Waiting for the flood: action plans are great, but how do we find ways to live with long-term risk?

Flood risk

We are in a season of so-called ‘super-floods’. Flood professionals and volunteers have swung into intensive action for what they classify, less dramatically, as the ‘response phase’, and those who have flooded are facing the stark misery of what is left. We are all more aware of the risky world we live in. But, as all ‘floodies’ know, being at risk is not just about the crisis, it’s for life, for individuals and for communities. And it is worth thinking about what that means.

In
my teenage years, my grandmother, before leaving her house, would sit in her
hall dressed in her coat with her handbag on her lap waiting for her lift. She
would often get out her small black diary and read it. This is one of my most
enduring memories of her.

For
my grandmother, to be prepared was to suspend all other activity in order to be
ready to leave when the time came. When the flood siren sounds, this may well
be a sensible strategy. Turn off the electric and wait for help with your
emergency grab bag to hand. In the longer term, though, we cannot suspend our
lives for a flood that may or may not come.

With a changing climate and the increased flood risk it brings, we have to find ways, as individuals, as communities, and as institutions, to move along the paths of resilience and adaptation. We have to do this, not by shutting our changing environment out, not by ignoring risk, but by weaving change and risk into the everyday in a constructive way.

Easy enough to say. Doing it is a different matter.

Much excellent work is going on to encourage and help communities to plan, practise for and recover from emergencies, not least by charities such as Communities Prepared and the National Flood Forum and by excellent local bodies such as Cumbria CVS, or Somerset Prepared.

But how do we ourselves, collectively and individually, process, understand and respond to flood risk in a way that doesn’t destroy our peace of mind? Our well-being? How can we be both ‘prepared’ and able to get on with our lives and loves? How do we get the balance right?

Garage full of rubbish
Prepared but not ready? When life gets in the way.
Rain on window
Rain dread: once flooded, never forgotten.

Some people who have experienced flooding, whether directly or indirectly, actively look for ways to prepare. If you are visiting this website, you are probably one of them. I am myself.

Many Flood Action Groups have started like this. We know, too, though, that many others do not prepare (for complex reasons, not least the psychological strain of living in fear or other pressing needs in their lives).  

Some preserve their peace of mind by relying on past patterns of flooding and solutions that may no longer apply. Or by framing their own experience as a one-off event with a very specific cause. And then there is an increasingly large group who must prepare for a risk they have never faced, cannot really imagine. How do all these people ‘prepare’?

I
have no simple answers. But here is one thing I know, from my own village, from
the very varied towns and parishes that make up the West Somerset Flood Group,
from other groups and ‘floodies’ across the country:

The shape and dynamics of preparedness must match the people and the place

Whatever
it looks like currently, our preparedness must be able to change just as communities
and their circumstances change. I will stick my neck out here and say that this
is often easier for villages than towns and cities (which is just as well,
given the lesser support available to rural communities).

So,
although I can’t suggest how to do this, I can, tentatively, offer a starting
point.

We must start with who and what we are, with how we do things ourselves, where we live. That means not feeling defeated when faced with shining examples that seem alien to our own experience. It means not trying vainly to fit into the template. It means recognising the differences among ourselves. It means looking at our own communities’ strengths and building on them. It means doing it our way, even if it’s sometimes a bit rubbish. Not on our own but with the help of others. And in a dynamic way – we cannot suspend our lives and sit in our metaphorical hallways with our coats on waiting for a crisis to arise.

Teresa Bridgeman is Chair of the West Somerset Flood Group, Vice Chair of the District Flood Board and occasional convenor of the West Somerset Natural Flood Management People and Partnerships catchment group. She is author and editor of Flooding in West Somerset (2014) and co-author with Phiala Mehring, of Simple SuDS (2019), a guide to sustainable drainage. She sets out (with varying degrees of success) to strengthen networks of cooperation and trust at all levels of Flood Risk Management. Like all maintenance work, this is a perpetual and evolving task and is only possible because of the brilliant people she encounters along the way. Anybody who thinks they recognise their own influence on this blog is probably right, not least Carolyn Otley, Hugh Deeming, Mary Dhonau, Phiala Mehring, Hannah Ovett, Chris Uttley, Evangelos Ntontis, Katrina Brown and Cormac Russell.

Dr Teresa Bridgeman
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