Archive for the ‘narrative’ Category

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


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

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

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

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

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

P1:          It got incredibly busy.

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What this account explores is:

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

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

  • Flood victims tend to look at the wider picture

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

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Beyond the headlines; the poetic stories away from the news.   Leave a comment

After being invited to produce flood poems in conjunction with the Cheltenham Literature Festival in 2007, poet Brenda Read-Brown gathered stories from victims of the 2007 floods to perform at the festival and latterly at the Ledbury Poetry Festival 2008. Many of her poems are narratives of stories that didn’t hit the news headlines. She spoke to different people within society, from musicians, emergency services and micro-communities, to collate the wider events before, during and after the flood.

As stated by the poet during her Ledbury performance (see below), the poems “aren’t works of great art, but what I have tried to do is to capture the different voices of the people involved”. Her poems focus directly on people’s flood stories, giving them centre stage instead of indirectly communicating them like much of literature and poems do, requiring a great deal of interpretation.

Each poem narrates a different story which she collated during her research. In all, there are ten stories that have been formed into poems. Many of the stories reflect themes similar to those of previous blog posts and interviews. These include:

  • Realisation of the weather

At first, standing outside, it seemed quite funny,
To get wetter, and wetter and still wetter,
But then the penny dropped:
The weather wasn’t getting better.

                Poem 1 – The Violins Played On

  • Power of the water and watery sense of place

But then came the two-point attack!
As if the hills had tipped their load –
A wall of water crossed the road;

Poem 2 – Salvage

  • Community spirit and resilience

When the power went off in Priors Park
The dark was defeated by candles that glimmered
On people all seated at tables outside, drinking wine,
While under the water the car roofs shimmered.

Poem 4 – Priors Park

 

And everyone, all different, landed
Together by chance, stayed cheerful, didn’t complain.

Poem 5 – Blitzed

  • The process of recovery

Back in business; trading;
With nothing but a watermark six feet high
And twenty thousand books, marinading

Poem 2 – Salvage

And I put my memories in a skip,
As if my life was washed away;
All the little things I knew so well

Poem 9 – Flushed Away

  • Lesson from memories

And if the waters come again next year?
Well, now we will know just what to expect.
We’ve learned – from life, not books – to pay nature due respect.

Poem 2 – Salvage

  • Looking at floods in a wider context

I must be grateful, though – I can escape,
Walk up an alley, get away from here,
Whenever it really gets me down.
In Bangladesh it happens every year,
And people drown.

Poem 9 – Washed Away

The poems also tell of something not yet covered on this blog: the stories of the emergency services. For example, one thing that is raised in poems 7 and 10 is the willingness to continue rescuing people despite feeling exhausted, with many of these emergency services personnel running on just adrenaline:

And said I’d had a little sleep;
When, with the water six feet deep,
I spent eight days in an undrugged high,
Buzzing with adrenaline, getting by
With nothing but nerves and colleagues for support

Poem 7 – Unbelievable

During the flood there was little time to take stock and gather memories; looking back on the event itself the emergency service personnel have vivid memories:

Other memories abound:
In exhilarating action, not just desk-bound;
Challenged by the need for ever-changing plans;
Humbled by the gratitude of every man
And woman that I met;
I won’t forget
The backdrop beat and thump of generators;
Rescue vessels sliding up town streets
Like alligators in a mangrove swamp;
The aerial view: not what we knew – instead
It was the Gloucestershire Delta, Terry said.

Poem 10 – Instead

The poems go further and describe the shear effort, not just from Gloucestershire personnel, but from emergency services further afield. Poem 10 is set at the M5 Strensham Services, and describes an emergency service HQ and even an ‘emergency service community’. This shows that communities are formed in many guises and for different time-frames, but these communities have similarities to a ‘victim’s community’; resilience, spirit and help.

Poems are another way for memories to be maintained and remembered as they are fixed memories in books and online. Much like ‘The Caravan’ these memories are now conceptualised in art and accessible to everyone. On top of this, with the themes described above future readers will see the full scope of living through a flood event and not just the narrow view the media portrayed.

Furthermore, do examples like poetry just analysed have the potential to educate people, especially children, through geography? This is discussed by Eleanor Rawling in the Teaching Geography Journal, in which she describes three poets and their ‘sense of place’ along the River Severn. Rawling argues in her article ‘The Severn was brown and the Severn was blue’ – A place for poetry in school geography?, that as geography is becoming more about ‘sense of place’ poetry can help students realise their own ‘sense of place’. She suggest that previously, geography

“has not done enough to help young people reflect on the way their own lives are intertwined with the places and landscapes they inhabit, or to introduce them to more personal responses to place.”

(Rawling, 2010: 93)

Rawling argues that the poems she quotes in her article are not only geographically correct but also show the poets’ interconnection with the river. These poems are an example of the reviving of a phenomenological approach to place. This as approach, Rawling suggests, would improve the students’ awareness of and connection with the natural environment. In mainstream geography teaching, the students are constantly discouraged from emotive engagement with the topics on the curriculum. Recent theory developments in geography, however, indicate that emotions are a central to understanding much of what geography is about, including landscape, spatial behaviour, and attitudes towards the environment.

Rawling sees Philip Gross’ Betweenland poems as summarising:

“the intense mystery of the river environment, complete with geographically accurate observations and poetic definitions of well-known features – the estuary is like ‘a battered pewter hearing trumpet amplifying distance’; the catchment is ‘a sort of shelf’, ‘a notional line within which nothing is alien to the river’.”

