Friday, 27 July 2007

Gloucester floods

I'm very touched by the sheer quantity of emails, text messages and Facebook posts from friends across the UK expressing concern following the recent severe flooding in Gloucester. Even people I haven't spoken to in months or years have been getting in contact to ask if I'm OK. Some people who haven't even been to Gloucester have been asking after me, and after my Gloucestrian friends and colleagues, and offering all sorts of help. Even friends and acquaintances from Gloucester itself have been getting in touch to ensure I'm OK. I am extremely grateful for each and every message of support.

The truth is, I've had it very easy indeed compared to the vast majority of people in this city. My house is some twenty metres above the level of the Severn with only very small feeder streams anywhere nearby. I've spent most of the week putting on weight in a guesthouse in Sussex (it's a combination of the fried breakfasts and the expense account that does it) and enjoying the hot shower there. As a result of this cowardly exodus, much of the rest of this text is based on second-hand information.

I've arrived back this Friday evening to discover that I still have running water. To all intents and purposes, then, I haven't had any interruption to my water supply at all. I'm extremely perplexed by this state of affairs, as the next roads to the east, south and west are all still being supplied from bowsers in the streets, and Churchdown, the next village to the north, is ditto. I can only assume, until I'm told to the contrary, that Severn Trent have managed to fill a local reservoir (Chosen Hill?) with non-potable water. This is in direct contradiction with their own website, which has me right in the middle of the drought zone. It's all rather mysterious. Severn Trent's press release says that the temporary measure in place in Tewkesbury cannot be expected to supply the majority of the 130,000 affected homes across north Gloucestershire - and I'm nowhere near Tewkesbury.

This text was supposed to be a photo-journal of the current situation, but after two hours of motorcycling around Gloucester and Cheltenham this evening, I honestly couldn't find anything that was worth snapping. If you've seen one roadside water tank that looks like a large blue plastic Dalek, well, then you've seen them all.

The weather here right now is fine, although heavy rain is expected over the weekend once more. The roads are certainly dry, apart from a couple of places outside of town where small streams are draining from fields. Apart from the bowsers all over the place, and the occasional person wandering around with a couple of buckets trying to find a full one, you'd be hard pressed to identify anything wrong. Gloucester Festival is currently in full swing, and although it's muddy in the fairground in Gloucester Park, it's nothing out of the ordinary.

Look more closely and there are a few other clues. Many businesses, especially pubs and restaurants, have closed their doors. Others (including my own place of work, but also several pubs that I passed) have hired in portable toilets. In one outlying village, a particularly thoughtful parish council has hired in toilets for the use of the villagers. But many places are, somehow, just getting on with it. Plenty of local hostelries have that tell-tale gaggle of smokers outside their front doors, indicating business as usual.

The situation unfolded like this.

Last Friday afternoon, the weather was so spectacularly inclement that many colleagues opted to leave early in order to get home. This turned out to be a very good idea. My team, being highly conscientious employees, stayed until the usual finishing up time - well, almost - before trying to depart, only to discover that every route north of Gloucester was blocked. The M5 was so badly congested that hundreds of people had to sleep in their cars overnight. Other routes, including the A40, A417 and A46, were closed due to flooding. Minor roads, including Churchdown Lane near to my home, had deep water collecting in dips and were impassable. The A38 on the west side of Gloucester was open, but unreachable from the east side. Initially, everyone thought that it would be best to get some dinner at the pub and try again later. With the rain continuing and traffic still not moving by late evening, however, P. and S. both sensibly decided to stay at my house overnight. L., meanwhile, was trapped at work, due to a deep torrent of water running down the road cutting her off from her own car (actually, T.'s car, which she'd borrowed for the day). She cracked open the wine and tried to make the best of it.

On Saturday, the weather was considerably better. Gloucester city centre was bustling and busy during the day, with no obvious signs of the weather beating it had received. However, it was on Saturday that the (possibly apocryphal) story emerged of an idiot who approached a bridge with a water depth marker reading just below seven feet. He carefully moved a line of cones out of the way of his car and proceeded into the floodwater, only to crash immediately into a completely submerged vehicle in his path. That the story has already taken on the status of urban legend is indicated by some of the embellishments that I've heard, including that, as he was pulled from his terminally-damaged and now submarine vehicle, he tried to fend off his rescuer with the words, "Never mind me - what about my car?"

