EGHAM, England – The first thing Sandra Slark noticed when she returned to her flooded bungalow was the smell of raw sewage that had seeped into her now squishy carpets. Her bright blue eyes welled up.
“It’s okay to cry,” said Mary Dhonau, a flood expert affectionately called “Mary, Queen of Floods.” On a recent day she was volunteering in this small town about 20 miles west of London, offering Slark and others advice on everything from how to prepare insurance claims (photograph everything) to how to salvage wet documents (freeze them).
Britain has been ravaged by rain, and as Operation Cleanup commences, many people are displaying a kind of resilient Blitz spirit. Britons are known for pulling together in difficult times and in some ways are at their very best when things are at their very worst.
Which is a good thing, since the United Kingdom has had its wettest winter since record-keeping began in 1910. Linked to the extreme weather battering the United States, storms and gale-force winds have repeatedly lashed this island nation, turning entire villages into their own islands and leaving large swathes of the countryside underwater.
The flooding has receded in many areas, but rivers are still swollen, groundwater levels are still rising and the challenges for the 5,800 households that have been flooded are far from over.
Although there have been reports of fights breaking out over sandbags and residents refusing to come out of their homes for fear of looting, for the most part, the extreme weather appears to have unified a sodden British public.
The Sunday Telegraph dubbed it: “A Very English Apocalypse.”
Tales abound of Britons quietly helping one another out.
Take, for instance, the two farmers who hopped into their tractors and drove more than 200 miles to deliver animal feed and other supplies to flood-hit farmers in the south.
Or Prince William and Prince Harry, who turned up in a village a few miles from here in rubber boots to help shift sandbags. They tried to discreetly pitch in, but the media soon got wind of their presence. At one point, Prince William asked a reporter to “put your notebook down” and help out. The reporter offered to assist but was then told that his clothing was inappropriate.
Commentators say this is basically how Brits react in a crisis: People who otherwise would not speak to each other suddenly pull together in difficult times.
“We’re not yet at the food-rationing stage, but there’s definitely great community spirit,” said Slark, 50, a mother of three who is spending her days delivering food to those in greater need.
“We are stoical, aren’t we? Yes, my garden was turned into a swimming pool in 12 hours, but you just deal with it. What can I do? It’s water, it’s natural, we just have to do the best we can and carry on,” said Sharon Knowles, 44, a finance officer who earlier in the day baked a strawberry crumble cake and brought it to her local pub.
The bonhomie does not appear to extend to politicians, whom angry flood victims have heckled for their lack of preparedness and overall slow response to the crisis. A poll this week found that 63 percent of Britons think the government is emerging from the weather crisis with a worse reputation for crisis management.
For his part, British Prime Minister David Cameron is embarking on a whirlwind tour of areas affected by the flooding to “learn all the lessons.”
Natural disasters can make or break political careers, and Cameron has been regularly popping up on television wearing rubber boots and pledging help for flood victims.
Cameron has said that “money is no object” in the relief effort — a pledge quickly clarified to mean that households can apply for grants of up to 5,000 pounds ($8,300).
But many also are relying on the generosity of neighbors — people like Dhonau, 48, who runs a flood consultancy but has mostly been volunteering her time. She has crisscrossed the country offering guidance based on her own experiences — she has been flooded 12 times.
“It’s the kind of thing the British are renowned for, really, this spirit,” she said.
In this town, a church is filled with donated bags of clothes; a school is being used as a flood recovery center; a nearby hotel is the new office of a doctor whose practice was flooded.
In Staines, a town a few miles away, Becky Brooks, 41, has transformed her pub into a kind of hub for the relief effort, with locals picking up and dropping off sandbags, wheelbarrows, water pumps and flashlights.
“It’s the Blitz spirit, isn’t it?” said Brooks, pouring a pint of bitter while accepting a 20 pound note from a patron who said, “Keep the change,” and nodded at the flood donation box sitting on the bar.