(Ibid.)

These emotive feelings can emphasis the stats that students are given and can even be more important than bare ‘facts’ themselves. Flood memories are a prime example of emotive interconnections between people and their social and ecological environments.

The Caravan – flood memories condensed   1 comment

It is widely known that many people whose homes were flooded had to live in caravans for many months while their houses were being dried and repaired. While caravans usually evoke a sense of holidays and summer trips, they turned out to be challenging for day-to-day living, in particular during the winter, due to very confined space, no insulation, unreliable plumbing and kitchen equipment, and various other constraints. Even a year after the 2007 floods in Gloucestershire, some families were still living in caravans.

During this time, East Anglia based theatre company Look Left Look Right developed a play based on interviews with victims of the 2007 floods. It was called ‘The Caravan’ and is set – suitably – inside a caravan. This does not mean that they re-created a caravan on stage – rather, a real caravan was used, as both the stage and the audience’s seating. Four actors and a maximum of eight spectators were crammed into the confined space of the caravan, rehearsing voices and emotions of those flooded and – more or less successfully – dealing with the aftermath.

Having won an award at the Edinburgh Festival in 2008, The Caravan performed in London and then on a tour throughout the country. Reviews of the show can be found in the Guardian (review and blog), the Birmingham Post, and the British Theatre Guide, among others. One of the places it visited was Tewkesbury, itself most severely affected by the 2007 flood.

Tewkesbury residents who told us about their visit to a performance of The Caravan all found it very stimulating. What resonates more with the experience of being forced to abandon one’s flooded home, than a re-enactment of other flood victim’s thoughts, worries and activities in a caravan?

The Caravan must have contributed immensely to raising awareness of the struggles of flood victims, and to keeping that awareness alive after the mass media attention has vanished. Perhaps theatre productions like this one provide a valuable help for developing flood memories and building community resilience to flooding in the future?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flood memory and narrative

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

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

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

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

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

Flood memory and sense of place

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

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

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

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

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

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

What this account explores:

  • The role of images for memory

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

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

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

A Very Watery Guided Tour   1 comment

Whilst conducting interviews in Tewkesbury we stumbled across a booklet which guided tourist around the town. Instead of this tour describing the epic Battle of Tewkesbury or the unique, mediaeval alleys that inter-connect the town, this guide places the tourist in the Wellington boots/waders of the residents who were affected by the 2007 flood.

                                      

Written by a local of 40 years, it gives a detailed account of the extent of the flood but most importantly tells the stories that regularly accompany this event. Obviously this guide includes details of destruction and damage, e.g. boats sunken on moorings, and the trial of damaged furniture during the clean out. But many of the stories retold are positive and some give accounts of the residents viewing the events around them:

‘Barricaded behind piled up sandbags, they brought out picnic chairs, and glasses of wine and sat watching all the activity’

‘They were seen on national TV sitting on the roof waving to the cameras’

Principally, this guide places the visitor in the middle of the outstanding community spirit amongst the stricken residents of Tewkesbury. Stories it refers to include:

  • Staff at the Borough Council Offices caring for people who had been forced out of their home

  • A message, and later a gift, from Meisbach, Bavaria, the twinned town of Tewkesbury

  • Youngsters thoughtfully checking on the vulnerable

  • The Abbey, a national and international symbol of the floods, conducted a wedding  with local residents invited due to the inaccessibility into the town for guests

  • Also the Abbey invited children to play and construct Christmas presents to those without the space to do so.

One particular story most eloquently illustrates the mutual help that prevailed during the floods:

‘A few yards further on is the Scout Hut. Local cub leaders opened this refuge for anyone in need. They provided hot food and drinks, somewhere to sleep if necessary and – possibly more importantly – somewhere for homeless people to go and relax. Between them just four people kept it running round the clock for as long as it was needed – almost two weeks. Their efforts were recognised by the town council and the Scouting Association. The manager of Tesco, immediately opposite the scout hut, very generously provided food, drinks and other items, including toiletries, which those who had left home with nothing, might need. As word went round about their efforts local people took in toys, clothes and all kinds of things. One woman had been rescued from her Church Street home with her newborn baby, with just the pyjamas she was wearing at the time. She was soon fitted out with clothes for herself and her baby, and given a cup of tea and somewhere quiet to sit and recover.’

This story describes how a community can come together in moments of crisis. Most importantly, though, it retells this story to visitors. This means this story is constantly told to a new audience allowing this memory to be maintained not just inside the Tewkesbury community but also for a wider audience. This account also allows positive stories to shine through what was a devastating event for the residents.

The guide finishes with walking past the Abbey and back to the starting point of the tour. During these final stages the booklet describes the Over The Rainbow event, with the symbolic hug of the Abbey from the residents. These later stages of the walk also describe the massive clear up effort, renovation of dwellings and council projects after the floods, like dredging the Mill Avon watercourse and the re-assessment of building on floodplains.

The guide booklet ‘The Tewkesbury Floods’ by Peggy Clatworthy can be bought, for instance, at the Tewkesbury Tourist Information Office and Heritage Centre ‘Out of the Hat’ (100 Church St, Tewkesbury GL20 5AB).

What this account explores is the:

Need to exemplify the positives during bleak times.

Opportunities and activities which can assist in maintaining memories and stories, not just to locals but to a wider audience.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                                               

What this account explores includes:

  • The importance of photographs in maintaining and sharing memories.

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

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

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

Children of the floods   Leave a comment

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?