Chaos as a month's rain falls in 24 hours

RAF helicopters called in to rescue 200 people in Cumbria
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The Independent Online

Fears were growing for the lives of hundreds of people trapped in the Cumbrian town of Cockermouth last night, as rampant floods tore through the town sparking a major overnight rescue operation.

In some of the most dramatic scenes of flooding ever seen in Britain, three RAF helicopters, lifeboats and mountain rescue teams were deployed in the rescue effort as the town bore the brunt of the torrential rain and winds which swept across northern England and southern Scotland.

With residents desperately trying to alert their attention, rescue teams waded through water – in some areas up to shoulder-height – with more than 1,000 homes without electricity. Throughout the night, rescue teams battled against gushing water that tore through the main shopping street and town square with cars and trees carried away .

As well as RAF helicopters, RNLI lifeboat teams were set to assist the rescue operation in Cockermouth throughout the night. "The dark and cold conditions won't help, but our teams train year-round to ensure we can respond to the specific conditions faced with swift water flooding, which are different to the conditions our volunteers usually face at sea," said RNLI divisional inspector north Andy Clift, who was overseeing the RNLI teams from a police command centre in Penrith.

"We expect to operate throughout the night, and will assist the emergency response for as long as we are needed."

Six severe weather warnings were in place across north-west Scotland. In Seathwaite, 218mm of rain had fallen on already saturated ground by lunchtime, and the deluge was expected to continue until daybreak today, threatening rising water levels and reminding many of the flooding which hit the region four years ago.

Emergency services warned people against non-essential journeys and advised them to stay away from flood water as fire crews, police, ambulance and mountain rescue teams joined the relief effort. In Keswick, the River Greta was five feet higher than the last major flood in 2005, with 349 homes without power and more than 85 locals being taken from their homes and given shelter at a hotel and reception centres.

The Mayor of Keswick, Andrew Lysser, said buildings in the low-lying western part of the popular Lake District holiday town were evacuated when water burst over the river bank shortly after 9am.

As concerns grew about Cockermouth and Keswick, fears were growing at the prospect of further rain today. "We are anticipating the levels will rise further, we just do not know by how much," Ch Supt Steve Johnson said. "The emergency services are all clubbing together. We are trying to get to all those houses that are in trouble where people are trapped and to get them to the reception centres."

John Carlin, owner of the Allerdale Court Hotel, in Cockermouth, said the amount of rainfall was "staggering". "It's desperate. The town centre is completely flooded, the only people out there at the moment are the emergency services. The water is up to the waists of the firefighters," he said. "We are under six inches of water ourselves but we have still got electricity and the fire service have told us they are on standby if they need to evacuate us."

An emergency response group was set up in the town to deal with the flooding, which also threatened Kendal and Penrith, while thousands of sandbags were made available to anxious homeowners across the county.

Thousands of children spent the day at home after Cumbria County Council closed 21 schools because of localised flooding. Among those closed were secondary schools in Coniston, Keswick, Cockermouth and Whitehaven. Officials worked through the night in Carlisle, putting up temporary flood defences to protect 400 properties.

The Environment Agency received thousands of calls and issued 49 flood warnings, six of them severe, including the river Cocker at Cockermouth, the Eamont and the Kent. There were also flood warnings in place in the North-east, Wales and the Midlands. A tidal surge in the northern Irish Sea added to the increased flood risk along the west coast from Aberystwyth northwards. Winds gusted at up 90mph across the high fells.Demand for sandbags was also high in Kendal, where river levels also rose drastically.

In Scotland, three severe flood warnings were in place for Ettrick Water, Yarrow and Teviot Water in the Scottish Borders, while many roads were rendered impassable by rising water.

The agency had 31 flood warnings and 62 less serious flood watches in place for England and Wales with Cumbria likely to continue to be badly affected.

Forecast: What to expect

The heavy rain that lashed Britain yesterday was brought on by a slow-moving Atlantic frontal system that brought warm air laden with moisture from the South-west, causing heavy rain over the high fells of the Lake District. Today, relief is at hand for those in the flood-hit areas of Cumbria.

The Met Office said yesterday that the rain was expected to move southwards by daybreak, with those in East Anglia and the South-east due to wake up to a wet morning – although this would clear by lunchtime.

Most parts of the country, including the North-west of England, are expected to enjoy a much more pleasant day today with long spells of sunshine. Wales and the South-west, however, could see more rain and further flooding, particularly as the wet weather returns again for the weekend, when gales are forecast.

Temperatures are on average 1C to 13C, four degrees above the average for the time of year, with no hint of cold weather for the next 15 days. The worst-hit areas have been Seathwaite and Honister in Cumbria, which saw 10 per cent more than the average monthly rainfall descend in just 24 hours.

4C

It is on average 4C hotter than expected for the time of year.

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