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Well-being in the aftermath of a flood

Dr Kate Walker-Springett is an environmental social scientist currently based in the Geography department at the University of Exeter.

Her research focuses on the ways in which different publics engage with environmental issues, with a particular interest in climate change impacts in aquatic environments.

In this interview we discuss the long term impact of the well-being and mental health of those affected by flooding. As extreme weather in the UK may become more frequent we consider: how can communities foster social and emotional resilience to flooding events?

Can you tell me what happened during the Winter Floods 2013/2014?

The winter floods of 2013/14 affected many parts of the UK. In our project, we focussed on Somerset in the South West of England as a case study.  The flooding in Somerset occurred within the area known as the Somerset Levels and Moors, a low-lying region that covers approximately 650km2.  During the average winter, the unpopulated Moors are used as water storage areas when rainfall exceeds the carrying capacity of the river network.  However, during the winter of 2013/14, the extremely high levels of rainfall exceeded the storage capacity of the Moors and resulted in flooding of approximately 280 homes and 65km2 of land, some of which remained underwater for upwards of 12 weeks.

Your research has looked at the social and cultural experience of flooding, and how this affects well-being and indeed resilience. How do you define these terms?

There are multiple definitions of both of these terms, in particular the term resilience, because the word is used across several academic disciplines. As a broad concept, resilience is the degree to which something responds to external disturbances, for example how buildings cope with earthquakes (material resilience) or whether an ecosystem is able to return to its previous state following a pollution incident (ecological resilience). In our research, we focused used the term resilience in reference to society, called social resilience, which describes how individuals or communities respond and adapt to external disturbances, whether that is environmental, political or social change.

In some cases, the response might be to get back to normal as soon as possible (‘bounce-back resilience’), in other situations individuals or communities might need to adapt because the disturbance means that returning to life before the event is impossible (‘transformational resilience’). In many cases, it is probably a combination of the two.  An important part of the ability of people to respond to change and to be resilient is social capital, the relationships and networks between people that constitute ‘society’.  In times of need, these links can be used to access help, support and expertise that might not be available at individual levels, for example a pipe bursts and you can’t fix it, but you do know a plumber who has the skills that you need.

As a concept, we used well-being as a broad term that aims to understand the healthiness of people, taking into account notions of happiness as well as physical and psychological components of health.

Broadly, how are these impacted as a result of flooding, and at what scales?

Our research corroborates other evidence that well-being is impacted negatively by flooding. We found a drop in self-reported well-being during the flood and 12 months afterwards, both for those individuals who had been directly affected by the floods and for those who had not been affected, but whose communities had.  The research further shows how these impacts are to some extent mitigated by elements of social resilience at different scales.  At the individual scale where people had friends and neighbours they could turn to for support and at the community scale where local action groups were able to get support from local and national government.  

 

In our research we found some great examples of different types of resilience, such as: communities organising transportation out of flooded areas; volunteers helping to rebuild homes for those who did not have home insurance; and of individuals installing property level resilience measures into their home when rebuilding after the flood. 

These are all examples of bounce-back resilience, but we also saw some examples of transformational resilience, such as roads being raised so that villages are not completely cut off should it flood again. Interestingly, in some of these examples of social resilience, particularly where communities came together to help and support each other, there was an increased feeling of community spirit, and this indirectly made people feel more resilient.

Do you think that these long-term impacts on well-being as a result of flooding have been well reported?

I don’t think that the long-term well-being impacts of flooding have been well reported, but I think that is changing, especially since the predictions for UK climate indicate increases in the frequency and magnitude of flood events.  Reporting of health impacts of flooding often focuses on physical health issues that are more easily reported using exiting mechanisms.  It is comparatively difficult to measure well being because it is so nuanced.   We need to achieve a greater awareness about the well being impacts of floods so that these are included when evaluating the wider health impacts of a flood event.  This links to a wider societal issue which is the continuing stigma of mental health, leading to under reporting. 

Do you think it’s important that these fairly private experiences are made public to raise awareness of flood experiences and its effects on well-being?

Floods make areas public that are ordinarily private (such as people houses). This publicity creates additional strains for those who have been flooded as it becomes difficult to find places where they can retreat to, out of public sight.  However, I think to achieve real change in how we deal with and prepare for flooding; the social consequences need to be public to achieve impact with local and national government.  A good example of this is Somerset, whose use of the media, especially social media, created and maintained pressure on government to take action in Somerset.  

