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.
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
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
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’.”
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.
Earlier this month, the Gloucestershire paper the Citizen reported that the 2007 floods had resulted in an increase of births nine months later. It presents some figures:
In Tewkesbury, which was famously turned into an island by the flood waters, the birth rate in 2008 reached a two-decade high of 909, 69 up on 2007.
The children from this ‘baby boom’ are now about to flood the school system, and education officers are quoted voicing their concern about the lack of capacities to accommodate them. An extra 120 places are said to be needed in Gloucestershire schools for the flood babies who will be reaching school age before autumn.
A day later, the Daily Mail picked up the story, which invited a series of interesting – and controversial – comments. One of the questions that arise is: What do floods do to human relations and interaction? Are we really having more sex in extraordinary situations, or simply because there is no television to watch when the electricity is cut?
Similar stories have been told before, for example about an alleged baby boom after an electricity cut in and around New York in 1965. Critics of these stories, however, scrutinizing the actual numbers, have argued that in fact there is no connection between emergencies and birth rate increases.
Also in the Gloucestershire case, the numbers do not seem to concur with the story, as an article on the Straight Statistics website indicates. The article states:
But if we look at other counties in the South West, it’s clear that although Gloucestershire showed an above-average increase in births in that period, it wasn’t exceptional. In Wiltshire the increase was 12.1 per cent, in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly 13.6 per cent. […] So Cornwall had a greater increase than Gloucestershire, with no floods.
The increase in Gloucestershire between 2005 and 2008 amounted to 784 extra births over the 2005 figure, an average of 261 per year. The increase between 2007 and 2008 was 168 – below the three-year average. So the floods of July 2007 did not have any perceptible effect on birth numbers. Any effect they might have had was to lower them.
The article suggests that the issue is not about floods causing a baby boom or not, but rather about faulty planning in the education sector. There has been an increase in birth rates for years, but schools are slow to react and increase their capacities.
Yesterday’s article in the Guardian takes up this line of argument, and reviews, along with the Gloucestershire case, a number of other stories of emergency related baby booms. It comes to the conclusion that:
Appealing as the idea is, though, it doesn’t stand up. In almost every case, the apparent baby boom is either not a boom at all, or just part of a perfectly natural fluctuation in the birth rate that would never have been remarked upon if it had not been preceded by an unusual event.
Clearly, thus, the Gloucestershire floods baby boom story is a an ‘urban myth’. But is that the end of the story? The Guardian article ends thus:
But facts are for scientists. “I don’t care what the evidence is,” says Nicola Davies in Gloucestershire. “I still think there’s something in it. Look, the floods prompted this huge feeling of community spirit. After they were over … We’d been through two weeks of hell, everyone was on an absolute high. It was like a reaffirmation – we’d got through it! “Speaking for myself, there was a bit of alcohol involved. A sense of celebration. And, well, there we were. Or is that too much information?”
Question this issue raises for the research project include:
(1) If ‘the facts’ are so clear, why are the legends so resilient? People clearly seem to like stories. Do we need stories, rather than numbers, to make sense of our lives and the world around us?
(2) The issue of the floods keeps coming up, in this case delayed by the period it takes for a child to be born and reach school age. What other dynamics are there that bring the floods up in public discourse and personal memories?
(3) Relying on statistical data is very ambiguous. How does the story differ if only the Tewkesbury numbers are taken into account (the Citizen story) or figures for the entire county of Gloucestershire (Straight Statistics story)? Which one is more representative?
This quote comes from a lady who works for a local radio station – Heart Radio Gloucestershire, which used to be Severn Sound in 2007. She explains why during exceptional events, people don’t tend to contact the Local Authority, the police, fire brigade, school board or other formal body. Rather they usually turn to their local radio station.
It is sometimes really frustrating when you take a call and people go ‘Do you know if the number 23’s running?’ Why don’t you ring the bus company! Seriously. You know, that can be a little bit frustrating sometimes. But it’s how it is.
During the summer 2007 flood, this particular role for the people in Gloucestershire made the radio station decide to run a flood help-line.
I mean basically, because we are a local radio station, you obviously got contacts […]. We have the news team here, so obviously through news all the information was coming in. And they were basically appealing for anyone that could come and help. And obviously because, you know, we do have a bit of clout sometimes. And we kind of know all the people that are in those positions [of leadership in Local authorities and businesses].
