Cumbria flooding prompts bridge safety checks

Urgent safety review of Cumbria's 1,800 bridges under way today as 50mph winds are forecast.

Structural engineers and military experts were focusing first on key bridges in the worst-affected areas, including the Calva Bridge in Workington which has reportedly sunk by about a foot

A Cumbria police spokesman said there were "severe concerns" over its structural integrity, adding: "It is reported as being extremely unstable and could potentially collapse at any time."

The Met Office forecast coastal gusts of 60-65mph from mid afternoon and high winds inland of 50-55mph. Some 40-50mm of rain was also predicted on high ground.

There were fears the high winds could topple trees which have been left unstable because of the flooding.

Meanwhile the bad weather was claiming victims elsewhere in the country.

A canoeist died during stormy conditions after getting trapped against a tree yesterday afternoon on the River Dart at Mel Tor, Poundsgate, Newton Abbot.

And a search was under way this morning for a woman believed to have been swept in by the River Usk in Brecon, South Wales at about 7pm last night. The river is under flood watch.

In Workington, Cumbria, the closure of the Calva bridge cut off the northside of the town and outlying villages.

Police have blocked off the road around a quarter of a mile from the structure, which is understood to also carry power cables, as strong winds buffeted the area.

The closure meant many residents from a row of terraced houses who were flooded out on Thursday can still not get to their homes.

Many of the now homeless residents milled around at the police cordon, sheltering from the wind and driving rain as Tony Cunningham, the local MP for Workington, arrived at the scene this morning.

Mr Cunningham said: "Seaton is about a half, a quarter of a mile away but last night people were having to take a 90 mile journey that would normally take a minute and a half.

"We have concerns about people who have not got prescriptions, medication, the medical centre is down to its last nappies for babies.

"I spoke to residents...they are distraught at what's happening, the police station is out of circulation because they have been flooded so it is difficult for the police.

"My major concern is residents who are cut off. Things are getting desperate."

Mr Cunningham said money will be found to re-build the bridges destroyed by the floods and he hoped another bridge around six miles away at Papcastle, near Cockermouth, should be open later today once structural engineers declare it safe to cross.

But he also suggested temporary structures may need to go up in the short-term.

"We need some temporary bridges built, we have been in touch with the army this morning, the army is looking at Bailey-style bridges.

"I have to say the community of northside is really brilliant. "They are doing everything they can, they have been knocking on every door to make sure neighbours are safe.

"The community spirit is incredible.

"Can I also pay tribute to the courage, professionalism and heroism of our emergency services."

Churches across Cumbria offered prayers for flood-stricken communities and the family and friends of Pc Bill Barker, who disappeared into the swollen waters of the River Derwent early on Friday morning after the Northside Bridge at Workington collapsed.

The Bishop of Carlisle, The Rt Revd James Newcome, said it was important to pray for the flood victims but added that churches have also been helping in practical ways, supplying food, clothing and shelter.

Police warned the public against all non-essential travel in West Cumbria where road networks have been severely disrupted.

A total of 16 bridges and at least 25 roads remain closed.

River levels have subsided but four severe flood warnings remain in place.

About 60 people were still sheltering in the two main reception centres and more than 700 properties remained without power.

Around 20,000 flood defence bags were being handed out to people in Cockermouth and Keswick this morning.

Andrew Butler, of Cumbria Highways, told Sky News: "Calva Bridge is causing us great concern at the moment. We've seen deterioration overnight."

He said a sheer crack in the central arch had grown to about 2-3ins, making the arch a "write-off".

And he said the bridge deck had sunk more than a foot, adding: "We can't find out why that's happening at the moment because whatever is happening is beneath water level.

"We're doing our utmost to secure this bridge and all bridges against public access at the moment. We will continue to do that.

"People are asking is it going to collapse imminently? No-one can know that. We don't know what's underneath the waterline."

Major Philip Curtis said three bridging specialists from the Royal Engineers were working with contractors to look at the best ways to repair the Calva Bridge.

He told Sky News: "A lot depends on where the resources are and how quickly we can get them.

"There is not one solution, there are a number of solutions we can come up with."

Tory MP Nick Herbert, shadow environment secretary, pledged the Conservative Party's support for the new Flood Bill, introduced by Labour in the Queen's Speech last week.

After touring flood-hit areas in Cumbria yesterday, he also said he will ask for a Government update to the House of Commons tomorrow.

Mr Herbert, MP for Arundel and South Downs, said: "Firstly, I want to praise the emergency services and everything that they are doing, on behalf of the Opposition.

"In particular I want to pay tribute to Pc Bill Barker.

"The second is to pledge our full support for all the measures necessary to help the local communities, that includes support for the Flood Bill.

"We will give the necessary measures our backing to get them on the statute book as soon as possible.

"Third, we must have a concerted effort to get people back into their homes as soon as possible.

"What we can't see is, as happened after the floods of 2005 and 2007, where people were out of their homes for months on end.

"I will be calling for a statement by the Environment Secretary in the Commons, which I am sure he will make, so he can update the Commons on the situation and the measures being taken to support the local community."

Canon Bryan Rowe, of St Michael's Church in Workington, said the collapse of Northside bridge and near collapse of Calva bridge affected the whole community.

He said: "The whole community is hurting. We are isolated. We are a long way from a motorway now. We can't even go the other side of the river.

"The sad thing is it's going to take months."

He said his church was just 400m from the Northside bridge but to get to the other side of the river now required a detour of about 35 miles.