Archive for the ‘time’ Category

The Floodline – potential and limits   1 comment

Floodline is a service provided by the Environment Agency to inform residents about their flood risk, and to warn them about incipient floods. Recently, a rather dramatic commercial was released to draw attention to this service:

Earlier Floodline commercials are a bit less dramatic, and more funny, like this one…

… or this one:

The Floodline certainly provides valuable service. But, judging from the experiences of Gloucestershire floodplain residents, it is not the ultimate answer to all their flood-related problems. Many have had numerous false alarms in the past, being woken up by automated calls in the middle of the night. Some of them were very distressed by the calls; others had enough local knowledge to see that they were not about to flood by looking into their back garden or onto the river. Still others remember receiving a call from the service when they were already flooded, somewhat late for a ‘warning’. This has made many residents rather cynical concerning the Floodline.

Nevertheless, the service is being improved continually, and so are the models and scales the warnings are based on. Alongside this, perhaps an awareness is growing that such large-scale schemes work best when integrated with local memories and knowledge, rather than set apart from them. Furthermore, no one should have to rely on the Floodline alone, but also talk to neighbours, the local flood warden, and other people with flood experience.

The Floodline can be an expedient tool – if used properly and not at the expense of keeping an eye on our dry and wet environments.

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A reminder or the bookend of an historic event?   Leave a comment

Exactly a year after the floods in Tewkesbury, the town held an event known as ‘Over The Rainbow’ on 20th July 2008. The aim of the event was to positively showcase the town after the negativity portrayed about Tewkesbury during the floods. A variety of activities were put on including fireworks and concerts, but more importantly the activity that was held in highest regard was the holding of hands around The Abbey.

This event attracted the media (see above) and even included a BBC report.

The start of the BBC report highlights ‘Tewkesbury back in business’ which is the tagline reproduced by the Tewkesbury based PR company Vivid who promoted the event. The tagline could have been ‘everyone back home’ focusing on the social recovery of the floods, but this event focuses on the economic recovery of the town. This could be to make tourists aware that Tewkesbury is up and running again after the floods. This is where the positive state of the event is used to possibly entice the tourists back.

Yet the social aspect of the town is shown in the iconic image of this event is the holding of hands.

                                       

The holding of hands was to signify the community resilience during and after the floods by creating a human border around The Abbey at the extent that the floods reached. The common misconception during disasters is that the victims are shocked to the point where they don’t react. This show of agency allows people to see that the residents of this town are not passive victims, but totally the opposite. There are stories which further highlight the active nature of the people in the town. Thus, the Over the Rainbow gesture served to portray Tewkesbury residents as active and joined up in the face of adversity.

However, this event has only run once. Was this event a ritual marker to the end of the 2007 flood? As this event has only run once, Over The Rainbow can be perceived as marking the end of the floods and flood recovery. These events can be used to put an ‘official end’ in the minds of the community. So does this mean that Tewkesbury has moved on and even possibly forgotten the floods? Are memories – and awareness – of floods being suppressed by marking the end of flooding in such a way? Or does the celebration of community resilience, and being back in business quickly after a devastating event, foster lasting memories?

Such an unusual event is likely to be remembered for the rest of victim’s lives but not necessarily in the forefront of their mind, and possibly deliberately forgotten. Despite the act of suppressing a negative memory, certain factors can re-spark these memories such as the date – 20th July – the level of the river, the force of the rain, or photographs. However most people don’t dwell on such memories in order to move on, which is possibly why such a significant event such as Over The Rainbow was held only once. Over The Rainbow can be viewed as the last structured reminder of the 2007 floods thus a bookend in this unique time in Tewkesbury history. If it were to be organized more regularly, on the other hand, it would perhaps add to the above list of reminders of the floods – and probably keep alive both flood risk awareness and a sense of community resilience to 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?

Droughts and floods   Leave a comment

The other week, a colleague jokingly greeted me by saying “pretty bad times for a flood researcher, isn’t it?”

Indeed, almost exactly four years after the great floods of 2007, there is not much talk about floods in England. Rather, many people seem to be concerned with drought. On the homepage of the Environment Agency, for instance, drought is one of the key issues.

One has to wonder what this does to people’s flood memories. People often say that they are reminded of the floods when it rains heavily. But what happens when it hardly rains at all? Do floods seem even more unlikely during dry periods? And do people stop to remember them because of that? Or are there certain flood memories that do not dry up during a drought?

It is evident that a current drought says little about the likelihood of a flood in the near future. During a recent conference (Learning to live with water), geographer Chad Staddon remembered that exactly four years ago today, on July 12, 2007, he attended a drought meeting in Gloucester because of the then exceptionally dry conditions. Only a week later, the rains began that caused the flood.

Are the same mistakes being made again now? Are we focussing too much on present states, rather than paying attention to the periodic rise and fall in the availability of water?

I think, what we can learn from this is that our world is not static, but it transforms in rhythms. Some periods are drier, some wetter; some of these periods last longer, some of them shorter. It is not a metronomic pattern of predictable periods that are always exactly the same. But droughts and floods do come and go periodically – and just because it is dry now does not mean we can forget floods.

Community Connectivities — Temporal Belongings   Leave a comment

Last week one of us was lucky enough to participate in a workshop that looked at the relations between time and community, two often taken-for-granted but rather contentious concepts. The stimulating programme – consisting mainly of very short presentations and innovative discussion formats – featured approaches to time and community from various perspectives and backgrounds, including activism, anthropology, archaeology, biology, fine arts, gender studies, geography, philosophy and sociology.

It became clear that there are various relations between time and community. For instance, time is often constituted through the conceptual frameworks and practical activities associated with a particular community. Also, common memories and narratives of the past (a crucial aspect of ‘time’) can constitute a community, as can shared hopes, fears or projects for the future (another central feature of ‘time’). Furthermore, certain temporal phenomena – such as recurrent floods – may shape communities, community awareness and community action. Finally, a focus on time helps to strengthen an approach to communities as processes that emerge, develop and potentially disappear in time, rather than being fixed entities.

To learn more about the workshop, its context and participants, have a look at the Temporal Belongings website. The workshop was run by the Manchester-based Centre for Research on Socio-Cultural Change (CRESC) and funded by the AHRC-led Connected Communities programme as one in a series of scoping studies.

Apart from introducing forty-odd researchers and activists interested in time and community to each other, stimulating lively discussions and sowing the seeds of new thoughts, the Temporal Belongings project also started to compile a bibliography on time and community.

Good stuff. Thank you!