Geographers often refer to ‘sense of place’ which is, broadly, how people and communities feel about an area. How do you think flooding affects this? 

Our findings show that the impacts to people’s sense of place are somewhat related to how people perceived the cause of the flooding in 2013/14. Whilst excess rain and climate change were acknowledged, there was an emphasis on a seeming lack of river management work.  In this respect, the floods were seen as something that could have been averted, and this reflects on the opinion held by residents who are happy to stay in the area because they believe the works that have been done that will reduce their flood risk.  But that is not to say people’s sense of place was not affected; people spoke about being anxious when it rains and not feeling at home in their newly rebuilt houses, so there is no doubt that the connections between people and the places in which they live was impacted.

Going forward, what can be done to foster community resilience to these issues?

Our results show that for both you need to consider material resilience (e.g. houses) and emotional resilience (e.g. well-being), and you need a combination of approaches.  Financial incentives can help, but often the complexity of identifying if you are eligible and filling in the forms is off putting, especially during an intensely stressful time, such as being evacuated after your home has been flooded.  In Somerset, local support workers, who were in post before the floods, were key in signposting residents to different sources of information and funding pots as well as having an awareness of those people who might need some pastoral support.  In terms of emotional resilience, part of that comes from having trust that the authorities can and will do everything they can, but a lot also comes from the support of friends and family, so activities that encourage people to get to know their neighbours can really help in times of crisis. 

Butler, C., Walker-Springett, K., Adger, W. N., Evans, L. & O’Neill, S. 2016. Social and political dynamics of flood risk, recovery and response, The University of Exeter, Exeter. Survey research undertaken in Somerset and Boston Lincolnshire after the 2013/14 floods revealed the following about the role of the community support people during and after the floods of 2013/14 (Butler et al. 2016). 

Is it difficult to research an emotionally sensitive subject such as well-being? What methods were employed as part of this research project?

Yes I think that researching flooding in general is challenging because of the impacts and consequences for well-being.  The methods we used were semi-structured repeat interviews (qualitative) and a survey (quantitative), for both we used consent forms, and information sheets, so people knew what we would be discussing and could ask questions before they agreed to take part.  The open nature of the interviews allowed us to be responsive and sensitive to how people were reacting to the questions, and we spent a long time writing and editing the interview questions to ensure that we did not have any unnecessarily negative impacts on our participants. 

We also made it very clear that participants were under no obligation to finish the interview or take part in the second one, if they did not want to.  Some people mentioned that being able to talk about their experiences was a positive, almost cathartic, experience, and many were keen to be involved to make a different to how floods are dealt with.  

Did research participants share any notably memorable, or poignant, stories of post-flood resilience?

Floods in Burrowbridge, Somerset 2014 ©Shaun Derry, Flickr: http://bit.ly/2rEugXn

Because the floods in Somerset happened over such a prolonged period, we have some good stories of resilience during the floods.  My favourite was probably that of an individual who said that their social life was almost better during the floods that before it, simply because so many friends and neighbours were inviting them to dinner!  This person, whose home had been flooded did not evacuate, instead remained living in the upstairs of the property, reflected on the process of putting on waders to leave the house, getting in their canoe, sailing partway, until the water level dropped, getting out the canoe, putting normal shoes on, and going for dinner.  Then having to do the same in reverse to come home! The participant described this social engagement as allowing them to have ‘breaks of comedy in the nightmare’.

What are your recommendations for improving health and well-being in the event of future floods?

There were several key recommendations from our research that related to well-being.  The first was about recognising the importance of community networks and support to well being and how this can help achieve social resilience to flood events.  In our research in Somerset, there were some really good examples of a range of informal (e.g. people inviting flooded neighbours round for dinner) and formal (e.g. emotional support workers) services on offer for local communities and individuals, so I think that it is becoming more universally acknowledged.  Another issue is around longevity; the evidence suggests that well-being impacts can last several years, and so there is a challenge around providing support for such a long period of time, and how this is done most effectively.  In some ways, this also ties in with resilience too, there is more of an acceptance around the need for buildings, roads and railways to be resilient, but less of a focus on emotional resilience because it is much more difficult; resilient communities are often those which have good bonds between the people of that community, but it can be hard to encourage people to get to know their neighbours!    

