the 2007 floods and its floodplain location is the main issue. The residents feel that due to the extreme flood event in 2007 the perception amongst the public is that all subsequent normal floods have the same impact. This perception is confirmed by the media:
“After all we did as a community when we surrounded the Abbey with colour and music and laughter (“Over the Rainbow” event, 2008) and said “we’ve got over this”, but it doesn’t appear that the media is capable of getting over it.
They are trying to make Tewkesbury and flooding an open sore, and it isn’t.
[This week] I have seen nothing that hasn’t happened three times a year all the 14 years that I have been the town crier”.
Due to the media referring to 2007 during any flood since then, visitors tend to:
“…….think that Tewkesbury is virtually shut but it’s not.
I have had customers phoning up asking if we are going to be open and I have had family and friends phoning up to make sure we are alright. Everything’s fine.”
This frustration leads to the residents’ coming together to propagate the concept of ‘seasonal floods’ and to advertise that Tewkesbury is ‘open for business’ to the general public. They wanted to teach the wider public to differentiate between the two scales of floods – seasonal, i.e. ‘normal’ and 2007, i.e. exceptional.
Many are afraid that the general association between Tewkesbury and floods is reaffirmed by visitors, which is believed to cause negative economic consequences for the town.
“They’ll look at the weather and think the town is closed.”
“It [recent media coverage] has brought flooding back into the forefront and makes people wonder whether Tewkesbury should be here or not…….We have started to get places and we really need to carry on, but people tend to get nervous especially when they are put under a lot of pressure about flooding.”
Severn and Avon Valley Combined Flood Group
“We are a holiday town and we rely on that and it is unfair really to think of flooding and then immediately think of Tewkesbury.”
Vicar of Tewkesbury
What this article explores is:
The use of media to confirm and form perceptions about certain topics
Continued association of Tewkesbury and flooding
Sense of community to reverse Tewkesbury’s reputation using positive buzz words such as ‘seasonal flooding’ and ‘open for business’
The importance of distinguishing different kinds of floods – especially for floodplain residents, but also for wider society
This was the general reaction from two residents of Coney Hill and Abbeymead (both Gloucester) to the scale of the flooding. Where these residents lived, the only effect of the floods was the mains water being switched off after the Mythe water treatment plant was contaminated with flood water. With the power of the images portrayed on the news, the two realised the full extent of the flooding. One of the participants mentions the famous image of ‘The Isle of Tewkesbury’ to highlight this realisation:
“When he [step-father] said about how high it was and some cars were underneath the water, I didn’t believe and thought he was probably exaggerating. Then it comes on the news and I could only see the church and the tops of people’s houses then it showed how serious it was. I was like, “Oh, ok.” That was quite scary to think about it in that way.”
Striking photographs on the news allows people to apply certain images to certain events, and as shown above, clarify and fortify memories. As the flooding, both pre-2007 and 2007, didn’t affect these research participants, there seems to be no reason for them to have a watery sense of place. However, living in an urban area void of modern urban drainage and SUD’s, the participants do show a degree of a watery sense of place and local flood knowledge. For example, they know which roads become flooded even during heavy rain, without there being a flood on a larger scale. One such example is Tredworth Road, Gloucester as shown below:
The lights from the traffice show the severity of the dip under the railway bridge.
The flood water is creating that this part of the Tredworth Road, espeically at night, is flat leading to trapped cars.
P2: “They were showing lots of pictures of Tredworth Road, and there is a bridge and the road dips down really far, and that one completely flooded. It looked like a straight road at night but it is really deep. I heard cars drove into it. It is funny but there is a picture of the guy just sat on top of his car.”
P1: “Is that under the railway bridge?”
P2: “……..that bridge because it does flood quite often. I don’t think he was from Gloucester otherwise he would have known that.”
This shows not only some of the participants’ local flood knowledge, but also illustrates how flood knowledge is linked to a sense of place and belonging: People from Gloucester are presented as those knowledgeable about easily flooded places. In this view, flood knowledge forms part of local identity. Over the time the quoted research participants have lived in Gloucester, they learned which roads would be affected by heavy rain, and they count themselves as insiders. During the interview, such local knowledge and associated sense of place was evoked in relation to the recent rain spell in the region. With this interview being conducted in early May, during a period of sustained rain, one of participants recalls the effects of the rain:
“I live down a little country road, and at the bottom of the road it dips down a bit. We have a massive puddle down there at the moment. Plus down and round the corner from our house, it isn’t flooded, but you know when water is running downhill, you don’t think it much but when you walk through it you realise it is quite a lot. That has been running constantly for three days and it still hasn’t gone. If it did turn out like it did in the floods, it probably would flood quite badly round there.”
