3,000 homes evacuated in York

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The Independent Online

More than 5,000 residents were evacuated from the centre of York last night after the River Ouse reached its highest levels for a century and overwhelmed its flood defences.

More than 5,000 residents were evacuated from the centre of York last night after the River Ouse reached its highest levels for a century and overwhelmed its flood defences.

After several days of torrential rain in Yorkshire, the Ouse began late yesterday afternoon to overflow the lowest points in the city's flood defences, which were built after the city's last major flood in 1978.

The Environment Agency predicted the river would rise by 17ft 5in overnight, with the peak expected at 5.45am, putting the highest points of the flood defence system at severe risk. By yesterday morning, an inch of rain fell in Yorkshire in less than a day.

As the crisis worsened rapidly last night, city authorities began to evacuate up to 3,000 homes in the worst-affected areas. Residents were taken to makeshift evacuation centres, or sent to friends and relatives.

A York city council spokeswoman said the army and council workers were rushing to build up the flood walls with sandbags where the flood walls were at their lowest. "We estimate that 5,000 to 6,000 people are being affected," she said.

She advised people to "prepare for the worst" last night. "There has been little rain in the city today but torrential rain which fell overnight in Yorkshire has gone straight into the river, as the ground is so saturated - and this has now come down into York, exacerbating an already very serious situation."

The crisis is a severe shock to the city council and the Government, which spent £10m after the last great flood in 1978 on defences as high as 17ft 10in along the river's banks.

In the South-west, Tewkesbury and Gloucester were also included in the Environment Agency's severe flood warning for the River Severn: flooding now stretches up to 50 miles along the river. The Severn was last night 14ft higher than normal - its highest for 50 years.

It came as the Meteorological Office renewed its warning that a band of heavy rain and gale-force winds would hit the South-west tomorrow evening, and begin working eastwards and northwards. It is expected to affect flood levels in the north most severely.

By yesterday evening, the Environment Agency had issued 13 severe flood warnings across the South-west, Wales and Yorkshire. As forecasters reinforced their severe weather warnings, hundreds of Bonfire Night events, including a centuries-old barrel-rolling race in Devon, were cancelled.

Yesterday's fresh bout of flooding will greatly increase pressure for a major re-evaluation of existing defences all over the country: only £397m has been dedicated to flood projects, including sea defences and anti-erosion projects.

Yesterday, the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, said he would spend this weekend personally studying the damage caused by the last two bouts of flooding. He would look at possible solutions and money he could use to improve defences.

He added that he also wanted the insurance industry, which has threatened to review its policies towards flood-prone homeowners, to take part in discussions. "We really need to involve [central] Government, local government and insurance companies in making a proper assessment," he said.

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