Floods clear-up is hampered as Scotland and North are battered by 100mph winds

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Storm force winds hit the stricken city of Carlisle in Cumbria last night, hampering its attempts to mop up from floods that have left three people dead and thousands homeless.

Storm force winds hit the stricken city of Carlisle in Cumbria last night, hampering its attempts to mop up from floods that have left three people dead and thousands homeless.

The winds returned to the city as emergency services urged residents who had gone back to their homes not to remove debris such as carpets, which could have soaked up contaminated water. Elsewhere in Cumbria, forecasts of 70mph winds forced managers at BNFL's Sellafield nuclear plant to send home all non-essential staff until Thursday.

Some of the worst of last night's weather was expected in Northern Ireland, where a driver was feared dead after his lorry was blown off a bridge by gale-force winds. The lorry toppled off the Foyle Bridge in Londonderry, on to the banks of the river below. A second lorry was also blown on to its side as it crossed the Faughan Bridge on the outskirts of the town.

In Scotland, Inverness was braced for 90mph winds and 8 centimetres (3 inches) of rain with the river Ness precariously close to bursting its banks, while the river Tay overflowed its banks at Dunkeld, Perthshire. Shipping in the north Atlantic was warned to expect wind scale 12 hurricane conditions.

South of the border, 6,000 homes in Carlisle and 4,500 in north Cumbria remained without power yesterday after 22 cms inches of rain fell in a 36-hour period, causing the river Eden to burst its banks in the worst floods to hit the city since 1822.

Police warned homeowners in Carlisle not to return to flood-damaged properties because of contaminated water and damaged electrical cabling, while the city council urged residents, who had returned to their homes, not to remove debris which could have soaked up water and become contaminated by sewage, diesel and petrol. The council is arranging for the collection of such rubbish.

Two of the three people to have died in the floods in Carlisle were Margaret Threlkeld, 79, and Margaret Porter, 85, neither of whom was able to summon help as the water engulfed them. The third victim Michael Scott, 63, died when the wall of a barn was blown on to his caravan on Saturday.

In the Northumberland market town of Hexham - 35 miles east of Carlisle - engineers have working to tackle a water crisis caused by the destruction of two mains pipes to the town, which left 10,000 homes without running water for a fourth day.

Northumbrian Water said repairs to the two mains should be completed by today, with services gradually restored to up to 10,000 homes. But huge amounts of outstanding work - including reservoir refilling, sanitation and quality checks on water supplies - mean some customers would have to wait until the weekend.

Bowsers have been positioned across the town so locals may obtain water for flushing toilets, and bottled water is being distributed from the local high school. Filling his bucket at a bowser, Timothy Tatman, 64, said he had "nothing to cook with, clean with or drink," which was making life difficult. "I'm a bit fed up, but I think the people in Carlisle have had it worse," he said.

In the House of Commons yesterday, the Environment minister, Elliot Morley, said proposals were being developed for a review of the flood warning system and a new Environment Agency flood defence scheme for Carlisle, where insurance claims may now top £50m. "[But] there is always a risk that truly exceptional storms and rainfall, such as occurred at the weekend, will strike somewhere," he said.

Northumberland County Council is considering revising its defence systems to cope with evidence of climate change. One plan is to use a locally funded flood levy to buy farmland on the flood plain and return it to its wetland state. Another is to install CCTV cameras near culverts to provide better early warning systems.

Four flood warnings were in place in England and Wales last night, together with 40 flood watches. The Scottish Environment Protection Agency issued 12 flood warnings and 18 flood watches.

The bad weather prevented West Yorkshire Police from resuming their search for a missing man in the river Aire near Bradford. Police in Scotland are still searching for Andrew MacDonald, 42, of Forres, who may have been swept away in the river Findhorn on Saturday morning. In Wales, about 50 properties in the Conwy Valley, Llanrwst and Trefriw areas have been flooded.

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