Britain is swamped, with more floods on the way

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The Independent Online

Emergency services were rushing to protect Selby and Gloucester last night, amid warnings that the worst of the flooding could be yet to come.

Emergency services were rushing to protect Selby and Gloucester last night, amid warnings that the worst of the flooding could be yet to come.

Floodwaters were moving inexorably down the Ouse and Severn, after barely sparing York in the early hours of yesterday morning, when the river rose one inch above its highest recorded peak in 1625.

The Environment Agency said it feared yesterday that 1,000 homes were at risk of flooding in Selby. Some houses in Gloucester are already inundated, and its prison has drawn up contingency plans for evacuating its inmates if necessary.

And more wet weather is on its way. The agency is bracing itself for heavy rains starting today and continuing until Wednesday, causing yet more water to sheet off the sodden ground into the bursting river, and possibly causing the worst flooding yet.

An area twice the size of Windemere is already flooded in the Severn Valley, and the agency says this would take ten days to drain away, even if there were no further rain. Many parts of Shrewsbury and Worcestershire remain under water. More than 140 flood warnings are now in force in England and Wales.

Dr Geoff Mance, the Agency's Director of Water Management, last night welcomed the announcement by John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, of an extra £51m for flood defences over the next four years as "a step in the right direction". But he said a lot more money would be needed. Even before this autumn's floods, he said, the agency had estimated it would need an extra £40m a year to protect the country adequately. It had since been promised an extra £10 -20m a year by the Ministry of Agriculture, and now another £13m a year by Mr Prescott. But it would still fall far short.

In the fine, bright sunshine of yesterday afternoon in York, residents, council workers and the emergency services were breathing a collective sigh of relief. Vic Heard, who lives on the corner of Swinnerton Road facing the river bank, had been drinking in his local, the nearby Jubilee Arms, when a group of policemen and soldiers came in asking if one or two could lend a hand with the sandbags. He said: "I have never seen the Jubilee Arms empty so quick. The landlady said she wouldn't serve anybody unless they went out to help. We soon had 140 pub customers and residents forming a human chain along the river. The lasses were inside making tea and coffee for everybody."

However, there is strong feeling in the city that it has been given no more than a breathing space. With new rains forecast, people are anxiously expecting the next crisis. The defences around Leeman Road are made of earth and there is concern that the sandbagging puts pressure on the lower embankment and could lead to it being washed away in a catastrophic swell of flood water. However, David Atkinson, City of York Council acting chief executive, said advice had been taken from the Environment Agency as to the number of sandbag layers that could safely be laid down.

Even if the council wished to increase the number of sandbags for the next inundation there is doubt as to where they would come from. Mr Atkinson said: "We've used 70 or 90 tonnes of sand from the local depot and last night the army brought up more from down south.

"We've got 4,500 sandbags left in the stockpile and 10,000 empty sacks but that's the lot."