This research participant thus makes connections between her experience of a smaller flooding events and the great flood of 2007. It does not seem to need suffering dramatic flooding to develop local flood knowledge and a watery sense of place.During the 2007 flood, the research participants would have been in their mid to late teens. They had no previous flood experience/memories, and being young, the fact that it flooded had little relevance to them. Nevertheless, one of the participants does explore the nature and use of flood memories for future events:
“I just have an opinion to not forget something that you can learn from. Especially the people who were hit and their houses were flooded, and if they are in an area where it could happen again; if you don’t forget it you’ll be prepared for it. I can understand if someone wanted to forget something that was that upsetting. They wouldn’t want to wait around for something to happen again.”
In essence, this research participant is describing memories as a ‘double-edged sword’ as they are useful for preparedness but may also be painful to bear. Furthermore, she places herself in flood victim’s shoes when she observes:
I: “If that stream had got into your house, would you have a different view?”
P2: “I think I would have been more negative about it. If it would have ruined all of our stuff it would have been a more emotional time.”
I: “So would your negativity [about flooding] be confirmed?”
P2: “Probably yes. It is different. We only were without water and it wasn’t that big of a deal. They had water at the bottom of the road and they gave out bottled water; it wasn’t a very big deal to live with, it just wasn’t very nice. Whereas if it did come into our house, it would be a lot more to deal with.”
This feeling of sympathy seems to be brought round by basic human nature fuelled by the exposure to victim’s stories being written and shown in the media. This seems to lead to an emotional link between victims and non-victims, which can be beneficial for some victims. However, the exposure to sympathy can be overwhelming for some victims who then refuse any help, possibly leading to them being isolated.
What this account explores is:
Flood knowledge may serve as a marker of identity and community membership
Sympathetic relationship of non-affected people towards flood victims.
The power of the mass media in communicating an emergency.
Recent flooding on the River Severn again revealed differing perceptions of floods, as well as the power of the media in shaping flood risk discourses, and the resentment of floodplain residents to the media representation of flooding.
It’s mostly the outsiders who get excited about the extent of the waters on the Tewkesbury Ham and along the Mill Avon. For local residents, this is just a ‘normal flood’.
On April 30th, the national BBC website reported that “Tewkesbury sets up flood incident room as river rises“. The image provided under this headline was not of the current floods, however, but of the great flood in July 2007, nearly five years ago. Also, the most striking ‘news’ of the article concerned the 2007 emergency. When it continued to report on the actual, present flood, the story sounded disappointingly dull compared to the opening lines. The reader also learns that it wasn’t “Tewkesbury” that set up a flood incident room, but the Environment Agency.
Similarly, on May 1st, a Guardian article on “the wettest April on record” was published with a picture of the 2007 floods, not the present one. The caption reads: “Tewkesbury, scene of extreme flooding in 2007, faces renewed disaster as floodwater levels rise.” The Independent’s article of May 4th, pronouncing “Tewkesbury flood threat returns as heavy rains continue” was also illustrated purely with images of the 2007 flood. And the images that make up the majority of the Daily Mail article of that same day are geared to evoke the similarities between the present situation and the 2007 flood, too, with photographs dominated by the extent of water on the floodplain. It refers to Tewkesbury as the “Gloucestershire town was devastated by near-identical floods five years ago“.
But were the recent floods ‘near-identical’ to those of 2007? From a distant, aerial photograph perspective, this might seem the case, as much of the floodplain was inundated again in early May 2012. But critically, the distribution of the water, as well as the extent of the floods, were rather different to the situation five years ago. The Daily Mail reporter does notice this, when his perspective changes from the ‘big picture’ to that of speaking to local residents:
So how were the good folk of Tewkesbury conducting themselves yesterday in the face of what some feared would be another Biblical-style disaster? Well, they were mostly just getting on with life.
‘This is not a flood,’ said Samantha Snape, 38-year-old owner of the picturesque Lower Lode Inn, where the water had spilled over the Severn banks and was sloshing a few feet from her doorstep.
‘This is a flood,’ she told me, pointing to a 2007 photograph of the 15th-century building partly submerged.
To her left was a brass plaque that marked how deep the water was last time. It’s screwed in several inches above waist height.
This echoes what many of our respondents have been saying about the recent flooding – this is a ‘normal flood’, something they would expect at least once or twice a year. They keep an eye on it, but do not get worried. This is Tewkesbury after all, located on the floodplain at the confluence of the Rivers Severn and Avon and a number of smaller watercourses.
Also Dave Throup from the Environment Agency stated in a video interview with the Telegraph that the current flood is not to be mistaken for an event similar to the 2007 floods:
This is an entirely different situation. We’d expect levels like this probably a couple of times a year in Tewkesbury. We haven’t for the last couple of years because it has been so dry. You know, that’s why we are in drought. […] And in 2007 it was probably a good metre higher than it is now. I think if you have lived in Tewkesbury for any period of time you will have seen this many times. And people are used to it. And indeed most of the communities up the Severn will be used to rivers coming up and going back down. And it does look dramatic because the river will come out of its banks and it will fill miles of floodplain. But you know, that’s what they are there for. They are fulfilling their proper function.
