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‘Normal floods’, memories and media hype   1 comment

Recent flooding on the River Severn again revealed differing perceptions of floods, as well as the power of the media in shaping flood risk discourses, and the resentment of floodplain residents to the media representation of flooding.

It’s mostly the outsiders who get excited about the extent of the waters on the Tewkesbury Ham and along the Mill Avon. For local residents, this is just a ‘normal flood’.

On April 30th, the national BBC website reported that “Tewkesbury sets up flood incident room as river rises“. The image provided under this headline was not of the current floods, however, but of the great flood in July 2007, nearly five years ago. Also, the most striking ‘news’ of the article concerned the 2007 emergency. When it continued to report on the actual, present flood, the story sounded disappointingly dull compared to the opening lines. The reader also learns that it wasn’t “Tewkesbury” that set up a flood incident room, but the Environment Agency.

Similarly, on May 1st, a Guardian article on “the wettest April on record” was published with a picture of the 2007 floods, not the present one. The caption reads: “Tewkesbury, scene of extreme flooding in 2007, faces renewed disaster as floodwater levels rise.” The Independent’s article of May 4th, pronouncing “Tewkesbury flood threat returns as heavy rains continue” was also illustrated purely with images of the 2007 flood. And the images that make up the majority of the Daily Mail article of that same day are geared to evoke the similarities between the present situation and the 2007 flood, too, with photographs dominated by the extent of water on the floodplain. It refers to Tewkesbury as the “Gloucestershire town was devastated by near-identical floods five years ago“.

But were the recent floods ‘near-identical’ to those of 2007? From a distant, aerial photograph perspective, this might seem the case, as much of the floodplain was inundated again in early May 2012. But critically, the distribution of the water, as well as the extent of the floods, were rather different to the situation five years ago. The Daily Mail reporter does notice this, when his perspective changes from the ‘big picture’ to that of speaking to local residents:

So how were the good folk of Tewkesbury conducting themselves yesterday in the face of what some feared would be another Biblical-style disaster? Well, they were mostly just getting on with life.

‘This is not a flood,’ said Samantha Snape, 38-year-old owner of the picturesque Lower Lode Inn, where the water had spilled over the Severn banks and was sloshing a few feet from her doorstep.

‘This is a flood,’ she told me, pointing to a 2007 photograph of the 15th-century building partly submerged.

To her left was a brass plaque that marked how deep the water was last time. It’s screwed in several inches above waist height.

This echoes what many of our respondents have been saying about the recent flooding – this is a ‘normal flood’, something they would expect at least once or twice a year. They keep an eye on it, but do not get worried. This is Tewkesbury after all, located on the floodplain at the confluence of the Rivers Severn and Avon and a number of smaller watercourses.

Also Dave Throup from the Environment Agency stated in a video interview with the Telegraph that the current flood is not to be mistaken for an event similar to the 2007 floods:

This is an entirely different situation. We’d expect levels like this probably a couple of times a year in Tewkesbury. We haven’t for the last couple of years because it has been so dry. You know, that’s why we are in drought. […] And in 2007 it was probably a good metre higher than it is now. I think if you have lived in Tewkesbury for any period of time you will have seen this many times. And people are used to it. And indeed most of the communities up the Severn will be used to rivers coming up and going back down. And it does look dramatic because the river will come out of its banks and it will fill miles of floodplain. But you know, that’s what they are there for. They are fulfilling their proper function.

Whereas such a ‘normal flood’ thus does not upset floodplain residents, the media hype referring back to the destruction and disruptions of 2007 surely does. Some inhabitants of Tewkesbury, for instance, are fed up with the idea that all their home town is known for is its flooding, and in particular the 2007 floods. They are frustrated with the media ignoring how well they actually get on with these ordinary floods. In particular, businesses like local shops, hotels and restaurants feel victimised by this misrepresentation, as each time the national media announces a flood in Tewkesbury, they experience a decline in customers.

