Analysis: How the floods are driving community involvement

Unprecedented flooding in parts of England and Wales has led to a complex response involving government, local authorities, the fire services, the military and, of course, charities and volunteers. Andy Hillier visits Chertsey in Surrey

Volunteer James Wilson uses his canoe to transport supplies to residents
Volunteer James Wilson uses his canoe to transport supplies to residents

A trail of sand leading to the church hall provides the first hint that something out of the ordinary has been happening at St Peter's Shared Church in Chertsey, Surrey.

At the height of the recent flooding, it became a support centre where hundreds of local people and groups from further afield came to fill sandbags, provide refreshments and sort emergency donations.

Brian Perry, a retired research scientist who helps to run a number of local community groups, is among the volunteers. "I've been helping to fill sandbags," he says. "I've also been packaging up the donations on pallets. The community has really pulled together. Lots of supplies have been donated and various groups have lent their support, from the spiritualist movement the Sant Nirankari Mission to the Surrey 4x4 Response."

Just as we leave the church, there's another small example of what's going on: two tradesmen and their children pull up in their white van, asking if they can transport any of the donated goods. One of the volunteers thanks them but says that the army is on its way with a lorry.

What's perhaps most surprising is that much of the coordination appears to be done by residents themselves. Agencies including the fire service, the army, the police and the Environment Agency are visible on the streets, mainly involved in the effort to hold back the flood water and keep residents safe, but in the support centres at St Peter's and down the road at the Surrey Army Cadet Force headquarters, a handful of local residents is orchestrating the collection and distribution of food, sandbags and other supplies and offering emotional support.

Tina Jeacock (right) who has four children, says that the lack of support from local agencies has been a cause of frustration for some flood-hit residents such as her, and has forced local people to take matters into their own hands. Her rear garden backs on to a stream and has been totally submerged since Christmas. In recent weeks, raw sewage has bubbled up from the drains, leaving her family having to walk over it - not to mention the occasional dead eel.

She says that most, but not all, of her neighbours have rallied round: "Some people on the street have refused to get involved and not everyone in the community has been united. On our road we have some neighbours who don't get on, and it has probably made tensions worse."

Jeacock has been volunteering at the support centre since receiving a text message from her children's school saying that St Peter's was looking for people: "I've been working from about 10am until 5pm, looking after children and filling sandbags, and I've been out with the emergency services to check on older people. It has made me want to get more involved in the community."

The volunteer response hasn't come only from local people. Sarah Sproston has travelled up from Cornwall after receiving a request for help from her friend Heart Doe; James Wilson, a 19-year-old magician and keen canoeist, has travelled down from High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire to help, using his canoe to transport supplies to residents in areas where the flood water is at its deepest, as well as doing other tasks such as making tea and filling sandbags.

"A lot of my work is seasonal, which gives me the chance to do lots of different things," he says. "I had time on my hands, so I thought it would be a good thing to do. I put out an alert on social media saying that I had a canoe and could bring it down to where it was needed most."

It's not just flood victims who have benefited from the local effort. At Chertsey Fire Station, volunteers from the Royal Voluntary Service, the Surrey Fire Volunteer Service and the Plymouth Brethren Christian Church have been cooking up to 450 meals a day for members of the emergency services. Andrew Hart (right), assistant volunteer manager at Surrey Fire and Rescue, says it has been overwhelmed by the generosity of local people. Charities including the RSPCA, Surrey 4x4 and the British Red Cross have also been helping, he says.

"You can't fault the effort," he says. "We've had local butchers donating food and people bringing in cakes and other supplies. It has been nice to see this charitable spirit. The last time I can recall anything similar happening was during the great storm of 1987."

In the neighbouring town of Addlestone, the Salvation Army church hall has been converted into a temporary storage space for an estimated 2.5 tonnes of donated goods. Ian Loxley, church leader for the hall, says that he contacted Runnymede Borough Council to offer help. "Fortunately, we'd decided not to run a holiday scheme over half term, so we were able to offer the space for the week," he says.

About 30 volunteers have been receiving and sorting goods at the hall and the church's van has been used to distribute them. "When we have visited people's homes we've had quite a few say that they don't need any supplies," says Loxley. "But they say the fact that we've taken the trouble to call meant a huge amount to them."

He says most of the goods being collected won't get distributed until water levels have dropped and people have started returning to their homes. It's only then that the Salvation Army volunteers will start to see the real benefits of their efforts.

Some residents have been critical of the response by the local council and other agencies, saying that people have been largely obliged to fend for themselves. But Loxley is not willing to criticise. "The most visible response has been that of the local people," he says. "The police, fire service and military have also had a strong presence, but that's not to say that local government hasn't been involved. What has happened is unprecedented and there will be lessons to learn."

Loxley believes the event has also brought some good, and he points out that groups from all faiths have supported the relief effort: "We've had a group of Tamils from Harrow come to support us. Local Muslim and Sikh groups have been involved locally as well. The area tends to be white and middle class, so that has been an eye-opener for some."

He concludes that it's important for people to stay involved once the flooding subsides: "The real work starts when the flooding goes off the news. It's going to be years before some people get back to normal."

Runnymede responds

Some Chertsey residents and volunteers have been disappointed by the support provided by local agencies, particularly Runnymede Council, the local borough council. But a spokeswoman for the council says it has been working hard to prepare for and respond to the floods.

"There has been a multi-agency response and we have been able to use the resources from Surrey Fire and Rescue, Surrey Police, Surrey County Council, the military, the Environment Agency and many other agencies to help us to get help and the right information out to our residents," she says.

"Staff have been distributing information leaflets with key contact numbers to those worst affected, which is now a wide area of 2,500 homes, and have delivered thousands of sandbags to affected residents."

She says the council has been providing round-the-clock cover for a number of key services. It has also provided a rest centre, free transport and temporary accommodation where necessary. Arrangements have been made to keep vulnerable people in affected areas, and residents who have refused to leave their homes are being monitored.

- Find out what charities have been doing to help communities affected by the floods

- Read our interview with music promoter turned flood relief co-ordinator, Heart Doe

- Third Sector editor Stephen Cook says community action needs help to survive when there are no droughts, floods or national emergencies

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