[…] we got extra staff into the radio station, there were so much coming […], so much information. And we were getting so many calls. […] You will find this quite interesting with radio stations: people think we know everything, okay? They will ring us rather than… So we’ll get things like the fairs in the park, something. And people will ring us, “oh, do you know what time the fair opens?” They won’t ring the fair, for some reason the radio station. So, you know, straight away, when anything happens, people ring the radio station. It’s like, you know… It was all sorts of things. It was things like just people telling us their stories.
Rather than giving out lots of information, which was moreover susceptible to changing as the emergency unfolded, the staff at the radio station decided to give out only one phone number on air, and deal with people’s various questions on this quickly improvised helpline. They had the infrastructure in place due to annual Christmas Auction that the station organises.
People were giving us so many different phone numbers for all, you know, if you need this or if you wanna get hold of that information. And we came to the conclusion very quickly that we have to think about ‘clean air’ on the radio, so that it is very much a very clear message. […] the analogy is, you know, if you’ve got one ball and you keep throwing it in the air, you can catch it quite easily. As soon as you start doing two, three, you are like ‘phrrt, I don’t know what I’m doing’. So very quickly we came to the conclusion that there is so much information that needed to […] set up a help line. And the only number we gave out on air was our number.
Alongside pointing people with questions into the right direction, the station also worked with a group of volunteers to follow up some people’s requests, and help out where necessary.
We had a huge number of people wanted to help but trying to get them in contact with the right people, because they said ‘shall I just go along my road and knock on doors?’ and we can’t tell them to do that because obviously if there is some little old lady, you know, Mrs Jones at 27 so-and-so is having problems getting to her bowser, we can’t send some random person along because they could rob the old dear. So it was quite difficult, we did quite quickly set up a really good liaison with Cheltenham Volunteering Centre who then took responsibility for organising volunteers and we basically then put them in contact with them and they would allocate them to a water distribution point. Or to some of the churches set up teams who were knocking on doors and Cheltenham Volunteering would get people then to report to a group but then they would then go with the people, so it would be run by the local church so people could turn up and volunteer, not quite randomly, just knocking. […]
Things that were quite difficult were the fact you had so much information and I think the water shortage, I think that was slightly unusual, but even with the transport problems initially, and from a radio station’s point of view you almost need something that filters before then, because we had the trains, the buses, highways patrol, police, everyone contacting you with information, if you see what I mean. […]
Because we really made that our big thing, and every problem, if we were given a phone number, we ran it with radio station staff but also quite a lot of offices closed because of no toilets and water, so because we’ve got contacts through the radio station we got volunteers in from those, so people like the Chelsea Building Society, and one of the travel companies call centre, they were sending staff in to help man our phones so we literally had volunteers here working that were coming in to help. And every phone number we had, we checked it, so before we would put a phone number on our website or give it out we would check, ring them up and say ‘look, what kind of queries are you dealing with’. But it changed all the time because obviously with lack of water or even with flooding we had people with animals in problem. We had nursing homes, the worst case scenario where they had no water supply and all the residents went down with food poisoning.
It was an explicit policy of the radio station to supply locally relevant information and stories, self-conscious of being a ‘local radio station’. In the flurry of information and misinformation, Severn Sound developed into a central hub for directing general advice and connecting particular needs and offers of help.
Some old bloke phoned us and I loved the remark he made, ‘I don’t listen to Severn Sound normally; I’m a BBC man, but all the BBC are telling me is when bloody Gordon Brown’s coming here.’ He said ‘I want to know when my lecky is back on!’ And I think that was our choice, was yes in news we dealt with the fact that Prince Charles had popped in to see what was going on, the fact that we had the Cobra, which is the services, were dealing with, obviously the news dealt with that side of it but we decided we would deal with: how is this directly affecting our listeners? What are their problems today? And we actually made it a point to address those problems.
We rang people and aimed to find the answer. […] we would have people here doing internet searches, talking to people and then actually through the […] say ‘these are the big questions we’re being asked today, we need to know: where do people go for this information?’ and they would take that list of questions that we were getting over the phone. And sometimes we would say on air, ‘the big question everyone is asking us today is ‘where can I get a shower’?’ people want to get showers, and then the phones would start ringing and it would be Leisure Centres just outside the area would say ‘okay we’re going to open later tonight if anyone wants to come over they can come and have a shower.’
And just simple things like, we had quite a lot of people who had lost their wedding reception venue, because […] there were a few who had been flooded that were like the second Saturday, so about Wednesday or Thursday we found out that one venue in particular had been flooded that had several weddings that weekend, we put an appeal out to say has anyone got a wedding venue available for this weekend because we’ve got 3 couples who are getting married who have lost their wedding venue. So we would put people in touch with each other. What we were very, very keen on was to not tell people information. We never ever said we’re experts on anything, so it would be with things like baby bottles we would never say yes it’s fine to do, we would say ‘this is who you need to contact for that information’.