Whereas such a ‘normal flood’ thus does not upset floodplain residents, the media hype referring back to the destruction and disruptions of 2007 surely does. Some inhabitants of Tewkesbury, for instance, are fed up with the idea that all their home town is known for is its flooding, and in particular the 2007 floods. They are frustrated with the media ignoring how well they actually get on with these ordinary floods. In particular, businesses like local shops, hotels and restaurants feel victimised by this misrepresentation, as each time the national media announces a flood in Tewkesbury, they experience a decline in customers.
Two weeks after the flood peak, on May 16th, the Gloucestershire Echo interpreted the small flood as a good test for the County’s contingency planning. In hindsight, it was noted that the emergency services coped very well with the events, and the only flood-related incidents in the County pertained to a few driveways and garages, rather than people’s homes. It was a tiny event compared to 2007, a ‘normal flood’ rather than a large-scale emergency.
Some of the issues that are explored here are:
How different regular and exceptional floods are for floodplain inhabitants
How the media may blur these critical differences in an attempt to gain more attention
How such misrepresentations are problematic for local residents and businesses
And how small floods may act as reminders of big ones, keeping flood risk in people’s minds.
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.
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.
Earlier this month, the Gloucestershire paper the Citizen reported that the 2007 floods had resulted in an increase of births nine months later. It presents some figures:
In Tewkesbury, which was famously turned into an island by the flood waters, the birth rate in 2008 reached a two-decade high of 909, 69 up on 2007.
The children from this ‘baby boom’ are now about to flood the school system, and education officers are quoted voicing their concern about the lack of capacities to accommodate them. An extra 120 places are said to be needed in Gloucestershire schools for the flood babies who will be reaching school age before autumn.
A day later, the Daily Mail picked up the story, which invited a series of interesting – and controversial – comments. One of the questions that arise is: What do floods do to human relations and interaction? Are we really having more sex in extraordinary situations, or simply because there is no television to watch when the electricity is cut?
Similar stories have been told before, for example about an alleged baby boom after an electricity cut in and around New York in 1965. Critics of these stories, however, scrutinizing the actual numbers, have argued that in fact there is no connection between emergencies and birth rate increases.
Also in the Gloucestershire case, the numbers do not seem to concur with the story, as an article on the Straight Statistics website indicates. The article states:
But if we look at other counties in the South West, it’s clear that although Gloucestershire showed an above-average increase in births in that period, it wasn’t exceptional. In Wiltshire the increase was 12.1 per cent, in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly 13.6 per cent. […] So Cornwall had a greater increase than Gloucestershire, with no floods.
The increase in Gloucestershire between 2005 and 2008 amounted to 784 extra births over the 2005 figure, an average of 261 per year. The increase between 2007 and 2008 was 168 – below the three-year average. So the floods of July 2007 did not have any perceptible effect on birth numbers. Any effect they might have had was to lower them.
The article suggests that the issue is not about floods causing a baby boom or not, but rather about faulty planning in the education sector. There has been an increase in birth rates for years, but schools are slow to react and increase their capacities.
Yesterday’s article in the Guardian takes up this line of argument, and reviews, along with the Gloucestershire case, a number of other stories of emergency related baby booms. It comes to the conclusion that:
Appealing as the idea is, though, it doesn’t stand up. In almost every case, the apparent baby boom is either not a boom at all, or just part of a perfectly natural fluctuation in the birth rate that would never have been remarked upon if it had not been preceded by an unusual event.
Clearly, thus, the Gloucestershire floods baby boom story is a an ‘urban myth’. But is that the end of the story? The Guardian article ends thus:
But facts are for scientists. “I don’t care what the evidence is,” says Nicola Davies in Gloucestershire. “I still think there’s something in it. Look, the floods prompted this huge feeling of community spirit. After they were over … We’d been through two weeks of hell, everyone was on an absolute high. It was like a reaffirmation – we’d got through it! “Speaking for myself, there was a bit of alcohol involved. A sense of celebration. And, well, there we were. Or is that too much information?”
Question this issue raises for the research project include:
(1) If ‘the facts’ are so clear, why are the legends so resilient? People clearly seem to like stories. Do we need stories, rather than numbers, to make sense of our lives and the world around us?
(2) The issue of the floods keeps coming up, in this case delayed by the period it takes for a child to be born and reach school age. What other dynamics are there that bring the floods up in public discourse and personal memories?
(3) Relying on statistical data is very ambiguous. How does the story differ if only the Tewkesbury numbers are taken into account (the Citizen story) or figures for the entire county of Gloucestershire (Straight Statistics story)? Which one is more representative?
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?