Rising floods force hundreds to abandon homes

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The Independent Online

Large parts of southern England were under water last night after some the worst flooding for a generation forced hundreds of people from their homes, brought chaos to roads and trains and caused damage costing millions of pounds.

Large parts of southern England were under water last night after some the worst flooding for a generation forced hundreds of people from their homes, brought chaos to roads and trains and caused damage costing millions of pounds.

In the worst-hit towns, lifeboat crews were at the centre of efforts to help people trapped by the floodwaters while one man was plucked from a swollen river after he was swept away. Many stranded motorists were forced to sit on top of their vehicles after being trapped by the rapidly rising waters.

The worst-hit areas were Sussex, Kent and Hampshire, with East Sussex being struck particularly hard. Emergency services there said the position was as bad as any they had seen. Dave Izod, a spokesman for East Sussex fire brigade, said: "I would say we are now at full stretch. Every crew we have is involved in one way or another. These floods are among the worst we have ever seen. We have hundreds of flooded homes and many roads are impassable."

The flooding was caused by ceaseless rain overnight on Wednesday, which added to already overflowing rivers - a predicament created by one of the wettest Septembers on record. The Met Office said that 3.9in (93mm) of rain had fallen in some places in 24 hours and that October's average monthly rainfall had already been exceeded.

The Environment Agency last night issued severe flood warnings - its most serious rating, signalling imminent danger to life and property and putting people on evacuation stand-by - for six rivers. These were the Uck and Ouse in Sussex, the Bourne on the Hampshire-Dorset border, and the Buelt, the Tiesse and Lesser Tiesse in Kent. There were a further 47 flood warnings and 97 flood watches. A coastal flood warning was issued for Scarborough, North Yorkshire.

"It is pretty bad. It is worse than the Easter floods of 1998, which everyone remembers," said a spokesman for the Environment Agency. "We are warning people in these areas to take precautions now - move cars, livestock and pets, be ready to turn off gas and electricity and have warm clothes, rubber boots and provisions ready as evacuation may occur at short notice."

In Uckfield, Sussex, that evacuation involved RNLI volunteers from Poole, Shoreham, Brighton, Eastbourne and Hastings who helped to rescue people trapped by the flooded river Uck and who faced an incoming flood tide.

Among those trapped was Glyn Davies, 49, who said: "We are quite lucky as we are reasonably high up, but just one minute walk away everything is flooded so we are stuck here, you can't get anywhere."

Other Sussex towns badly flooded were Hassocks, Haywards Heath, Goring, Arundel and Steyning, while Etchingham station near Hastings was evacuated because of flooding. The car park was so deep in water that about 30 cars were floating. Residents of Lewes were also evacuated while the town's Harvey's brewery collapsed because of the weight of water.

Sussex Police urged all drivers to stay at home as main roads, including the A21, A22, A26, A27, A227 and A272 were submerged.

Large parts of Kent were also underwater. Claire de Garston, landlady of the Chequers Inn in Lamberhurst, said floodwater was pouring through the windows, ruining the major refurbishment work they had just completed. She had just spent £20,000 after the pub was hit by flooding last Christmas Day.

"It is so heartbreaking and frustrating to watch all your hard work ruined," she said. "We've been pumping water out of the cellar for two days but it's hopeless."

Stuart Farmer, the RSPCA's South East regional superintendent, warned that all animals and livestock were in potential danger "Any animals outdoors are at risk so every precaution should be taken," he said.

Ewen McCallum, head of forecasting at the Met Office, predicted that the rain should have started to ease by this morning.

* The search for a 13-year-old girl who was swept away while "river walking" in a swollen beck during a school trip on Tuesday was broadened to include three police forces spanning 50 miles yesterday.

Hannah Black and 14-year-old Rochelle Cauvet were among a party of 15 youngsters and two teachers from Royds School in Oulton, near Leeds, walking up the middle of the river at Stainforth Beck, North Yorkshire. Rochelle's body was recovered by a member of an underwater search unit on Wednesday. Police have started an investigation.