As knots of bystanders gathered curiously around the closed-off roads, residents of 12 Georgian houses and a public house in imminent danger of collapse, to the east of the city centre, were evacuated.
Maureen Davis-Poynter and her husband Reg were given minutes to leave their 18th-century home, worth pounds 300,000. 'It's been standing there for more than 300 years and now it's in danger of being swamped by the silly little Lavant, which is usually more of a stream than a river,' she said.
Nick Jaeger, a fencing teacher, stood looking resignedly at his period house to which firemen had forbidden him entry. 'It was quite festive to start with but it's going a bit sour. It's obviously very serious,' he said. 'I don't know where me and my children will stay tonight.'
Schoolchildren, delighted that schools were closed by the disaster, raced through puddles on bicycles. Businesses also made the most of it. Fads was open for all rising damp needs and planned a special promotion on decorating equipment; Goodrowes, an outdoor clothing store, had sold out of wellington boots and was doing a brisk trade in sandbags.
The Lavant is a winterbourn - an intermittent seasonal stream - flowing a few miles down the southern slopes of the South Downs into Chichester harbour during the winter months. It had not flowed for the previous three winters owing to a dearth of rain and depressed water levels in the chalk.
It has long run beneath the city centre, in places only large enough for an adult to crawl through on hands and knees. But after more than a week of unremitting heavy rain - with more on the way - this culvert has become a pinch-point, with a huge weight of water backing up behind it. The water table in the downs north of the city is at its highest level since 1852.
Firemen are pumping millions of gallons a day through one and a half miles of 6in pipe. Large areas of countryside east of the town are flooded, as are parts of some villages. Sections of two roads, the A259 Bognor Road and a stretch of the A27 by- pass which has just opened, are also under water. The Royal Engineers may build temporary bridges over them.
There is more heavy rain forecast today. The city may remain under threat for several days, if not weeks.Reuse content