Flooding on the Somerset Levels: Residents confront the physical and emotional turmoil left behind by unprecedented levels of flooding

By Megan Toon

In December 2008, I watched in horror as the flood waters rose and engulfed my world in three feet of iridescent filth. I stared helplessly as photos of my parents’ wedding drifted across the surface of the black murk, swept against the wall by a hidden current like a discarded rag. The dyes on the image, which had once captured my Mom’s warm smile, spun into a whirlpool of confusion. Questions diffused through my mind like the colours on the photograph; what happens now? Do we move? Do we stay put and rebuild? In a few short hours, the flood had destroyed the plaster on the walls, the floorboards, and stolen away irreplaceable mementos. My parents had lived in the area for 21 years and had never experienced flooding on a comparable scale. After the destruction, we spent the next two years in rented accommodation while we rebuilt and refurbished our house. Local residents, council officials, and environmental experts all agreed that the flood was a “one in two hundred years” event, and we were now safe.

However, since 2008 the frequency of severe weather warnings and flood risks has increased exponentially. Local residents now realise that in order to uphold a livelihood on the Somerset Levels, they must cease to rely on government support and implement personal flood prevention measures for their homes. Just over 1,000 years ago, the Somerset Levels, on which stone cottages and commercial farms proudly stand today, was merely waterlogged marshland. In the 17th century, Dutch engineers drained the marshland for commercial use and human habitation. Today, the Somerset Levels comprises 160,000 acres of rolling pastures, treasured natural wildlife, and coastal tourist hot-spots, and are home to a number of rural villages and thriving agricultural businesses. But communities are beginning to recognise the need to adapt and unite to overcome the economic, physical, and psychological upheaval, posed by flooding.

A man walks through flooded fields in the Somerset Levels (Courtesy of Creative Commons)
A man walks through flooded fields in the Somerset Levels (Courtesy of Creative Commons)

This January, Somerset communities experienced the highest volume of rainfall on record for the area. The river levels rose uncontrollably and overcame any existing flood protection. On January 24, 2014, Somerset County Council declared flooding on the Somerset Levels a “major incident”- “a natural event which poses a serious and immediate risk to safety and life.” 17,000 acres of land had been underwater for over a month, and inhabitants of villages, such as Thorney and Moorland, had been forced to abandon their homes and evacuate their belongings within a few hours. “The water in our house rose above the kitchen worktops,” said Moorland resident and farmer James Winslade. Communities relied on army personnel and aid workers to rescue stranded homeowners and transport basic necessities, such as food, medical care, and sand bags to hold back the floodwaters. Farmers witnessed their annual income drown along with their crops, and their livestock despatched to slaughter because there was nowhere to relocate them. In a BBC program, nine-year-old Rebecca from Moorland said the flooding felt “like being in Titanic, but without the boat.” Her mother Dee described the struggle to preserve some normality in everyday life for her family of five children, but stated that “we couldn’t go through this again; we would fail, as a family we would fail. Initially it is about trying to save your house, and when you can’t, then you enter a different mental state.” For nine weeks, the village of Muchelney became an “island community,” cut off from the outside world by a 6-foot deep moat of flood water.

For many villagers who were affected by flooding this January, the psychological and emotional trauma will continue long after the water has receded. The economics of lost income, making repairs, cleaning up, and dealing with compensation and insurance claims is stressful, and after the evacuation from their homes, victims feel depressed and isolated. Many also experience a loss of control or fear of another extreme event. In the words of my father, John Toon, “I have become almost paranoid about a forecast of heavy rain.”

The extremities of January 2014 finally woke up the national government to the severity of flooding in Somerset’s communities. Ian Liddell-Grainger, the Member of Parliament for the areas of Bridgwater, Minehead and Exmoor, described the psychological stress flooding has placed on the local people, as “beyond anything I have ever experienced.” Elizabeth Nightingale, a retired general practitioner, whose home has been underwater since last December, related, “until last year I thought you brushed the water out and that was the end of it. I had no idea that your house has to be completely stripped out – I don’t think people realise the devastation that goes on.” Mrs. Nightingale believes she can manage the material aspect of replacing warped floorboards and rewiring electrics, but reliving the emotional upheaval of watching her life engulfed by nature’s indifference after a second flood would be intolerable. In February 2014, the government promised families compensation, and substantial measures to aid recovery and prevent any future occurrences. Prime Minister David Cameron assured the Somerset residents that “money is no object.” Somerset County Council recently secured government funding for 40 percent of a £100 million, 23-page bill, which proposes the implementation of significant flood prevention measures, and an initiative to include more local input on environmental executive boards.