Yes, Friday night was obviously first of all the weather. You know, the heavens have opened. Then you start, everyone’s trying to get home from work so everyone was ‘are the buses running, are the trains running?’ So that was a bit like ‘oh my god it’s a bit difficult to get information, offices were beginning to shut early because obviously it was starting to get quite bad. Then you’ve got the flood warnings coming in so people want to know what the latest flood warnings are, because people just do not know where to go for this information. […]
Most people wouldn’t know to call the Environment Agency, they wouldn’t know that they dealt with flooding. So you’ve got the flood warnings and then obviously we had the problem of displaced persons if you like, that was that evening and that went into the following morning. Then, over that weekend, it was the actual people who had been flooded, and obviously the ongoing weather forecast, ‘is it going to rain again?, is there going to be more flooding?’, […] and then we were keeping up to date, and the flood warnings continued because water was draining into the river and it’s obviously is tidal, so depending when the tides were, so one of the things on the website we kept up to date with was what were the current flood warnings, we published that on our website and put them out on air what all the latest flood warnings were. Then obviously the people who had been flooded, we were talking to them. […] like people that had cleared their house, what do they do with all their stuff. We had people who had been offered empty houses but got no furniture, so it was putting them in contact with furniture recycling, centres, also people wanted to donate furniture to people who had been flooded. Loads of people ringing up ‘I’ve got a second spare room with a 3-piece suite sat in it, can we donate it to someone? How do you do the logistics of that?’ […] So it was putting the right people in touch with each other. So this was basically what people were asking us, who should they talk to, and the same with all the people who were ringing up saying ‘I’ve got a dining room table, I’ve got some beds, I’ve got loads of bedding’.
It is not only during floods, however, that local radio stations act as information hubs in exceptional periods. Rather, this role is regularly rehearsed when it snows in England.
For here, for us, snow is our biggie. People will ring us as opposed to ring their school because we start at 6am. They know that people from their school, no one is probably going to be in until 8am so every time it snows every radio station in our group, we have a snow team going. We have special bits of our website set up and ready to go. We have teams of staff that can get to the radio station even if it snows because we take all the school closures and we publicise online for all our websites all the school closures.
Every school phones up. […] They call us, so we basically have a team that will be in at 5.30am – we’re on snow alert! – and that happens in every radio station in our group. Especially Heart stations because our listener base is very family orientated. […] We are basically, our listener base is 25 to early 40s. Family based, and we pride ourselves that our audience is a very family-based audience. That’s why schools to us are the biggie. Our websites go through the roof when we have school closures. People don’t go to their school to find out their closed they come to our website. Because we are seen as the most authoritative information on what schools are closed. Snow is huge. We have snow plans. Plans of how we’re going to work during snow. What staff are on call.
She remembers the snow alert during the winter of 2010/11:
I had staff stay with me because I’m walking distance, so presenters stay in my flat so we knew we would be able to be on air at 5.30am with presenters. So I had two girls stay with me and then another guy who lives in Gloucester two of the presenters stayed with him, so that was six of us who would all be able to get in in the morning because we’re all walking distance. I think they put a couple of people up in a hotel because we had a lot. It went on for a long time. So we ended up putting people up in hotels within walking distance because everybody calls us. All the schools call us, all the parents call us to find out. For that kind of information the radio station is seen to be the people to talk to.
Today, the radio station also contributes its share to not forgetting the floods of 2007, and the fact that the lower River Severn occasionally floods.
We talk about it loads. Yes we do. We’ve always done like the first few years we’ve done a look back at the floods and that sort of thing on air. So the first couple of years, even up to this year, 20th July, we all talk about it on air. It was such a major thing in so many people’s lives that people do still talk about it.
If a similar emergency to the 2007 floods would happen again, she reckons that local radio stations will take on a similar role again, because they continue to be the first contact point. Only, they would be doing it better next time, due to their confidence and experience gained in 2007.
I do think now you would feel much better, if it happened again we would feel much more confident to do it again. But I still think we would have to do it again. I don’t think there is that facility still anywhere else, not that I know of. I don’t know that the council or anyone else has anything set up that coordinates across all the different things that people need to know about. And I still think, even if they did have it how would they get that information to people?
