Army wages war to save Selby from the rampant Ouse

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The Independent Online

A ragged line of soldiers in splattered uniforms struggled in a two-mile wide sea of sandbags, mud and water, as military aircraft clattered overhead.

A ragged line of soldiers in splattered uniforms struggled in a two-mile wide sea of sandbags, mud and water, as military aircraft clattered overhead.

It was a scene reminiscent of a Vietnam battlefield as depicted by Hollywood, or the mud-clogged wasteland of the Somme in World War 1, but this was yesterday in Selby, North Yorkshire - a town at war against the River Ouse.

Two RAF chinook helicopters spent 12 hours airlifting 10,000 sandbags to 800 troops working to reinforce the banks of the river, as the Environment Agency warned that the town stands on the brink of "unprecedented" flooding.

From the air, Selby and the adjoining evacuated village of Barlby were islands in pale-brown waters sloshing over more than 40 square miles of farmland, properties and roads.

By 11am yesterday, all that stood between the town, 11 miles south of York, and a river carrying 1,000 cubic tonnes of water per second - four times its normal rate - was a 16-feet wide system of earthworks.

The Environment Agency confirmed it was racing against time to shore up the defences with the help of the army, ahead of a series of rising spring tides, which could force the descending river over the banks during the next five days.

Evacuation plans were last night being drawn up for hundreds of homes in Selby, as emergency planners studied contour maps to identify areas at risk during today's high tides, which were predicted to reach 21 feet - the exact height of the defences.

Craig McGarvey, area manager for the Environment Agency, said: "We are now dealing with the unknown. The river has reached a height and flow that is unprecedented and it could now cause flooding that is unprecedented if the defences are breached.

"Soldiers are continuing the sandbagging because that is what is keeping the water back during these high tides. But we have concerns that the defences on one side of the river may not hold."

Tidal experts predicted that rising tides in North Yorkshire would by Sunday night bring around 20 inches of extra water up the Ouse to Selby, where it will meet a river already swollen to breaking point by rainfall flowing down from York and the Pennines.

On a visit to Selby yesterday, Environment Agency chief executive Ed Gallagher warned that the £51m earmarked by the Government to deal with the effects of climate change nationally would not be enough.

He said: "We will report to the Government in December what we feel needs to be done and I can say already we will be needing tens of millions of pounds more than has already been offered.

"We are reaping the benefits of under-investment and neglect of flood defences during the 1990s, when what we were worrying about were droughts and filling reservoirs."

Elsewhere, the floods continued to cause chaos. Railtrack reported that many services were badly affected, with all trains into Derby cancelled and only one of the five lines into Nottingham open.

Routes into London from Brighton and Sheffield were disrupted by flooding, and further damage to tracks in Doncaster caused the disruption of services between Edinburgh and the capital. Services from the north terminate at Newcastle, with no buses between Newcastle and Doncaster.

Two inshore lifeboats from Kinnel Bay, near Rhyl, were dispatched to Burton-on-Trent, which suffered bad flooding.

A pleasure boat was trapped under a bridge by rising waters on the Medway River in Kent.