While the bill appears promising, the government’s past actions have felt almost manipulative to many homeowners. Four-time flood victim Zog Ziegler stated, “each year, I have persisted and rebuilt my home, only to watch all my hard work swept away again just a year later.” Mr Ziegler now feels utterly disillusioned by his local authority; he has no insurance and no opportunity to sell his house without serious economic loss. Local homeowners and business owners are sceptical whether the flood prevention measures will materialise. In 2012, Lord Smith, Chairman of the Environment Agency, guaranteed local Somerset residents the environment agency would dredge the local rivers within eight months of the flooding. When the waters rose once again this January, local homeowners looked to Lord Smith and asked why, in the two years after his “promise,” the rivers remained congested and untouched. Families now fear that the recent bill will yield nothing more than an exchange of words. Local homeowner, John Toon, said, “with 27 years invested in building a family home, we want to believe that the appropriate agencies are doing everything possible to alleviate the risks.”

Trees submerged in water in Somerset, UK (Courtesy of Creative Commons)
Trees submerged in water in Somerset, UK (Courtesy of Creative Commons)

Even if the proposals in the bill to dredge the rivers and raise the roads are enforced, there is no guarantee that the measures will be sufficient to withstand the substantial volume of rain, which now falls annually. Every Somerset homeowner who has been a recent victim of flooding now recognises the overarching reality that, no one can give a 100 percent guarantee that homes will not flood again.

Ken Tatem, former flood defence manager, is one of few administrative officials to publically admit this, explaining, “they (government representatives) fear to tell people the truth.” The potential for the waters to once again submerge the Somerset Levels is no longer a variable statistic, but a reality. As the recovery effort persists for January 2014, it is now the responsibility of local homeowners to mediate the government’s promises, and decide whether to remain in the face of adversity, or relocate to “higher ground.”

For some homeowners, however, relocating is not an option. Damage inflicted by the floods has caused home insurance costs to escalate in the affected area. Without government compensation, homeowners are now stranded in a house, which is both unsellable and too

expensive to insure. Some villagers have imparted copious emotional and economic investment in their home, or have families who have lived in the area for generations, and cannot bear to forsake their homes. “There are hardy families who have always realised the risks of living on the Levels and accepted them. But the worst impact has been upon the frail and elderly who sought a quiet retirement rather than the regular upheaval of dealing with flooding,” said Ian Grainger

Farmers and business owners are also bound by their livelihoods to remain in the area. Generations of farmers have depended on the Somerset Levels for economic stability. The Winslade family have owned Winslade Farm in Moorland and worked the surrounding land for 150 years. For four months this winter, 790 out of 860 acres of James Winslade’s agricultural land was submerged by the floodwaters; his crop and agricultural produce was devastated, and 550 of his cattle were evacuated in a short five-hour window. Mr. Winslade relies upon the harvest of his crop and the yield of his livestock for his annual income, and now faces sombre uncertainty regarding the future of his business. Tony Habberfield, whose family has farmed in Isle Abbotts for generations, told me that relocating is also not a financially viable option for his family. The wheat and barley that Mr. Habberfield planted last October has been lost to the floods and will have to be replanted, incurring additional costs without subsidy and substantially destabilising his income. Somerset’s farmers and the many resilient homeowners, who will now spend the next year or more rebuilding and recovering from this January’s calamities, can now only hope that the government’s assurances will materialise and provide some relief from the uncertainty they face. Nevertheless, homeowners now recognise the stark reality that no measure of dredging or barrier enforcement can guarantee their homes’ impenetrability against nature, but as Mr Habberfield affirms communities will continue to contend with not just the physical damage, which accompanies flooding, but the psychological and emotion turmoil perpetuated by the waters, “we will continue to pray for those worse off, and support each other as best we can to stop this (emotional and somatic upheaval) happening again.”

Megan Toon ’16 is in Trumbull College. Contact her at megan.toon@yale.edu.