Beware the tides of March as violent storms lead to ninety flood warnings

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The Independent Online

Britain was left to clear up the damage caused by the 80mph winds that whipped across much of southern England and Wales yesterday, with forecasters predicting more gales to come.

Insurers say the cost of the storm – the worst this winter in southern England – could run into hundreds of millions of pounds after homes and businesses were flooded, trees and power lines brought down and road, rail and air travel widely disrupted as storm and hurricane-force winds moved in from the Atlantic.

Wales and the West Country bore the brunt of the bad weather, where as many as 7,000 homes were without electricity after falling trees brought down into power lines. The strongest winds, 82 mph, were recorded at Berry Head in Brixham, Devon. The Kent and Sussex coasts were also hit badly. Scotland and the North-east of England also had to contend with snow.

By yesterday evening, there were still almost 90 flood warnings or watches in place, with fierce weather conditions predicted to return overnight.

Groundsmen at Cheltenham Racecourse battled yesterday to repair wind damage before today's start to the festival after the storms blew over the starter's rostrum and flattened a hospitality tent. Cricketers at one club in Cheltenham lost the roof of their pavilion, despite the efforts of firefighters to save it. Fallen branches forced the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew to close.

In the Channel, rescue workers endured horrendous conditions to tow a stricken Swedish tanker to safety at Fawley, Hampshire. Astral, with 13 crew aboard, had run aground off the Isle of Wight and damaged its rudder.

Coastguards, RNLI volunteers and firefighters rescued 30 people from a caravan park near Chichester, West Sussex, after sea defences were breached. About a square-mile was under two feet of water as emergency crews continued to search last night in case anyone was still trapped.

Police in Plymouth were forced to drag a group of "mindless" youths away from playing "chicken" with the large breaking waves, while coastguards in Sussex and Hampshire issued warnings to surfers who were chancing their luck.

Even the plans of the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, were thrown into disarray when his appointment with the Slovakian Prime Minister, Robert Fico, was cancelled after his flight to Britain fell foul of the bad weather.

Airports were badly affected, with many flights cancelled at Heathrow and Gatwick as they imposed flow controls on take-offs. Ground operations at Bristol International airport were suspended for two hours. Some international flights had to be diverted from Heathrow and Manchester to Dublin and Birmingham.

Trees, falling branches and debris caused road closures across the South as the AA predicted call-out numbers of over 16,000, up by two thirds on its usual daily tally. "A 60mph gust creates four times the force of a 30mph wind and, with rain and spray off the road, driving at speed could be perilous for unwary drivers," a spokesman said.

Traffic on the country's busiest road, the M25, was severely delayed after flooding forced lane closures in Surrey and the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge linking Essex and Kent was shut temporarily.

A mother and four teenagers had to flee after lightning blew a hole in the roof of their home in Upton, Dorset, and set it alight. A woman suffered minor injuries when her car hit a fallen tree in the county.

In Lincolnshire, a driver escaped unharmed when his car was hit by a tree, as did the occupants of a house in Matravers, Dorset, which suffered a similar fate. An inflatable boat was used by the fire service to rescue one motorist trapped on top of his car in Somerset.

In Cornwall, properties and roads were flooded in Penryn, Flushing, Looe, Fowey, and Mevagissey, with water levels rises to more than 3ft in places. Teighnmouth in Devon was waterlogged, with more than three dozen reports of flooding across the county and as many as 70 trees brought down.

Pembrokeshire County Council said parts of Fishguard and Haverfordwest had been flooded. Ceredigion council said some homes in the area were under water. Hampshire and Isle of Wight police received hundreds of calls reporting flooding, fallen trees and downed electricity lines.

Nick Starling, director of general insurance at the Association of British Insurers, said: "While it is too early to say what the final bill will be, events like this can cost hundreds of millions of pounds – damage caused by Hurricane Kyrill, which hit the UK in January 2007, cost £350m."

Forecasters are predicting another rainy and windy day today. A storm forecast to arrive tonight was expected to be as severe as yesterday's, but to take a more northerly track.

Additional reporting by Gavriel Hollander and Charlie Radcliffe

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