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?”
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.
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.
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?