From Tewkesbury to Oxford, the week that water ruined the lives of thousands

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The Independent Online

Few things can prepare you for the devastation brought about by flooding, or the sheer powerlessness of our society when it stands in the path of rising water.

Arriving in Tewkesbury this week, the might of nature was brought dramatically home. Just getting into the historic market town was no easy feat. Tewkesbury has spent much of this week as an island adrift in the English countryside. It was a matter either of commandeering a boat, or making the long and precarious wade through the filthy brown water.

The first thing you notice in the flood zone is the eerie silence. Gone is the incessant background rumble of traffic that is so much a feature of modern life.

All but the most rugged of vehicles - the kind favoured by the Floods minister, John Healey, during his visit to the disaster zone - are rendered useless.

Instead, people pick their way through the highest points on foot, sometimes along the centre of the road, at other times clinging precariously to the edge. The strange, watery calm is only occasionally shattered by the buzzing helicopters of the television news crews high up above.

Tewkesbury found itself in the front line of the summer flooding because of its location at the confluence of two of England's big rivers, the Avon and the Severn. The town's founder, the Saxon Theoc, had actually come here to get away from the rest of the world, establishing his hermitage in the 7th century. History, however, was to fill the abbey's catacombs with the bones of fallen soldiers who died fighting to control the strategic crossroads.

Perhaps because of the overwhelming sense of the past that envelops this town, even those whose homes had been devastated by the flood were philosophical about their plight.

But that was on day one, when the adrenaline was still pumping. By yesterday, after nearly a week with no water or electricity and with treasured or vital possessions befouled with thick mud and sewage, the sheer misery and inconvenience had become a depressing routine. In fact, as the media reported the potential disease dangers that lurked in the floodwater, the Health Protection Agency warned that the single biggest threat came from stress.

As the days passed, the tragic stories stacked up. There was the distressed mother whose 19-year-old son is still missing after setting out for work on Saturday night at the height of the flood. A pregnant woman who lost her twins after becoming cut off from the hospital by rising water. And then on Thursday a father and son, overcome by fumes as they battled to pump out their beloved rugby club.

In Cheltenham, home to 110,000 people, normal life was grinding to a halt by Monday. With the main water treatment plant knocked out, local people were told they will have no fresh water supplies for the next two weeks. Blue bowsers were springing up on street corners and long queues formed as people filled up any vessel at their disposal. (The clever ones said they had managed to fill their baths before the pipes ran dry.) The more stupid members of the community were vandalising the bowsers, turning on the taps and allowing the precious water to gush away uselessly.

By night, the centres of Cheltenham and neighbouring Gloucester and Stroud were ghost towns. By day, half the shops were closed. With no flushing lavatories or running water, most restaurants and pubs have opted to stay shut until the water supply is restored. Those that stayed open did a roaring trade as locals came in to swap stories.

By Wednesday, all eyes were turning eastwards over the Cotswold escarpment towards Oxford. Warnings that the Thames was about to overflow its banks had been circulating since Saturday.

Driving along the A40, glancing at the pretty villages that line the route, the flooded fields reflected the dark grey skies above. More rain fell. By Witney, the waters were creeping over the doorsteps of David Cameron's constituents while the Conservative leader was heading back from Rwanda. Meanwhile, reports were coming in that hundreds had been evacuated from their homes in west Oxford as the flooded Windrush joined the swollen Thames.

At Botley Road, once again I was greeted by the silence. The main western approach to the city centre was impassable to traffic, though bike riders proved that in a flood can be a case of two wheels good, four wheels bad.

But it was soon clear that traumatic though this was for those affected, the scale of the flooding was of a different order of magnitude to that further to the west. On Osney Island, a bohemian enclave now swamped by the rising waters of the Thames, the landlord of the Waterman's Arms was enjoying his best trade for years.

For anyone who has witnessed the events of this week up close and personal, the sight of a gently meandering English river will now always be tinged with a new and sinister menace.

The recovery begins

* People living in flood-hit areas have been warned to be on the alert for rats. Vermin are expected to move above ground after being flushed out of their underground homes. With the rats comes the threat of illnesses such as Weil's disease. It is transmitted to humans via water and is carried by up to 30 per cent of the rodent population.

* Gloucestershire County Council has estimated the cost of the flooding to the region over the past eight days at £40-50m. The figure includes the cost of responding to the emergency, managing its aftermath and the likely cost of repairs.

* Gloucestershire Police warned that anyone caught fighting over water supplies or damaging bowsers could be sent to prison.

* David Cameron visited Hull, scene of severe flooding last month. He met councillors, volunteers and residents to discuss the city's recovery.

* The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall met businesspeople and members of the public in flood-hit areas.

* Meteorologists said that early signs indicated a drier August.