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.