We also recommended that the impacts on well-being be considered in the emergency response phase, and made part of the provision of emergency help right from the beginning, both for flooded people and the front line staff that deal with flood emergencies too.  This would better signpost people to what help that they could access from the beginning of an event, and would normalise the impact on well being so that is was not hidden or unexpected. 

Finally, from our research we concluded that both public sector and private organisations that are involved in flood emergency have a responsibility to think of the health and well-being of those affected, and the consequence of their actions.  For example, being aware of the sentimental value of items that have been damaged by the floods and considering whether they can be salvaged or need to be discarded, or the additional stress and anxiety that being evacuated has on people and appreciating their desire to return home as soon as possible.

Key words

Well-being
The healthiness of a person, taking into account happiness as well as the physical and psychological components of health

Resilience
The degree to which something responds to external disturbances. In reference to society, social resilience describes how individuals or communities respond and adapt to external disturbances, whether that is environmental change, or political and social change.

Social capital
The connections, networks and links among people and the shared values that arise from these networks. Aspects of social capital include: citizenship, neighbourliness and civic participation.
 

Lesson ideas

The Moorland villagers staying put, BBC (2014)

As a starter look at pictures from the flooding, what do the pupils think happened? Can they identify groups that may be affected have be affected here?

Take a look at the quotes and images produced as part of a photography exhibition by David Mansell-Moulin. What sorts of emotions are portrayed in the images? Who has been affected and how has it changed their relationship to place (consider place in terms of local and national scales starting with home and the local community)

Download the PDF | MSWORD document ‘Ask the Expert Well-Being in the Aftermath of Flooding Activity’. This worksheet contains interview excerpts from those affected by flooding, and those who help manage flood response in a professional capacity. Ask pupils to complete the task and discuss their responses as a class.

Links

Dr Kate Walker Springett

Winter Floods 2013/14 project page

Submerged: Portraits from the Levels, a photography exhibition by David Mansell-Moulin

THEY – a filmic art piece by Emma Critchley exploring flooding in the Somerset levels 2014

Springer-Walker, K, Butler, C, Adger, N. (2017) Wellbeing in the aftermath of floods, Health & Place

Flooding has adverse effect on well-being and mental health, Aviva (2016)

Resources

Case Study: Working with Nature and building resilience to flood events in Pickering, Yorkshire

Ask the Expert: Communicating climate science with Dr Ewan Woodley

Key Stage 3 Module: Are you flood ready?

Infographic: threat from flooding, 21st Century Challenges

Living with flooding in Cumbria one year on

Further Reading

Butler, C., Walker-Springett, K., Adger, W. N., Evans, L. & O'Neill, S. 2016. Social and political dynamics of flood risk, recovery and response. Exeter: University of Exeter.

Poortinga, W. 2012. Community resilience and health: The role of bonding, bridging, and linking aspects of social capital. Health & Place, 18, 286-295.

Tapsell, S. M. & Tunstall, S. M. 2008. "I wish I'd never heard of Banbury": The relationship between 'place' and the health impacts from flooding. Health & Place, 14, 133-154.

Tunstall, S., Tapsell, S., Green, C., Floyd, P. & George, C. 2006. The health effects of flooding: social research results from England and Wales. Journal of Water and Health, 4, 365-380.

Twigger-Ross, C., Coates, T., Deeming, H., Orr, P., Ramsden, M. & Stafford, J. 2011. Community Resilience Research: Final Report on Theoretical Research and Analysis of Case Studies Report to the Cabinet Office and Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. London: Collingwood Environmental Planning Ltd.

Walker-Springett, K., Butler, C. & Adger, W. N. 2017. Wellbeing in the aftermath of floods. Health & Place, 43, 66-74.

Werritty, A., Houston, D., Ball, T., Tavendale, A. & Black, A. 2007. Exploring the social impacts of flood risk and flooding in Scotland. Edinburgh, Scotland: Scottish Executive.

Whittle, R., Medd, W., Deeming, H., Kashefi, E., Mort, M., Twigger-Ross, C., Walker, G. & Watson, N. 2010. After the Rain: learning the lessons of flood recovery in Hull. Final project report for 'Flood, Venerability and Urban Resilience: a real time study of local recovery following the floods of June 2009 in Hull'. Lancaster, UK.: Lancaster University.

This resource was kindly supported by the University of Exeter

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