Two dead as flooding brings havoc across much of Britain

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Torrential rain caused flash floods across much of the UK over the weekend, inundating hundreds of homes and claiming the life of an elderly motorist whose car was swamped by nearly three feet of water.

At one point, there were more than 300 flood warnings in place, with south-western England accounting for about a third of incidents. The Midlands, South Coast and parts of Wales and Scotland were also affected.

The body of the 86-year-old man and his Ford car were found floating in a deep pool on a road near Martock in Somerset. A spokesman for Avon and Somerset Constabulary said: "It looks as if he had got out of the car to walk away from the floods and got into difficulties." He is thought to have drowned or succumbed to hypothermia after being swept off his feet. In Dorset, a 22-year-old woman died when her car crashed off the A35 road near Poole during heavy rain.

Across Devon and Somerset, 30 motorists had to be rescued from their cars and more than 200 houses were flooded with up to four feet of water in lower-lying areas. Water levels subsided as the skies cleared, but more bad weather was forecast for tomorrow and Wednesday.

Emergency services admitted they were "very stretched" at times with calls for help coming in every few minutes at the height of the crisis. Rail lines between London and the South-west were also affected, with suspensions and "severe delays", although yesterday afternoon services between London Paddington and Bristol Temple Meads were fully operational and problems between Paddington and Taunton, Exeter St Davids, Plymouth and Penzance were listed as "cleared".

Chard, Ilminster, Shepton Mallet, Glastonbury and Street experienced some of the heaviest downpours and almost all the houses in one Somerset street – Hempitts Road in the village of Walton – were flooded yesterday. Residents Jane and Tony Bird said their 11-year-old son, Jack, who was sleeping on a mattress downstairs with friends, woke up to find he was floating. In Dorset, 18 homes in Rowan Close, Southill, Weymouth, were flooded by several inches of water.

Firefighters in Wales were kept busy with calls to flooding in the Fishguard area; a block of flats in Emsworth, Hampshire, was evacuated when a 50ft branch fell, crushing two cars; a woman was rescued from the roof of a car after flooding in Crewe; and in Scotland, 100 sheep "huddled" on high, dry ground in a field near Perth, after the river Earn burst its banks, were rescued.

Figures obtained by the Conservatives from the Environment Agency showed the number of properties at risk of flooding has gone up from 1.9 million in 2001 to an estimated 2.3 million in 2006, which the party described as "a resounding call to action".

The shadow Floods minister Anne McIntosh called on the Government to take action. "More and more people are living with the worry that heavy rainfall might flood their home. With 2.3 million properties now at risk it is vital that the Government takes the steps necessary to ensure that people, homes and businesses are better equipped to deal with flooding emergencies." Sir Michael Pitt's review of last year's devastating floods made recommendations for dealing with flooding events, which he said should be treated as seriously as terrorism or pandemic flu threats. A spokesman for the Environment Department said: "Defra has increased flood defence spending to a total of £2.15bn over the next three years, and £20m of this is being brought forward to next year to help those homes most at risk."

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