UK weather: Respite at last, but five left dead in storm's wake

A pregnant woman and a minicab driver are among those killed in freak conditions

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Britain is set to enjoy some respite from the storms which battered the country, killing four people and an unborn baby, and power cuts affecting nearly a million homes. Despite forecasts of better weather conditions in coming days, the Environment Agency (EA) warned people yesterday “to remain vigilant” as groundwater levels remained high enough to cause floods if only a little rain falls across much of southern England. Last night, 16 severe flood warnings where lives are at risk remained in force.

Visiting flood-stricken Chertsey in Surrey yesterday, the Prime Minister, David Cameron, said action over the next 24 hours would be “vital, because tragically, the river levels will rise again”. He later chaired the latest Cobra meeting, the Government’s flooding emergency response committee, in Downing Street.

As officials met, evidence emerged of the power of the extreme weather that hit the UK on Friday. A massive freak wave hit the 22,000-ton passenger liner MS Marco Polo, killing an 85-year-old man and injuring 15 others, including a woman in her seventies who was airlifted to a hospital in France. The wave smashed the windows of the dining room, seven decks above sea level, leaving several of the 800 passengers, many of them elderly, “bloody” and “screaming”. Passenger Michael Israel, 82, of Finchley, north London, said he “did a somersault through the air and landed on people” when the wave hit.

“Quite a lot of people have broken bones. An awful lot of people got badly cut. The entrance way to the medics centre was very messy with blood,” he said. “The dining room was definitely the worst. At least two windows broke, and a lot of people were injured with flying glass and one man died instantly with a shard of glass in his head.” Mr Israel, on the cruise with his wife June, 76, said he had heard from crew members that the captain “did try to make port in both Falmouth and Cherbourg when it was getting rough”. His wife said they had been warned to sit on the floor just before the wave hit. “The dining room was in chaos. People had panicked and were screaming. Passengers were bloody and crawling towards the stairs,” she said.

 

On land, a 20-year-old pregnant woman was fatally injured when two cars collided on the A465 in Gwent at 11pm on Friday in high winds and heavy rain. She was taken to hospital but both she and the child died.

In London, a minicab driver died when masonry from a building in Holborn fell on her car, killing her and injuring three other people. Police later named her as Julie Sillitoe, 49, of north London. Police said she was married with three grown-up sons. Police said yesterday that a 77-year-old man from Caernarfon, north Wales, who was hit by a falling tree on Wednesday, had died in hospital.

Such was the power of the storm that when beach pebbles picked up by waves pelted the Marine Café at Milford on Sea, near Lymington, Hampshire, smashing windows and threatening the 32 people inside, people said it was “almost like [the stones] were being shot from a rifle”. Windscreens of fire engines and army trucks were also smashed.

Winds, which hit 80mph in places, downed many trees across south and central England and parts of Wales, taking out power lines and blocking roads and railway lines. Energy Networks, which represents the electricity and gas distribution industry, said more than 80,000 customers were without power yesterday, taking the total number affected last week to about 930,000.

In Barry, South Wales, 16 flats were evacuated at 1am yesterday after the building’s roof was blown off. In Hemel Hempstead, residents of 17 homes were evacuated after a sinkhole 35 feet wide and 20 feet deep appeared. Dr Vanessa Banks of the British Geological Survey said sinkholes can be caused when rain, which is acidic, dissolves soluble rock such as chalk and limestone. The most dramatic collapses happen when such rock is covered by clay as this allows the cavity to “grow quite large before suddenly collapsing”.

The sea forced its way on to land along parts of the south coast, flooding shops and houses on the Isle of Wight and Cornwall, among other places. Experts insist the Somerset Levels and Moors and Thames and Severn valleys are expected to remain affected by flooding for some time.

The Wheatsheaf and Pigeon pub in Staines-upon-Thames has become something of a focal point for the battle against the floods, with people bringing donations of food, clothing and sand, which volunteers have been using to fill bags provided by the council.

Charles Powell, a Met Office meteorologist, said the forecast until Wednesday provided a source for hope, with a “bit of sunshine” and some “quite pleasant” weather. There would still be some rain, just not “hours and hours” of it. “We’re starting to see a bit of a change in the pattern of weather,” he said.

But Paul Leinster, chief executive of the EA, warned: “Despite an improving forecast, the risk of flooding will continue for many communities in southern parts of England over the next few days. We ask people to remain vigilant and take action where necessary.”

Amid the continuing row over whether officials or politicians could have done more to prevent the flooding, Lord Smith, the beleaguered EA chairman, said yesterday that “no one could have predicted … quite such a conveyor belt of storms coming in over the course of a two-and-a-half-month period … a whole series of completely exceptional weather events”. Speaking on LBC Radio, the former Labour cabinet minister said plans to cut 1,500 EA staff had been “put on hold”. Lord Smith said extra government money pledged would help to repair battered flood defences. He said there would then need to be “a serious look as a country at how we prepare ourselves for that and how we build our flood defences”.

Crazy paving

Front gardens equal in area to 100 Hyde Parks have been paved over in the space of 20 years, contributing to an "urban creep" that is seen by experts as a major factor behind the current flooding crisis.

A study by the RAC from 2012 found that the front plots of seven million homes were paved between 1991 and 2011, a rise from 16 per cent of all front gardens to 30 per cent. A separate report, by the adaptation sub-committee of the Committee on Climate Change, from 2012 found that the proportion of urban gardens – including front and back plots – that were paved over increased from 28 per cent to 48 per cent within just 10 years, between 2001 and 2011.

A third report, for the London Wildlife Trust, found that hard surfacing on gardens in the capital increased by 25 per cent over a 100-month period, the equivalent of two and a half Hyde Parks. The data is the latest available, but the London Wildlife Trust said that the situation would be getting worse as development pressure increases in the city.

Householders have needed planning permission since 2009 to pave over their front gardens, but there is no such restriction on back gardens. However, the scale of "urban creep" across the country shows that councils have been granting permission. Environmentalists point to countries such as the Netherlands, where despite large areas being below sea level, water has been accommodated through "sustainable drainage systems" such as city-centre water plazas and "blue corridors", where water is directed away from homes and is sympathetic to nature.

Television gardener Alan Titchmarsh last week denied that he and fellow horticulturalists and landscapers were responsible for the floods after Lord Krebs, a leading scientist and former government adviser, said in an earlier report: "We need TV gardeners to tell people not to put down patios and decking and have a lawn instead."

Jane Merrick

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