Learning to live with floods

Maggie Mort 150.jpgMaggie Mort is Professor of the sociology of science, technology and medicine at Lancaster University. She is coordinator of the EU H2020 project Cultures of Disaster Resilience Among Children and Young People (CUIDAR), which followed directly from the ESRC Urgency project Children, Young People and Flooding carried out on Humberside and in Thames Valley.

Marion Walker 150.jpgMarion Walker is a human geographer and Senior Research Associate at Lancaster University. Using innovative methodologies, she has extensive experience in working with flood-affected families in the UK and led the research on the Hull Children’s Flood Project following the severe floods of 2007.

Here they reflect on the most recent serious floods in England – within a mile of their workplace.

‘Flood warning no longer in force’, read the status for the River Conder, at Galgate Area A, within days of the flood on 22 November. But while floodwaters have retreated, what it means to be flooded is only just starting to unfold for those caught up in it. The residents who were affected and evacuated now must enter a long and uncertain period of recovery. And just like the flood-affected children we worked with in South Ferriby on Humberside after the 2013-14 tidal surge, many of these families face a Christmas in temporary accommodation or in hotels.

Over 22-23 November this year it was North Lancashire that took a major hit from floodwaters – in particular the small village of Galgate, once famed for its silk. In spite of living near designated flood risk areas, residents were still surprised by the severity of the flood. Whitley Beck became a “raging monster” as it headed to the River Conder. The flood also found places to destroy that had never succumbed before.

The storm with no name

Nearby, Lancaster University Weather Station recorded over 73mm of rain in 24 hours. This is the highest level in more than 50 years since the centre started observations: the highest 24-hour record from Storm Desmond in 2015 was just under 60mm.

Severe storms are given a name; this has the effect of creating an identity that people connect with, talk about and measure time by. However this storm and consequent flood was not given a name; it was not deemed severe enough. But a walk through Galgate shows how people’s lives were upturned by the storm with no name.

Skip and sandbags _ Sara 400.jpg

The insides of people’s houses are now on the outside. Skips in the streets show what the water found and ruined: chairs, toasters and toys; carpets, bedding and clothes. The private is public – a loss of intimacy. The streets have become the domain of recovery and drying out companies, loss adjusters, insurers, builders – strangers in fluorescent jackets. Flooded communities often experience solidarity and support, but they also find themselves inspected, exposed and vulnerable.

Children’s experiences of floods

Our early work in Hull with flood-affected communities has shown how recovery is a long and wayward process. Our diary-based approach uncovered the importance of detailed local knowledge about floods and how they affect people. But we also realised that some voices are not being heard. So following the acute storms and floods of winter 2013-14 we undertook what we believe is the first in-depth exploration of children’s experiences of flooding in the UK.

In our report we draw on the children’s experiences in urging policymakers and practitioners to attend to the vagaries of flood recovery and the implications for children’s health and wellbeing; their lives at home, in school and in the community.

My flooded road 400.jpgThe two groups of flood-affected children (secondary school age young people from Staines-upon-Thames and primary school age children from South Ferriby) developed hard-hitting Flood Manifestos calling for specific improvements in three policy and practice domains: recovery, education and resilience. They became effective representatives and ambassadors, speaking about these ideas at community meetings, national conferences and on radio and TV.

Flooding is listed as the most serious ‘natural’ hazard on the UK National Risk Register, with more than five million properties at risk. Children are disproportionately affected by disasters and, under Article 12 of the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child, they have the right to participate in matters that affect them. We also know that listening to young people and involving them in planning and preparation makes for more effective and legitimate emergency management.

Living with uncertainty

Floods are dangerous and devastating, and every flood is unique.  Each has its own character, but because each flood is different, there will always be uncertainty and an element of unpredictability.  With climate change, increasing urbanisation and localised saturation levels, prediction becomes harder, even as flood knowledge and experience evolves. Given that everything will have changed around them when they finally get back together, the residents of Galgate will need time to reflect on what has become the most complex of problems – learning to live with floods.

You can follow @CUIDARProject on Twitter, or visit the project website.

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