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

Recovering from the autumn floods: the power of community spirit

Increasing community resilience to the impact of flooding and severe weather emergencies has never been more pertinent. Across the country, communities have been battling the devastating effects of one of the wettest autumns on record. The Environment Agency has been working tirelessly to safeguard and support affected communities, working alongside members of these communities to promote a joined-up response effort. Chair, Emma Howard Boyd, describes being “hugely moved by the community spirit and generosity” at her recent visit to the South Yorkshire village of Fishlake, writing about her experience on the Environment Agency’s blog.

Community volunteer groups not only play a vital role in preparing for, and responding to emergencies, but are also instrumental in the recovery process, continuing to assist with longer-term clear-up efforts and helping to rebuild morale and restore a sense of normality.

Creating active and empowered communities

Ensuring these groups feel confident in leading their community to recovery is a key focus of Communities Prepared. Our training and resources support Community Emergency Volunteer (CEV) coordinators and their members to plan for and implement longer-term resilience measures.   

Become a member of Communities Prepared today and access our full range of free training resources and tools. It’s free to sign up!

We’ve been busy exhibiting, running workshops and presenting at some great regional and national events. You may have seen us at the following:

  • Somerset Prepared Community Resilience Day
  • Wiltshire Prepared Flood Warden meeting
  • Cornwall Community Flood Forum’s annual conference
  • BCI World Conference & Exhibition with Business in the Community
  • Good Things Foundation: Joining Forces
  • ACRE 2019 Autumn Conference

Are you running or attending an event that you think would tie in with our programme? We’d love to hear about it! Get in touch.

“We’re quite good at writing plans but we’re not so good at what you do afterwards. I think that was particularly helpful – understanding the follow-through needed to make sure people are supported in getting back to a working state as quickly as possible.”

Cllr Helen Deas Williams, Brixton Parish Community Emergency Response Team (CERT)

Find out how Brixton CERT developed their resilience to flooding. Read their story here.

The power of 3 words

How can three random words be used to support a more efficient multi-agency emergency response? what3words’ Geordie Palmer discusses.

What the flood

The Environment Agency recently launched its winter Flood Action Campaign which focuses on winter preparation and helping people to know what action to take in a flood. 

Coming up

Developing the UK’s Flood Resilience Forum, 5th December 2019, brings together leading voices to discuss key topics relating to flood resilience.

Our partners