Wet weather causes havoc across Britain

Leaves thousands without drinking water; officials say some rivers have yet to peak.

england 88 (photo credit: )
england 88
(photo credit: )
Emergency workers battled rising waters Monday to rescue people trapped by floods that swallowed large swaths of central England. Roads were submerged, and tens of thousands of people were left without electricity and drinking water. Torrential rains have plagued Britain over the past month - nearly 5 inches (12 centimeters) fell in some areas on Friday alone - and more downpours were expected until at least Tuesday. Officials said some rivers had yet to peak, and warned that the western section of the River Thames _ some 80 miles (128 kilometers) from London - was in danger of bursting its banks. London itself is protected by a series of flood defense measures including the Jubilee River, a 7-mile-long (12-kilometer-long) flood diversion channel. "People look at me and say I look fine, but inside I'm all churned up," said Sylvia Williams, a 69-year-old widow who was among about 50 elderly people evacuated to a stadium from a retirement community overlooking the River Ock on the outskirts of Oxford, 60 miles (100 kilometers) west of London. The stadium was stocked with blankets, food and bedding for up to 1,500 people in case the Thames burst its banks. Flood defenses in the center of Oxford - home to the renowned 800-year-old university - were holding so far, but Thames water levels in the city were not expected to peak until midnight (2300 GMT), the Environment Agency said. The worst-hit areas Monday were farther west, where cars were submerged and streets turned into canals. Thousands of people were forced to leave their homes and businesses. The Ministry of Defense said military helicopters had rescued more than 120 people from the rising floodwaters, including 87 people trapped in a trailer park in Gloucestershire county, central England. The Severn Trent Water company said at least 350,000 homes in Gloucestershire would be without water after flood waters shut down a water treatment plant. Some residents lined up for free water at local grocery stores. Others waited for water trucks to distribute water. Among the hardest hit areas was the medieval market town of Tewkesbury, 110 miles (180 kilometers) northwest of London, where the cathedral and a few blocks of nearby houses stood like an atoll amid a vast stretch of muddy water that measured 5 feet (1.5 meters) deep in places. "It was just devastation - total chaos, cars floating past, rubbish, all kinds," said John King, a 68-year-old retired fire fighter from Tewkesbury. "You just can't stop water of that power." The Ministry of Defense said water was being cleared after flooding at a nuclear weapons-manufacturing site at Burghfield, about 40 miles (60 kilometers) west of London. Officials said there was no risk of a radiation leak. No deaths or serious injuries have been reported in the floods. The last time Britain saw similar flooding was in 1947, according to the Environment Agency. "This emergency is far from over, and further flooding is extremely likely," Environment Secretary Hilary Benn told legislators. Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced increased funding for flood and coastal defenses across the country during a tour of the flooded Gloucestershire region. Much of Britain's infrastructure dates back to Victorian times. "It is pretty clear that some of the 19th century structures and infrastructure and where they were sited is something we will have to review," said Brown, who succeeded Tony Blair as prime minister less than a month ago. The monsoon-like rainfall over the past month has severely affected transport and threatened water supplies. Insurance companies said the damage from flooding in June and July could reach hundreds of millions of pounds (euros, dollars). Meteorologists said water levels were expected to peak Tuesday or Wednesday, meaning further water and electricity shortages are likely. "The situation is looking critical at the moment," Environment Agency spokesman Joe Giacomelli said. "Unfortunately the misery is set to continue." The weather facing Britain is consistent with conditions caused by the La Nina weather system, which is caused by cooling ocean waters and leads to extreme weather, Britain's Met Office said. However, scientists said there was no clear explanation for the unusually long spell of wet weather. Climate change may be culprit, said Tim Evans of the Chartered Institution of Water and Environment Management, adding that the situation matched predictions of how global warning would affect Britain. Britain had one of its hottest and driest summers on record last year. "What we now think of as extreme events will occur more often than in the past, and the extremes will get more extreme," Evans said.