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.

The Caravan – flood memories condensed   1 comment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Flood memory and narrative

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

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

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

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

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

Flood memory and sense of place

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

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

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

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

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

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

What this account explores:

  • The role of images for memory

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

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

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

A 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.

A Very Watery Guided Tour   1 comment

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

                                      

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Youngsters thoughtfully checking on the vulnerable

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What this account explores is the:

Need to exemplify the positives during bleak times.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                                               

What this account explores includes:

  • The importance of photographs in maintaining and sharing memories.

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

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

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

Children of the floods   Leave a comment

Earlier this month, the Gloucestershire paper the Citizen reported that the 2007 floods had resulted in an increase of births nine months later. It presents some figures:

In Tewkesbury, which was famously turned into an island by the flood waters, the birth rate in 2008 reached a two-decade high of 909, 69 up on 2007.

The children from this ‘baby boom’ are now about to flood the school system, and education officers are quoted voicing their concern about the lack of capacities to accommodate them. An extra 120 places are said to be needed in Gloucestershire schools for the flood babies who will be reaching school age before autumn.

A day later, the Daily Mail picked up the story, which invited a series of interesting – and controversial – comments. One of the questions that arise is: What do floods do to human relations and interaction? Are we really having more sex in extraordinary situations, or simply because there is no television to watch when the electricity is cut?

Similar stories have been told before, for example about an alleged baby boom after an electricity cut in and around New York in 1965. Critics of these stories, however, scrutinizing the actual numbers, have argued that in fact there is no connection between emergencies and birth rate increases.

Also in the Gloucestershire case, the numbers do not seem to concur with the story, as an article on the Straight Statistics website indicates. The article states:

But if we look at other counties in the South West, it’s clear that although Gloucestershire showed an above-average increase in births in that period, it wasn’t exceptional.  In Wiltshire the increase was 12.1 per cent, in Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly 13.6 per cent. […] So Cornwall had a greater increase than Gloucestershire, with no floods.
The increase in Gloucestershire between 2005 and 2008 amounted to 784 extra births over the 2005 figure, an average of 261 per year. The increase between 2007 and 2008 was 168 – below the three-year average. So the floods of July 2007 did not have any perceptible effect on birth numbers. Any effect they might have had was to lower them.

The article suggests that the issue is not about floods causing a baby boom or not, but rather about faulty planning in the education sector. There has been an increase in birth rates for years, but schools are slow to react and increase their capacities.

Yesterday’s article in the Guardian takes up this line of argument, and reviews, along with the Gloucestershire case, a number of other stories of emergency related baby booms. It comes to the conclusion that:

Appealing as the idea is, though, it doesn’t stand up. In almost every case, the apparent baby boom is either not a boom at all, or just part of a perfectly natural fluctuation in the birth rate that would never have been remarked upon if it had not been preceded by an unusual event.

Clearly, thus, the Gloucestershire floods baby boom story is a an ‘urban myth’. But is that the end of the story? The Guardian article ends thus:

But facts are for scientists. “I don’t care what the evidence is,” says Nicola Davies in Gloucestershire. “I still think there’s something in it. Look, the floods prompted this huge feeling of community spirit. After they were over … We’d been through two weeks of hell, everyone was on an absolute high. It was like a reaffirmation – we’d got through it! “Speaking for myself, there was a bit of alcohol involved. A sense of celebration. And, well, there we were. Or is that too much information?”

Question this issue raises for the research project include:

(1) If ‘the facts’ are so clear, why are the legends so resilient? People clearly seem to like stories. Do we need stories, rather than numbers, to make sense of our lives and the world around us?
(2) The issue of the floods keeps coming up, in this case delayed by the period it takes for a child to be born and reach school age. What other dynamics are there that bring the floods up in public discourse and personal memories?
(3) Relying on statistical data is very ambiguous. How does the story differ if only the Tewkesbury numbers are taken into account (the Citizen story) or figures for the entire county of Gloucestershire (Straight Statistics story)? Which one is more representative?