Two weeks after the flood peak, on May 16th, the Gloucestershire Echo interpreted the small flood as a good test for the County’s contingency planning. In hindsight, it was noted that the emergency services coped very well with the events, and the only flood-related incidents in the County pertained to a few driveways and garages, rather than people’s homes. It was a tiny event compared to 2007, a ‘normal flood’ rather than a large-scale emergency.

Some of the issues that are explored here are:

How different regular and exceptional floods are for floodplain inhabitants

How the media may blur these critical differences in an attempt to gain more attention

How such misrepresentations are problematic for local residents and businesses

And how small floods may act as reminders of big ones, keeping flood risk in people’s minds.

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?

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.

My brother came back, and I said it was going to come in, and he said, ‘don’t be so stupid’. So I left, and the next day the water had come in. You just knew it was going to happen. It was intuition.   Leave a comment

This intuition was explored by three women from the village of Tirley discussed the events and their memories of the ‘Great’ Flood which hit the small village of Tirley over a weekend in July 2007. Tirley is known for being affected by two floods a year, so there intuition comes from their regular experiences of how to recognize and react to floods. Two residents portrayed their memories of the flash flooding that affected The Street on the Saturday, whereas the other resident accounted for when the water came into her house on the Sunday. The women use the expression ‘great’ to distinguish the events of 2007 from what they term regular, ‘normal’ floods. The flood of 2007 was more than they had ever experienced previously; thus why they call it ‘great’. This is exemplified by the following:

Respondent (R) 1:         We’ve got a flood path haven’t we?

R2:          So not many people are affected by the little floods.

R1:         But they can last up to 6 weeks, the main road can be closed for 6 weeks and you have to drive miles around to get out the village, it does have an effect on the village in general.

Interviewer (I):          But one you are used to?

All:          Yes.

R3:         You just accept it.

R2:          Just carry on.

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Images of The Street in Tirley, during and after the flash flood of July 2007 (watery photos by Pat Sharman).

This description of a flood being normal and by the same token the use of ‘Great’ for a unique flood seems to suggest that the people of Tirley have what may be called a ‘watery sense of place’. A watery sense of place is a sense that a place that incorporates flood risk as part of local character and even everyday heritage. Throughout the discussion this watery sense became more and more obvious, the more aspects of living with and without a flood was discussed. These aspects include a Flood Committee and the position of Flood Warden within the community, both with responsibilities specifically to look after the village, i.e. clear the drains. Another aspect is remembering flood  patterns and recognizing signs for an imminent flood, and what precautions to take . For example, if it rains heavily in North Wales they know that they’ll get the overflow of water 3-4 days later. The flood path as described above is another aspect. The flood path, a raised path through the village, is used for the residents to remain mobile throughout a flood event. But what illustrates this watery sense the most is that in 2007, whilst the flood water was still draining away, the residents used meet at the shifting water’s edge every morning and evening. This memory was described as:

R3:         It was just talking to people in the evening meet at the flood and in the morning to find out what was going on; that was it really.

I:          So that was an important part?

R3:         Yes.

R1:         The meeting at the flood was a really wonderful.

R3:         It was essential in a way.

These aspects and memories have almost built a watery subconscious within the residents of the village knowing what it is like and how to live in a high risk flood area. This possibly leads to the observation that

….If it rains you usually see two or three of us out during the day going out clearing the drains.

This subconscious doubtlessly introduces ‘rallying’ of the residents together during a flood event.  Throughout the discussion many terms were used to describe the community spirit at the time, ‘brilliant’, ‘superb’, ‘important’ and ‘wonderful’. This suggests that in times of need the residents of Tirley come together and pitch in wherever they can and that this community spirit is remembered as such. This memory of community spirit, when and if a flood of this magnitude strikes again, may perhaps lead to comfort in bad times. And the three women all agreed that it will probably happen again.

