Race is on to shore up flood defences across storm-wracked Britain

As storms batter UK, doubts raised whether Environment Agency can cope following cuts

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The Independent Online

Antony Frampton and his colleagues at the Environment Agency have rebuilt the mile-long shingle sea defence of Weymouth beach esplanade every day during the stormy weather over the past fortnight, with the exception of Christmas Day.

The team was hard at work again on Friday, as The Independent visited the Dorset town that is currently taking a hammering.

“The sea defence gets eroded overnight and so we rebuild it the next day,” said Mr Frampton, before hopping into one of several Environment Agency diggers along the front and once again rebuilding the shingle wall that had been demolished the previous evening by the powerful gales and onslaught of heavy rain.

“We want to keep the shingle at a certain width so waves don’t go over the wall and close the beach road,” he said – although the road had been forced to close earlier that morning after flooding, and was due to close again last night as a precaution against the expected storm surge.

There is little hint of an end to such problems until at least Monday, with severe weather warnings expected to remain in place for the entire southern coast throughout the weekend. Bursts of 30mm of rain could fall on higher ground today, while in northern parts of the country snow could add to the misery.

Walking around Weymouth, locals said they had been battered by a series of torrential downpours in recent days, causing the river to burst its banks on several occasions and flooding parts of the inner dock area around the town bridge.

“I haven’t seen it this bad in the last 10 years,” said Barry Pitman, another Environment Agency worker stationed on the esplanade.

But the gale force winds and torrential rain weren’t bad for everyone.

“When it says on the TV there’s going to be a storm and to keep away, we flock to the beach,” said Steve Howlett, who was enjoying a spot on windsurfing with his friend Simon White.

“I went into work this morning, but I managed to get the afternoon off,” added Mr Howlett, who works for the helicopter maker AugustaWestland.

“It has been phenomenal all over Christmas – mild and stormy. The wind is past storm force and my arms have grown a little bit longer,” said Mr White, a retired helicopter pilot for the Army Air Corps.

The Environment Secretary Owen Paterson has called on Britain to remain vigilant over the weekend, following his second emergency meeting to discuss the storms in as many days.

“Severe weather combined with high tides and strong winds has led to some localised flooding today. With more rain and strong winds expected later today and over the weekend I urge everyone to follow the advice from the Environment Agency and police and to take every possible precaution,” he said.

The agency has issued nine severe flood warnings – where lives could be at risk, in the South-west, Wales and the Midlands. A further 116 flooding warnings and 219 flood alerts have been issued.

The weather continued to wreak havoc across large parts of the country on Friday. The rivers Stour in Dorset and Severn in Gloucestershire burst their banks, while Scotland was last night bracing itself for wind speeds of up to 80mph as storm surges moved north.

Looe in Cornwall, Ilfracombe, Barnstable and Plymouth in Devon and Caernarfon in Wales were among the towns which found themselves partially submerged, while Yalding in Kent also suffered.

Roads were closed, train services disrupted and ferry sailings from Plymouth to Roscoff, France, and Portsmouth to Santander in Spain were cancelled.

In Ireland, about 6,000 homes along the west coast found themselves without electricity as Galway suffered the worst flooding and parts of Cork had to be evacuated.

And in Wales, sightseers out early along the coast to witness the dramatic weather scenes had to be ordered away by the police for putting their lives at risk.

The coastal town of Burry Port, south-west Wales, was lashed by huge waves of more than 70mph during yesterday morning’s high tide.

“People were turning up by the car load at East Beach and Burry Port Harbour and walking along the harbour wall,” said council spokesman Ron Cant.

David Cameron tweeted that he was “ensuring all is being done to help with the floods”. But the Government came in for criticism for its decision to fire about 15 per cent of those Environment Agency staff responsible for dealing with flooding.

“On the same day that the Environment Agency chief executive said that it’s inevitable that cuts will impact their ability to deal with flooding, Owen Paterson’s bizarre claim that these front-line services will be protected will ring hollow for all those affected by the flooding,” said Friends of the Earth climate campaigner Guy Shrubsole.

“The Environment Agency says investments in flood defences must increase to keep pace with climate change – yet the Coalition has seen a real-terms cut in spending on them,” he added.

A spokesman for the Department for Environment, Farming and Rural Affairs said: “We’re spending over £2.3bn on tackling the risk of flooding and coastal erosion. Together with contributions from other partners, this is more money than ever before.”


Every cloud... turbines set to break record

Wind farms were on course to generate a record amount of electricity today – thanks to the storms. Two weeks ago, wind power generation reached a record 6.06 gigawatts (GW) during one half-hour period, and the National Grid said figures could have reach 6.41GW yesterday.  A spokeswoman for the National Grid said that yesterday afternoon wind was generating more power than gas, with gas contributing 13.9 per cent of overall energy output and wind 14 per cent. Final figures on yesterday’s wind energy generation be published later.

Michael Allen