By Sunday, the extent of the devastation was becoming clear. The beautiful market town of Tewkesbury was almost completely submerged. H. in Quedgeley and R. in Tuffley, in the southern parts of Gloucester, reported that power and water had been cut. There were angry scenes at supermarkets across the city as fights over bottled water began to break out. People began to fill their baths and whatever vessels they could find with the last of the mains supply.

On Monday, businesses were trying to establish how they could function effectively without a fresh water supply. Bowsers started to be deployed, although Severn Trent was finding it difficult to keep them filled: their tankers were too large to fit into the residential roads where they were sited.

It was at this point that yours truly, having filled a very nice collection of old wine and beer bottles with drinking water, decided that the best course of action was to run away for the week.

A. reports that on Tuesday, although most people had their power restored, there were still queues panic-buying water at supermarkets. At Morrisons in Abbeydale, customers near the front of the queue were loading their trolleys with all the water they could physically carry, then selling the bottles to people further back in the queue at a markup of 500%. This is probably not what is being described as the "Blitz spirit". One "entrepreneur" attempting to sell water from the back of a van was reportedly hounded out of Gloucester by an angry, violent mob.

On Wednesday, news reports and some personal anecdotes indicated that there was some vandalism of water bowsers. Furthermore, A. reports, some local youths were deliberately draining all of the water out of bowsers as soon as they were filled. The BBC reported that one idiot had broken the seal on the top of a bowser and urinated into it. Both these tales make it into the list of the week's most depressing stories (along with the tragic case of the man shot dead for asking people not to smoke) that prove once and for all that mankind is doomed.

On Thursday, the police were handing out bottles of water to passing motorists. This seems to me to be a bizarre policy. After all, driving along in a private motor car is one of the times when one would not expect to have access to fresh drinking water. One might have assumed that the police had better things to do, and that fresh drinking water would better be targetted at the elderly, the infirm, and the housebound.

This brings us up to date. By Friday, things are evidently considerably more organised. Supermarkets have larger water tanks, while the vans of local companies are supplementing those hired by Severn Trent to keep bowsers filled. The bowsers are mainly blue plastic, standing on their own moulded plastic base or mounted on a trailer. Some are older metal tanks, on loan from other water companies. Larger containers are either the Dalek-shaped ones previously alluded to, or are mounted within a metal frame with reflective strips. Many have pieces of paper attached reading "WATER", although only a few bother to add "BOIL BEFORE USE".

There are bowsers at intervals along major roads. Groups of smaller roads have their own bowsers at a suitable junction. Severn Trent is maintaining a list of their locations. Some are sited in peculiar places, such as one on Abbeymead Avenue, away from any of the junctions with residential streets.

Despite the reports of vandalism, there is not much in the way of an obvious police presence at most. One bowser on Bristol Road had a couple of PCSOs standing nearby when I passed, but they appeared merely to be chatting amiably to the man filling his bottle. In fact, the only possible sign I saw of any disturbance was at the former B&Q on Trier Way. Being a large disused car park central in the city, several large tanks are sited here and there was a significant police presence, although even here, the officers seemed mainly to be managing the traffic rather than dealing with any unpleasantness.

So that's that: it's not the apocalypse, although it might well seem like it to those who live near to the Severn or Avon at Tewkesbury. There are plenty of stories of quiet heroism (although the best one - the rescue of 150 cats and dogs - actually occurred during the last round of flooding in June) and many stories of barely credible stupidity and quite spectacular selfishness.

Update 30/07/2007: Today's news about flooding in China puts the entire disaster into perspective. 119 million people affected, 450,000 homes destroyed, 650 dead.

Fascinating fact of the day. The word "bowser" is defined both by Chambers and by as referring exclusively to portable containers for fuel, not water.

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