Nevertheless, it seems like the community spirit is also re-affirmed and made stronger outside of floods. The formation of a local Women’s Institute (WI) group was highlighted by one participant, another spoke about the Play Group; what also seemed to re-affirm the community spirit is how the residents react during snow:

It is brilliant when it snows. The last time it snowed my drive was cleaned twice for me.

Community cohesion also comes to the fore when the women discuss the reasons why it floods more in their community. They acknowledge the need to help those flooded for the first time, like many residents of Tewkesbury in 2007, but also remakr that this may happen at the expense of looking after more regular victims, like the inhabitants of  Tirley. Further activities like building on the floodplain in and around Gloucester; the lack of dredging the river and the introduction of flood gates further up the river were mentioned as factors that may increase flooding in Tirley. The women feel that all of these activities in the catchment express the indifference of planners to the small village of Tirley compared to Worcester and Gloucester. However, this usually generates a strong community spirit as it has a feeling of ‘us against the world’, which is shown within the Tirley in times of hardship. At the same time, however, these activities seem to have brought a feeling of realisation amongst the participants. This realisation is in terms of the prospect of a flood of similar size and force as in 2007 hitting the village:

Don’t wish upon us but I’m sure without any doubt that it will happen again.

I wouldn’t call unique because I think it is going to happen again.

The subject of maintaining memories and telling them is brought up. Due to the regularity of ‘normal’ floods many people only live in the village for five years. When a new resident comes into a community you’d expect fellow residents to share stories of floods to warn them of what is to come. However the dynamic of the response is thus:

I:          With these new people moving in, are there any opportunities for them to learn about the floods?

R3:         They learn very quickly.

R1:         They learn by experience. When you search for a property which they buy, it should declare it has been flooded. I know the gentleman across the road from the church is fully aware that has flooded because he’s a flood engineer.

R3:         When you do see them you do ask, ‘You know it floods?’ (Laughs). But they have no idea and understand the implications.

This shows that there is a discussion informing that their new property will flood. What is missing are the stories and memories of how to be practical throughout a flood event e.g. ‘if this tree gets submerged you need to move your belongings upstairs’. It seems that in spite of the community spirit discussed previously, many newcomers will have their first experience of a flood first hand rather than being prepared for it by fellow villagers. Tirley residents would doubtlessly help out if a flood occurs, but it seems strange that within a community which regularly experiences floods there aren’t any stories told which could help them prepare for such an event in the future. The memories of the previous exceptional flood in 1947 weren’t circulated before the 2007 flood. Had Tirley forgotten is major floods? Or had people with flood experience moved out or passed away? The interviewed women remarked that newcomers who do experience a major flood may then leave, possibly with flood memories of their own, within 5 years, diminishing further the flood memory reservoir of the village. They feel it is best for the memories to be recorded like in the Gloucestershire Floods 2007 book, through pictures they obtained during the floods, and possibly through the continuing legacy of the village’s Flood Committee. But are these documents going to be read and shared? Within a community which relies on word-of-mouth to maintain memories, who use them to prepare for the next flood event and share them in meetings and at the water’s edge, it seems like the memory of the 2007 flood will end like this:

 The knowledge from so far past will not help them. It is like the ’47 flood didn’t help us in 2007. The memory will die with the older people.

What this account explores:

  1. The construction of a ‘watery sense of place’ ,and how memories help in this construction.

  2. The isolation villages like this experience when places like Tewkesbury hit the headlines with something they experience regularly – flooding.

  3. The way in which a small community helps itself in times of need despite external factors working against them, e.g. flood gates further upstream.

  4. The depletion of a memory reservoir due to the movement of people in and out of the village, and how that can affect future generations e.g. this generation and memories of the 1947 floods.

  5. How one flood can affect people in different ways, even within a small community.

“People wake up with our breakfast presenters every morning. They deem them as members of the family, and trust your opinion.”   Leave a comment

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?