Flood warning sign in Tipton St John

The 2023 Flash Floods of Tipton St John

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Tipton St John is a small but beautifully formed East Devon village that lies within the parish of Ottery St Mary. It has a population of around 350 people, a few sheep, a drove of donkeys and the odd horse or two. It is also home to Word Forest’s UK HQ.

Simon and I are a little more used to dealing with news of floods in rural Kenya,  hearing about subsequent mass human displacement of tens of thousands of people, as happened in 2018, the effects of which were still being felt 12 months later. Yesterday, however, it was Tipton’s turn.

The Day the Rains Came

On Tuesday 9th May, Tipton St John, neighbouring village Newton Poppleford and the small seaside town of Sidmouth endured a serious and consistent downpouring of rain and hail over a period of about 5 hours. The deluge was so severe, it resulted in nearby streams and the River Otter itself (which runs right through the centre of Tipton) bursting their banks. Additionally, a pond up at the old quarry site nearby overflowed too, sending a cascade of water hurtling downhill into the centre of Tipton St John.

Flash flooding occurred in the early afternoon, almost too quickly for people to respond to in a constructive way, but best endeavours were made nonetheless. The flooding was very localised and the devastating effects of the surge were all encompassing.

Video by Tracey West, Word Forest

We were expecting the storms. We had thunder, lightning, hailstones, a handful of brief electricity outages, but it’s safe to say most of us were caught on the hop by the severity of the precipitation. Our vicar at St John’s Church, Mark Ward, was in neighbouring West Hill, just 2 miles away and he was completely unaware of the devastation that was unfolding in his parish. 

Michelle Tessier, landlady of our local pub The Golden Lion, was featured on several channels of the national news. It definitely bore the brunt of the torrent and she described in terrifying detail watching the water ingress under the doors and as high as the windows. 

Some people were temporarily trapped in their cars in Exeter. Many septic tanks overflowed and residents were kindly asked to minimise water usage, although some said they didn’t imagine it could have made much of a difference really – everywhere was in such dire need of clean water and a good wash.

Image by Hermann Traub from Pixabay

The parish councillors distributed sandbags and encouraged people to collect empty sacks and fill them up with sand or garden soil in an effort to slow the tide. People were encouraged to go upstairs and take valuables with them where possible.

Think just for one moment what would you consider to be of great importance if you were in that position and there wasn’t a moment to lose?

By 6pm, the last of the children at Tipton St John Primary School had been picked up by worried parents. The Headmaster, Pete Button and his team, kept all the children safe. They crossed the water and stayed dry with grateful assistance from a local farmer and his flatbed trailer, and a fire truck.

Image by Simon West, Word Forest

Once the rain stopped, the community tentatively stepped outside to inspect the damage, many wanted to offer assistance to whoever needed a warm, dry place to stay, food, blankets and things of that ilk. Just a handful of days before, a great many of us had been at street parties and events in the surrounding fields, celebrating the coronation, none of us with a notion of what the weather had in store.

We bumped into neighbours, many of whom were dazed and incredibly grateful they had a dry home to go back to, but deeply sorry for others in the centre of the village who weren’t so lucky. They’d started shovelling out heavy silt, stones and goodness knows what else, lots of people asking if anyone had dehumidifiers they could borrow.

Logs, branches, rocks, huge slabs of tarmac and other debris littered the muddy roads, many of which had huge fissures running across them. At one point, the road looked like a piece of warped icing: the force of the water that must have thundered down that road must have been horrifying to see.

I was greatly relieved to see, despite the fact that the roadside poles had taken a real beating at some points, there were no power lines or live cables exposed – that doesn’t bear thinking about. There were, however, many verges that had clearly morphed into mudslides. Trees older than I am had exposed root systems and looked horribly volatile – I have a big worry that some of them will be felled as the land has taken such a battering. 

Video by Simon West, Word Forest

The last flood of note in Tipton happened some 20 years ago and the question on everyone’s lips is, could this happen again?

In short, yes.

For every 1 degree C of global heating our planet experiences, precipitation increases by 7% on average.1 We are entering a period where we’re undoubtedly going to have far more rain and snow, and a higher risk of flooding.

If we end up with a 2°C temperature increase, extreme rain events are expected to become 1.7 times more likely, and 14% more intense.

This article could go on and on about the consequences of our climate crisis, but here are a few bullet point lists to ponder.

Secondary Consequences of Flash Foods

  1. Loss of life and debilitation to humans, animals and wildlife
  2. Displacement and the associated challenges that come with it
  3. Damage to infrastructure and property
  4. Road closures
  5. Erosion and landslides
  6. Destruction of crops
  7. Deterioration of health conditions due to waterborne diseases 
  8. Disruption to business, loss of income
  9. Problems getting insurance cover or selling your home
  10. The psycho-social effects to flood victims is traumatising, especially to children

What Can We Do to Lessen the Impact of Flash Floods

  1. Work harder to protect our existing stocks of mature trees in the UK and around the world.
  2. Reforest Kenya ASAP, where trees grow up to 10 times faster than anywhere else on the planet.
  3. Get all businesses to recognise what their resource footprints are for CO2 and water etc, and get them to fund tree planting.
  4. Get businesses to understand it’s not just the current CO2 they’re emitting that needs to be drawn down and locked in, we need to tackle the historic stuff too
  5. Push for Net Zero and deforestation free supply chains now, not in 10 or 20 years time.

A climate emergency isn’t coming, it’s here.

The entire team at Word Forest are doing all we can to support the amazing communities who plant and take care of the trees that have the ability to grow 10 times faster than anywhere else on the planet.

Can we stop another Tipton St John flood? 


Can we mitigate against future deluges causing even more damage? 

Yes! And that’s what Word Forest exists for. It’s what we have to hold onto and act upon.

If you’d like to make a donation, click here and we’ll continue to reforest Kenya with fast growing, food and medicine bearing trees, that not only combat global heating head on, but reduce hunger, poverty, domestic violence, child marriages, early pregnancies and more.

It’s hard to believe that #TreesAreTheKey to so much more than reducing the effects of our climate emergency, but they really are. Take a look through our news feed and find out how your donation does so much more than get a sapling in the ground.

Until the next flood,

Tracey West and The Team

1. https://scied.ucar.edu/learning-zone/climate-change-impacts/predictions-future-global-climate.

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