[…], we literally walk through that door and can talk to a hundred thousand people. Our listener base went up hugely through the flood. Huge. […] You go down to places like the council offices and they would have signs outside saying ‘for information please listen to your local radio station’ and it would be BBC Gloucestershire and Severn Sound. They were actually saying don’t ask us, listen to them. That was very much the message that was going out. Saying that the best way to get the most up to date information is to listen to your local radio station. So I do think local radio has such a huge part to play in this.
Severn Sound thus played a major role for the emergency response in Gloucestershire during the 2007 floods. The events triggered by this period, however, also had very direct consequences on the interviewee’s biography:
It ended up changing my career. Me having a different career because I’d never done online writing and I did a lot of stuff during the floods and loved it. I love the immediacy of it. Of actually doing something and what you’ve done is published and it’s there. And also when you’re getting people coming back and saying I’ve been on your website and seen this and they’re asking me questions about it. And you can get stats from a website really easily. You can get them in real time so you can actually go in the last hour we’ve had x-thousand people looking at that particular page or looking at whatever. I just loved that immediacy of it. […] And after I did the website stuff that year, later that year a job came up and I was approached to say you did such a good job during the floods would you be interested in it. I looked after just a couple of radio stations and now I’m an editor right across the Heart network. So I actually write across about 42 radio stations. […] So it’s all that. For me it ended up changing my career. So the floods ultimately changed my career.
But not only on a personal level have the floods turned out to be a highly significant period. According to the interviewee, the common tackling of this formidable challenge shaped her generation, similar to the blitz having shaped the people who lived during World War II.
It’s our war! Does that make any sense? People say you should have lived during the war. You don’t know you’re born, if you like, for a different generation that lived through that couple of weeks it’s like the equivalent of our war. We lived through the floods, and I think it kind of felt a bit like that. The fact that you did feels as though you survived. And just the camaraderie, here, because we were working a ridiculous amount of hours and people were coming in to help, and we were taking lots of calls, and we had volunteers because it was busy in here. There was that kind of blitz that people talk about don’t they, the kind of blitz mentality, when you’re all in difficult situations and you just get on with it, and you have a great time. I loved it, absolutely loved it which must sound strange, but I really felt as though I was doing something really useful. You could go home at the end of the day and think I really felt as though I really helped people that day and that’s a great feeling[…] For me, that was the big thing to remember. Yes, you had stupid people, you had stupid people who were damaging bowsers, people that were taking, we had some small corner shops who went on selling water from the distribution points for years afterwards, because we do know that people were going round and collecting water from every distribution point. Same as everything isn’t it. You could say it, with the floods, it brings out the best and worst in people. I think for me that’s the thing I’ll remember, is that anything like this brings out the best in the best and the worst in the worst.
The questions that this account addresses include:
How is local media involved in flood risk management, formally and informally?
In what ways can local radio help to develop flood memories?
How local does ‘local media’ need to be, in order to provide meaningful service during an emergency?
To what extent have the summer 2007 floods influenced people’s biographies, and the consciousness of an entire generation?
This is how a Tewkesbury pub manager, in a recent interview, remembers the beginning of the flood on Friday, July 20th 2007. Within only thirty-five minutes, the pub was flooded waist-deep.
It was so strong that when I came out here (to the car park) it took me off my feet, you know… But it was only this deep (points to his lower feet) at the time when I was trying to get the cars out. It was like – whoa! It was coming that far, and there were bins and all sorts just rushing out onto the road. Cars still trying to come through, at stupid speeds as well, you know. This was before the bridge collapsed…
In the beginning, pub staff and customers – some of them whom had never been there before, but were stuck in Tewkesbury because earlier floods had caused road closures – tried to save as much as possible from the rising waters.
Downstairs we’ve got a book case round the corner for customers. And all those are bought, either by me or mum, or customers bring them in and put them there. So mum’s like, “rescue the books!” She collects books, she’s got thousands of them… And her plants, “rescue the plants! Don’t let them drown!” You know, […] chairs, I mean, “rescue the chairs!” We were piling chairs upon tables, and then from the tables on to chairs on top of chairs… more important chairs upon chairs, you know… Trying to build up, trying to get everything high. […] There was a [previous flood] mark on the corner of the bar, “1998”, and it was getting closer and closer to that. And when it actually beat it, we all cheered!
When the water stopped rising, the staff and some of the customers (now soaked) resumed drinking, playing pool, and socialising. “I mean, once you’ve lifted everything up, there’s nothing you can do, you know”. On the next day, the water would rise even higher in the pub, destroying its entire interior. What the pub manager finds most memorable, however, is not just the water and the destruction it caused, but the reaction of the owners (who are the manager’s parents) and other pub staff.
