Relief for York but flood situation still critical

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Residents in York today breathed a sigh of relief as the high tide of river water passed through the city centre without causing further flooding - but experts warned the situation remains critical.

Residents in York today breathed a sigh of relief as the high tide of river water passed through the city centre without causing further flooding - but experts warned the situation remains critical.

Meanwhile in London, Deputy Prime Minister John Prescott was chairing an emergency cabinet committee meeting to discuss the situation.

The River Ouse was two inches away from breaking the emergency flood barrier in York. Water levels were nearly 18ft above normal when high tide passed at 3am.

Some of the 3,000 residents who were evacuated last night were today returning to their homes.

But the Environment Agency's chief executive Ed Gallagher predicted there was "a lot of grief to come".

Flood defences had been underfunded during the 1990s when much of the country was suffering from droughts, he said, and called for more money to be spent on them.

The Agency's director of operations Archie Robertson said flood defence systems in York had contained extraordinary amounts of water.

But he warned: "The situation is still critical and there is no time to relax.

"Further rain is forecast for tomorrow and the beginning of next week and Agency staff will continue to work around the clock to reinforce defences and contribute to emergency services.

"Water levels overnight were one inch higher than the previously recorded highest level, which was in 1625.

"The flood water came within two inches of the limit of the flood defences. There have been no breaches in the defences."

The water level was standing at 17ft 8ins and the whole of the city centre remains on flood warning, in addition to 17 other severe flood warnings across Yorkshire.

Another low pressure system is expected to hit the region on Monday, bringing more heavy rain and the potential for further flooding.

Mr Robertson said the Agency had placed 19 severe flood warnings covering 5,500 properties across the city.

"The Agency urges people to remain vigilant and in a state of preparedness for further possible flooding," a spokesman said.

Severe flood warnings included:

River Ouse in York. Lower River Aire at Kellington. River Derwent in Malton and Norton. Lower River Ouse from Naburn to Acaster Malbis. Rivers Ouse and Foss in the Foss Barrier area. River Severn from Bewdley to Gloucester including Tewkesbury and Upton-on-Severn. Lower Dee Valley in Wales.
In addition there were 103 flood warnings across England and Wales and flood watches were in operation across the country.

Reports indicated more than 3,000 properties had been flooded across England and Wales.

In Gloucestershire, the Environment Agency said peak flood waters on the River Severn had now passed Tewkesbury, affecting around 20 homes.

The peak is expected to hit Gloucester in the early hours of tomorrow morning and the river is predicted to rise another six inches during the day.

A spokeswoman for Gloucester Prison today said managers were keeping a close eye on river levels close by and had contingency plans for the evacuation of inmates over the weekend if necessary.

She said: "We are not expecting the water to come in but we have plans drawn up to move prisoners out if necessary.

"The most likely problems would be with ancillary services, such as the kitchen, which would obviously affect the prisoners."

An Environment Agency spokesman said at this stage he was expecting the water at Gloucester Docks, where the prison is located, to rise very high but not breach the tops of the quay walls.

Meanwhile, Mr Prescott was today chairing an emergency cabinet committee meeting to discuss the flooding.

Ministers from the Department of Health, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions, Ministry of Agriculture and Home Office were due to attend the meeting, called by Mr Prescott following his visit to flood-hit areas yesterday.

They will discuss what further Government action can be taken to prevent future flooding and to assist those forced out of their homes.

In Shrewsbury and Bewdley, the River Severn was gradually receding but experts warned it may take several days for normal levels to return.

Four flood warnings were issued on the River Avon at Evesham, Worcs, and Stratford-upon-Avon, Warwickshire, but the Environment Agency said they were not expecting flooding to take place.

A spokeswoman added: "We are watching the weather very closely. It could get worse. If we have more rain the water levels could either remain high for several days or we could get a second peak coming down the river."

In the south east of England homeowners were today urged to take advantage of a lull in the poor weather to prepare for more heavy rain and high winds expected tomorrow afternoon.

The Environment Agency warned up to 50 millimetres (two inches) of rain could fall, bringing a new threat of widespread flooding in Kent, Sussex and Hampshire.

A spokesman said: "If current predictions prove to be correct there is likely to be further widespread flooding across the region. The rainfall is expected to be prolonged and will be falling on saturated ground.

"The agency is appealing for everyone to make preparations and take precautions during the respite."

There are 36 flood warnings in force across the region.