Bridge collapse fears as rain returns to Cumbria

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The Independent Online

Heavy rain returned to flood-ravaged Cumbria today as fears grew over the future of a key bridge.

Up to 3.9in (100mm) of rain is predicted to fall on parts of Cumbria's already-saturated ground, raising river levels and putting the emergency services on flood alert throughout the day.

Cumbria County Council said Calva Bridge, which has been declared unsafe and carries a number of cables, dropped "several inches" today and warned Workington residents that if it collapses, 1,000 homes north of the river will lose their telephone connections.

But the Environment Agency said that although heavy rainfall was predicted across the county, river levels were not expected to be as high as when the deluge began last Thursday, with some parts of Cumbria seeing more than 12in (305mm) in 24 hours.

Six bridges have already collapsed, causing major transport and logistical headaches for thousands of people.

As hundreds of residents of washed-out Cockermouth were allowed back into their homes, work was under way to shore up existing flood defences.

Alison Watson, 37, owns Al's Toys on Cockermouth High Street, which was devastated by the floodwater, and now cuddly toys, board games and Christmas gifts are strewn all over the floor.

There is no electricity or water and she is waiting for a clean-up team, provided by her insurers, to help remove the debris.

"It couldn't have happened at a worse time. It's Christmas and we're a toy shop," she said.

"All the kids' Christmas toys come out of here."

She was hopeful of returning to business in January, and said that challenge is keeping her busy and focused.

"We're in the process of trying to find other premises. The sooner we're back up and running the better. It gives us time to come to terms with what's happened."

She said any hope of salvaging stock was slipping away.

At first she thought the toys above the waterline could be saved, but they have now become saturated by the damp, so will be thrown away with the filthy toys that litter the muddy floor.

"Each time I come in it gets worse somehow," she said.

Philip Heal's opticians, also on the High Street, is just a shell.

Sofas, tables and opticians' equipment that last week furnished his business were piled up outside the shop front, ready to be dumped into a skip.

"There's serious damage," he said.

"Not much can be salvaged. Some stock above the water level can be salvaged, but not all."

He was shocked at how fast the water rose and how high it came.

"It's never come up off the pavement," he said. "We had a board at about 15 inches."

As he stood in what used to be his waiting area, he said: "We're trying to keep cheerful and trying to see some of the funny sides of it."

The only surviving decoration that hints of the building's former purpose is a greeting sign to customers: "Heals Opticians, est. 1935, Wishes everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year."

Elsewhere on the street skips and lifting vehicles were being filled with rubbish, and representatives from water and electricity suppliers are assessing the damage to businesses and homes.

Among the carnage and debris, the town's Christmas tree stands tall at the centre of the High Street.

Cumbria County Council said five schools remained closed today and arrangements were being put in place to ensure that the 461 schoolchildren who cross the river at Workington every day to get to school will be able to do so by using school buses, which are expected to start from tomorrow.

An alternative rail option is also being considered.

There are currently 15 flood warnings in place - 10 in north-west England, three in Wales, and one in both the Midlands and the North East - with a further 53 flood watches across the country.

Tom Tobler, a forecaster with MeteoGroup, the weather division of the Press Association, said: "It's going to be raining throughout the day."

United Utilities, which runs the electricity network on behalf of Electricity North West (ENW), said 1,000 customers in Cockermouth were still without power, along with 25 customers in North Side and 13 at Concrete Row, Stainburn.

In Wales, search teams looking for a young woman believed to have been swept away by a storm-swollen river recovered a body.

The 21-year-old went into the fast-flowing River Usk, near Watergate Bridge, in Brecon, Mid Wales, on Saturday evening.

A major search carried out in the following days was called off this morning after a body was found close to Talybont-on-Usk, more than six miles downstream, Dyfed-Powys Police said.