When I sat down to write a new post yesterday I’d planned to write up my film review of 2013 but all the news of flooding around the UK forced a different post into being – I’m thinking about the two floods at the turn of the 21st century that affected me and my family. Since Christmas hundreds of UK homes have been inundated by sea or river water; it’s a terrible experience that will live on in any family’s memory; it takes months to recover the physical loses but years to mend the anxiety and fear that is often the long term consequence of your home being flooded.
I live on the edge of a pretty market town on a flood plain, a plain that does a great job containing the overflow from the river that the town sits next to. Thank goodness for that flood plain – the river has popped up in my house twice since I’ve lived here. With all the flooding that’s happening around the UK right now, I’m endlessly grateful that our terrace is protected by recently-constructed flood defences that have been tested on many occasions in the last few years. Apparently we’re now back to being one in 100 years’ risk of further flooding, a big improvement on the one in five or six years’ that was the case a decade ago. The hard-pressed Environment Agency is due to cut 1500 jobs in the next budget round, flood defence expenditure is constantly being trimmed, so the future for people living near water (on our small island) is worrying to say the very least.
The long terrace I live in was built on a gravel bed in 1850 and has been inundated on numerous occasions; in prolonged and severe wet weather the water simply comes up through the floor. Older neighbours tell harrowing tales of shoveling out three feet of river silt from their houses following the 1947 and 1953 floods, of sloshing rank, muddy rooms out with buckets of water, of living upstairs for days on end and of being rescued by boat, picked out from the bedroom windows. Flood defences had been talked about locally for years before building started – funding ebbed and flowed, much like the river itself. Meanwhile chunks of the flood plain between here and the Midlands were (and are) sold off for housing estates and new towns and the frequency of flooding increased – it was an anxious time and frustrating that our case didn’t have much clout in building decisions. Luckily for us, but obviously horrible for some, once the posh houses up the road suffered overflowing drains and sewage-strewn gardens, the money appeared and the defence-building began.
Flooding catches most people by surprise – if water gets into your house and you’re not ready, you’re likely to lose all the things you usually leave around on the floor or on shelves near ground level – photo albums, books, precious things you like to keep around you. When the message comes that the area will be flooded, everything that can be lifted needs to be moved upstairs (if you have one of course!); most people are not in any way prepared for this. Unlike with a regular planned move, there is no time to pack stuff away in labeled boxes, to carefully decide what to keep, what to give away and what to dump: it all needs moving – NOW. The first time my house was flooded, we had a few hours’ notice, which became a frenzy of running up and down stairs, trying to organise somewhere to stay that night, keeping the car from being waterlogged, comforting terrified children, finding the cat. The water rose to 2ft inside the house; it covered all the electric points, the carpets, sofa and chairs, and seeped into kitchen cupboards. We were lucky; while we eventually threw out or replaced almost everything downstairs, nothing irreplaceable was destroyed, but some neighbours were away from home and lost everything – all their family photos, everything they had thought was safe while they were on holiday. One family lost a piano that had been in their family for generations, it had recently come to them when grandma had died. For them that was their disaster: as soon as they could they moved away unable to bear the fear of another flood. Several families had no insurance, not from wilful negligence or stupidity but because they couldn’t afford the premiums.
The water hung around for more than a week; whether that was due to downriver floodgates being kept closed, protecting nesting birds on a reserve in Norfolk or just plain ol’ sluggish waterflow, we’ll never know. One of my enduring memories of the clean-up is of the water’s movement – petrol swirling on the surface, streams of grass cuttings – the bright green blades such a contrast with the grim brown water, waterlogged toys, sopping paper. Most poignant of all was the bobbing streams of broken woodblock floor tiles. Remember them? Very big in the ‘80s, the tiles were made up of four fingers of wood, each block set at right angles to its neighbour. When sodden, the tiles split into those fingers and, being buoyant, have no difficulty escaping through open doorways and joining the river current. That’s not something you expect to see and while it’s a small thing, those bobbing wooden blocks seemed to speak of a much bigger disruption. Dealing with insurance company loss adjustors is a whole other nightmare for which few people are prepared.
No one died during the floods I’ve experienced, our houses still stood, but our lives were forever changed. Flooding is terrifying because it is unstoppable. Of course there are protection measures to be taken at home (I’ve done them all) but ultimately, there’s no way of preventing the river near you from occasionally taking up residence in your cosy front room, or the sea from bursting over the promenade. I haven’t lived through a tsunami, an earthquake or a typhoon, but ‘our’ floods had a profound impact on my family. Several years passed before we were able to stay away from home, and before I stopped being very anxious about every spell of heavy rain. A year or so after the flood, an 87-year-old friend told me ‘My house was flooded when I was six, I’ve never forgotten it’. I think that’s how my children will feel when they’re old. Ten years on, I’ve reclaimed my love of the flooded fields; on a sunny day it’s a breathtakingly beautiful sight, but I doubt I’d feel the same if I lived on the coast or closer to fast-flowing streams. Maybe the safety net provided by drainage pumps, flood banks and ditches has made me a bit complacent, or maybe I’m just lucky to live in an area that had the money at the right time before the government’s questionable austerity agenda put other schemes at risk. The childish blame-game that some officials are indulging in is sickening – yes dredging the river might help, but so will employing people to maintain the culverts and clear ditches that help contain flood water and provide essential drainage channels. The old water boards used to do this as part of their regular remit – when they were disbanded it seems that little thought of future provision was taken. With 30+ years’ worth of house building and agricultural drainage can it be any surprise that flooding has been a major problem lately. Oh yes and then there’s climate change, or as politicians hate to call it – global warming. How much more evidence do they need?
Good luck flooded people; it’s going to be a long haul back to normality.