When it was about three o’clock in the morning and there was left myself, my mum and dad, Mark who works for us, and he’d stayed to help, Bathy who works for us, and he’d stayed to help… All the customers had gone, they’d all left. Mark’s wife, who’s passed away now, but she was here, she was sat upon the bar. […] Dad was behind the bar up to his waist in water. We all had drinks in our hands, and dad went, “that’s it, bollocks to it. What’s happened has happened.” And then Mark started singing ‘always look on the bright side of life’ by Monty Python, while we were covered up to our waist! And we all just stood there – it’s on video somewhere, just wish I could find it – all singing ‘always look on the bright side of life.’ We were all just dancing at three o’clock in the morning. It was cold and wet and miserable, but at that moment… It was just like “what’s done is done, that’s it.” That will be something that I’ll remember for the rest of my life. You know, I just sort of stood back and looked at mum and dad cuddling, because they just lost everything – and you have lost everything! – and I just thought I wish my brothers were here to watch this, and my sisters […]. Because it’s a moment you’ll never get back again, you know, watching your parents who just lost everything, and then they can just raise a drink and sing…
Later in the interview, the pub manager explains that remembering floods is very important for inhabitants of flood-prone areas. He says that these memories not necessarily help people to practically deal with floods, but that they are important in fostering a particular attitude. People need to be aware of the possibility of flooding, of the dangers that flooding brings, and of the things that they can and cannot do during a flood. The pub manager explains that his own attitude towards floods was shaped by many flood experiences during his childhood. This is how he describes one of his memories of learning to live with floods:
I’ve always been brought up around flooding. As a child, we used to walk the floods. We’ve done it on Christmas Day, to walk to the pub at Lower Lode across the embankments, the flood barriers. There was water rushing; it was quite deep. All holding hands linked, and mum had wrapped scarves around our hands. We were walking along and Nicky was tied to the dog, my little sister. […] He’s a big dog, a big lurcher cross greyhound, so he’s a big powerful dog. And she had one hand hooked onto mum and one hand… Well, the dog chose to actually – you might think this sounds stupid, but – the dog actually chose to stand next to Nicky across that flood barrier. She hooked onto his collar, and he was on the outside of them. And then we all went to the pub for a drink. Well, they did; we all just played in the floods.
Many people living on and moving to the floodplain lack such memories, however. And even the pub manager and his family were surprised by the extent of the summer 2007 flood, and learned from it. In his own words:
Next time you’d be a bit more prepared, definitely. And there will be a next time for as long as I’m here anyway. If I stay here, it will happen again. So next time, we’ll be a bit more prepared. So now, we’ve got more sandbags ready over there. And rather than before, when we were kind of like, “where are they, where are they?” they will all be piled up in the corner. […] We’ve got boards cut ready for the pub, something that you can try and stop it a bit more. That’s about the only advantage, isn’t it, that you’ve actually experienced it. Some people haven’t experienced it, they might be really frightened. We will all be like, “no, it’s cool don’t worry. We’ve got to get everything out; we’ve got to do this…”
But he adds that there need to be ways of teaching those people about floods who have never experienced one themselves. Otherwise they will have to learn the hard way. Remembering the floods, and passing on these memories to children and newcomers, must be formalized in some way. The pub manager reckons that schools with pupils from flood-prone areas should adopt flooding and coping with floods into their curriculum.
You need to remember, don’t you. Like that poor lad that died, that father and son that died… You can’t forget that because that’s just… That kid tried to cross a brook! Kids need to be taught that. I know that you don’t go crossing brooks, but I was brought up […] surrounded by floods. He wasn’t, and he tried to swim across. I mean, I know that you can drown in four inches of flood water, because it will take your feet away. You can bang your head and that’s it. So kids need to be taught that this is a flood-town. That’s what they don’t do around here, they don’t teach the children in schools about flooding. You know, they don’t teach them how powerful water is. I have to explain to my son… I had to explain it to him, he now knows. They don’t understand, they think you could probably just cross branches like Tarzan to go across a flooded brook, and don’t realise that once he’s in there you’ve got virtually zero chance of getting back out of it again, because you’re just washing along with it. Yeah, that’s what they need to do around here.
Is it thus an attitude that makes people resilient to floods?
And what role can formal education play in passing on flood memories?
What other ways are there to keep these memories alive, and relevant for the next flood?